The unwritten rules for naming your business

You may not know it, but your industry has unwritten rules when it comes to trade names. Find out which ones can apply to create a name that resonates with your customers.

6 min read

The opinions expressed by collaborators are personal.

The unwritten rules for naming your business
The unwritten rules for naming your business

The following is an excerpt from Brad Flowers' The Naming Book . Buy it today on Amazon.

Every industry has a set of unwritten rules, or trends, on how to create a brand that are codified over time. Sometimes they can be turned into cliches. Many industries will have only a few types of names. This occurs naturally: one company becomes successful, and the next company imitates it because the first one worked. By the time we find out, no one remembers how the matter started. This applies to everything from running a business to the type of colors and fonts used in their names. But for now, let's talk about how to name a brand.

My company name Bullhorn is a good example. In the world of branding agencies, there are general naming trends that have become unwritten rules. The first is to use a modification next to the word “brand”, like these:

  • Moving Brands
  • Interbrand
  • FutureBrand

I chose these companies as an example because they are large and successful agencies that do a good job. In many ways, they are the type of agency Bullhorn aspires to be. But their names are not memorable. Even worse, they are undifferentiated. How to remember if you liked the work of Moving, Inter or Future? Their names are too similar.

The second general trend is the law firm model, in which the agency is named after its founder, like these:

  • Landor
  • Lippincott
  • Wolff Olins

Although these names are original, they don't tell you much about the company. What they do do is contribute historical weight. They seem to be well established, they sound old. Choosing this type of name puts you on the same level as other professional service providers, hence the description of the “law firm model.” What these names tell consumers is that providers will tend to be safe options, traditional and quite expensive.

We also analyze some advertising agencies that usually have branding capabilities. Many advertising agencies start with the law firm model until the name becomes too long and difficult to handle. At this point, they shorten it to initials, like these:

  • WPP
  • BBDO
  • DDB

Again, I am choosing these three because they are massive, global companies that do well-recognized work in their industry, so they can handle it. These names are undeniably easier to handle, but they are interchangeable.

Thus, we have identified three general trends to name companies among our competition: a modifier with the word 'brand', the model of law firm, and initials. The important thing is what to do with this information.

For Bullhorn, we didn't want it to include the word “brand.” We also didn't want to name it after its founders, in part because when you google my last name you get a lot of flower shops, but that's not the point. And finally, we didn't want a name that ended up shortening to pure initials, as they tend to be forgotten, especially for startups that don't have the benefit of familiarity.

When it comes to business names, there is a limit to how far you can go from unwritten rules. People often prefer names that make them feel that they fit their category. But if the name is too similar to that of all the others, it could be confused. And if you go too far in the other direction, it won't be recognized as something that fits or belongs.

Fortunately, “Bullhorn” still makes sense. Although they are the least, metaphorical names continue to be used in the world of branding, and generally have positive effects. Consider these examples, all branding agencies like Bullhorn:

  • Matchstic
  • Salt
  • Murmur

These companies are using metaphors similar to our logic. Matchstic may generate the flame that will make the fire burn. Salt provides the flavor that makes your brand delicious. Murmur is using a similar metaphor from an opposite perspective. But it's also about communication, even if they aren't yelling at you. They are creating word of mouth that goes from person to person. Therefore, Murmur (murmur).

So it is important to think about your industry. Just like ours, chances are you also have some unwritten rules. What are they and why do they exist? Can you break some and get noticed, or is there a good reason to follow them? Do you want to be perceived as an established brand or as someone who is starting? That perception is highly influenced by how you choose to position yourself relative to your industry's unwritten rules.

Exercise of unwritten rules

To help you determine if your industry has unwritten rules, make a list of 30 or more of your competitors. It may help to divide them into groups. What are the best established companies in the industry? Which are being disruptive? Are there outliers that are just weird? Once you have identified the groups, you can choose three naming trends. Mark the trends you are interested in following, and cross out the ones you want to avoid. This will help inspire you to come up with name ideas for your business.

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