They grow and learn, suffer and overcome.
Businesses change too, if they’re smart.
But one thing that rarely changes with both of these things is their name.
You can change your products, your prices, your customers and your image – but it’s a royal pain to try to change an established name.
So do yourself a favour and get it right from the start.
I can’t give you an exhaustive compendium of best practices for naming people and businesses.
But what I can do is show you a few things to look out for: things our brains love to see, and things that can completely turn them off.
A few quick tools to get you started
Before we get into the meat of naming your business (or your baby), we need to cover a few of the basics.
If you’ve just started brainstorming and you already think you’ve found the perfect name, think again. You need to make sure it’s:
- Available. Tools like Namechk will show you which domains and social media handles are available with your name. No one wants to buy financial advice from MoneyGuy69.
- Original. Pairing up standard words can get the job done, but mashing up bits of words to create new ones can create an entire brand identity. With something like Wordoid, you can choose a few letters or words and get some creative results instantly.
- Polite. Some innocent words and phrases can mean nasty things in other languages. A tool like WordSafety can help you avoid them, even if it’s a bit too late for businesses like mine:
With that out of the way, we’re ready to start naming.
Choose a name that anyone can spell and say
Let’s get one thing straight.
If you name your baby Kris, he won’t spend his adult life introducing himself as Kris. His new name for the rest of his life will be ‘Kris with a K’.
Just like ‘Lyft with a Y’ and ‘Tumblr without the E’, an unconventional spelling commits you and your business to a lifetime of awkward introductions and explanations. And after a few years of these extra qualifiers, you’ll be sick of it.
Do you want people you’ve met to find you on Google? Then spell words like a normal person.
And while you’re at it, stick to short and simple words. Or at least make sure the long ones are words we all use every day.
You might think that ‘Illustrious Accountants’ is the perfect name to capture the high calibre of financial expertise your business provides.
It’s a rubbish name, and here’s why:
No one wants to type that out or write it down. In some fonts, they won’t even be able to figure out the first three letters when they read it.
If you must be immodest, at least pick a long word that’s a little more familiar to the average person: Renowned, Esteemed, or Superstar Accountants. (Please don’t actually use these names for anything, ever.)
Confusing spelling hasn’t done much to keep Lyft and Tumblr from the heights of success. But be honest: do you think they succeeded because of the weird spelling, or despite it?
Stick in some symmetry
There’s something magical about symmetry that our brains seem to love.
In some cases, it’s all about visual balance. Think about:
- Oxo cubes
- Elle magazine
- M&M sweets
- or Aviva insurance.
These brands’ logos practically design themselves – and this perfect symmetry helps their names to stick in our minds in a way that an ordinary name wouldn’t.
Imagine if their names had been slightly different:
- Oxi cubes
- Elsa magazine
- M&D sweets
- or Aviro insurance.
We’ve only changed one or two letters. But these brand names just don’t have the same immediate appeal as the symmetrical originals.
It’s no different when you’re naming a human. There’s a reason that names like Anna, Nathan, Emma and Sarah are still popular today.
They’ve all got some sense of symmetry. And if we relax the rules about what’s considered symmetrical, we can easily get some of these elements into a business, service or product name.
The quickest way to fool the brain into seeing some symmetry is with a double letter. Have a look at these wildly famous and massively successful brands:
- Dr Pepper
- Keep This Copy.
These double letters near the middle of a word create the illusion of a mirror image. Our eyes are drawn to the double letter, and on some level, our brains think we’re seeing symmetry.
We can see that it works better for some names than others. ‘Apple’ and ‘Twitter’ don’t look that symmetrical, but ‘Pepper’ and ‘Nissan’ look close enough that we’re fooled.
But don’t start cramming them in for no reason. ‘Fiverr’ looks a typo, and ‘Worthyy’ just looks like their favourite domain name was already taken.
Make it look natural, and keep it near the middle of the word.
Go with the flow
Words inform and persuade. We know this.
But they also have their own rhythm. Some phrases have a pleasing pulse and cadence, and some phrases are just awkward and clumsy.
Here are a few names whose hips don’t lie:
And here are a few names from the same industries that have two left feet:
- Urban Outfitters
- Le Coq Sportif
- Mobile by Sainsbury’s.
The first five names roll off the tongue and stick in the mind.
The second set look ugly on the page and feel clumsy in the mouth.
If you think you’ve found the perfect name for your business (or baby), take it for a test run for a few days.
Say it in conversation, and ask others to say it too. Listen carefully, and see if it still feels and sounds natural and pleasant after a week.
Don’t limit yourself
When your business or product line is young and fresh, it’s hard to see the harm in being specific and relevant with the name you choose.
You want to be clear, and you want your customers to know what they’re looking at.
But if you ever want to expand, diversify or change your focus in the future, an overly descriptive name could make things awkward further down the line.
If you name your baby ‘Phoenix’, ‘Ocean’, or ‘Leaf’, it might be weird when they later grow up to be a stockbroker.
Similarly, if you name your baby ‘Gertrude’ or ‘Agnes’, things might get awkward if they want to be a TV presenter or an actress.
You should keep that in mind when you’re naming your business.
‘North London Taxis’ might be a great name for a small cab company with a local customer base. And it might be tempting to cash in on some easy Google searches early on.
But if your business ever gets bigger than North London – or if you want to start offering cross-country coach bookings or personal car rentals – it won’t be a useful name for long.
Find a rhyme that’s refined and sublime
Unfortunately, that one wasn’t.
A forced rhyme like the one above can instantly ruin any chances you have of being taken seriously.
That goes for businesses and products, and it’s even more true when you’re naming a baby.
If you ever meet someone called Richard Pritchard or Kayleigh Bailey, spare them some sympathy: they’ve been raised by unfit parents.
No matter how excellent the rhyme, you should never make a fellow human suffer with a name that makes them sound like a clown at a birthday party.
But when it comes to naming something you want to sell, there’s plenty of room for a carefully chosen rhyming name – and it could help your brand become more memorable and catchy.
Here are a few well-known brands that would be worthless without their rhymes:
- Reese’s Pieces
- Ronald McDonald
No one would care if George McDonald had to face off against The Hamburglar. And no one wants to put Reese’s Bits in their mouth. It sounds obscene.
These rhyming names work because they’re attached to products that are light-hearted and fun: clowns for kids and quirky chocolate bars. They’re not such a great idea for serious companies selling financial advice or medical equipment.
But if we relax the rules a little – just like we did earlier with symmetrical names – we can take advantage of the catchiness of a rhyming name, without sounding repulsively cute or immature.
- Planet Organic
These names are all just one letter away from a perfect rhyme (Youtue, Planet Organit, Wagamaga and Snapchap).
And with the exception of Wagamama, they don’t sound like companies that were named by a toddler.
These brands have kept almost all of the catchy rhyme intact, but they’ve also managed to avoid the cheap and silly mouth-feel of the name of a wacky birthday clown.
It works for people, too. Just think about:
- Lorraine James
- Richard Harwood
- Brian Nolan
- or Paul Whitehall.
These everyday names have just enough rhyme to trigger something pleasant in our brains, but nowhere near enough to sound ludicrous.
They’re memorable, but not embarrassing – and that’s exactly what you should be aiming for when you name a human being (or a business).
So what’s next?
There’s a lot that goes into naming a business – and we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Luckily, there are plenty of professional naming experts out here to help (if you’re willing to pay).
But if you’re sticking to the DIY approach, at least keep the following in mind:
- Make it spellable. Stick to normal letters arranged in the normal way.
- Work in some symmetry. If in doubt, use double letters.
- Listen to your ears. Don’t choose a name with two left feet.
- Keep it wide open. People change – and so do businesses.
- And above all, make sure it’s memorable. (Just don’t end up sounding like a cheap birthday clown.)