Naming and Branding Your Organization

I’ve been through the process of naming and branding with many organizations over my checkered career, including several as a client. While this topic could take up an entire book, I have a few key points worth sharing.

Know where you’re going.

It sounds simple but it’s often difficult to put into practice. Basically it means — “what does your organization want to be when it grows up?” What do you want to be known for? What business will you be in 5 years from now? For example, “Gidget’s Widgets” might have sounded cute and descriptive when you started, but now that you’re manufacturing widgets, gadgets and whatzits, does the name still work? Probably not. So think ahead. Look out 5, 10 even 20 years. Try to have your name and brand match your long-range vision, not your short-term wants.

Don’t be descriptive or generic

Many startup businesses think the best way for customers to remember who they are and what they sell is to “describe” their business in the name. In fact, this is one of the worst things to do. Calling yourself “Discount Pool Supplies” or something equally generic is poor practice on several levels.

First, because the name itself is descriptive, it’s next to impossible to protect from a trademark perspective. Someone literally could open up a business right next door to yours with the same name and you could do little or nothing about it aside from racking up expensive legal fees. Yes, you can often get a trademark from a state or even the federal government but that doesn’t ensure protection. It only discourages usage. Anyone can challenge a trademark even if it has the stamp of government approval. Plus state trademarks are only good within the state issued. It’s much better to have a solid, non-descriptive mark to begin with.

Second, while you’ve “described” what you do, you haven’t given your potential customer anything interesting they can remember. You could be competing with “Bob’s Discount Pool Supplies” or “Discount Pool Supplies of Whoville” or “Discount Billiard Supplies”. Think instead like a computer company named “Apple”. Or a search firm named “Google”. Or a sporting goods brand called “Nike”. The name should be memorable.

Naming choices

I alluded to it above. Short is better. Short names are easier to remember. Unique is also good. Names like Exxon, Viagra, Yahoo! have nothing to do with the business lines they represent but they are all unique and different. Customers remember them because they have make you go “huh??”. But, keep in mind — good names like these are in short supply. You’ll have to do your homework.

Lately, I’ve seen a trend in naming that simply combines two disparate concepts like “PlywoodPlum” or “CrystalBlimp” (I made those up but you get the idea). OK, so they’re trying for a dot.com but is that seriously going to convey your image or product? Or is it just going to sound stupid?

Think ahead

This has nothing to do with your vision but rather how your name and brand are going to be used. Consider your website. Is www.mycompanyname.com available?? Or will you have to settle for a less desirable domain name like www.mycompanyname.us? Check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and your home state offices for registrations of your potential brand or name. The last thing you want to do is spend a lot of time and energy into developing a really cool name and corporate image package only to find out someone else has already done it. And think about how the name sounds when you say it and how it looks in writing. If you go with a made-up name, make sure it doesn’t sound or read like a foreign curse word.

Some options

Remember, your business name doesn’t have to do all the work of telling people what you do. In fact, corporate tags and descriptors are better for that purpose. British Petroleum did this effectively when they rebranded themselves as “BP” by using the tagline “Beyond Petroleum” in all their advertising. A strong graphic logo can also help people associate a simple and unique brand with your product or business.

While it’s not the strongest type of name, your own last name can be an effective branding tool if you yourself are your brand. Our agency is called The Geldner Group simply because it’s who we are. When we meet with clients, they expect a Geldner at the meeting. Our brand is made stronger since we own the very simple and unique domain name “geldner.com”.

Repetition and use are important.

Some brands become “protected” simply through overwhelming market power. Consider the initials IBM or GM. While no branding agency would ever suggest naming a startup company something like “IBM”, these companies can protect their brand simply because they are so well-known. Repeated and consistent referring of International Business Machines to IBM and of General Motors to GM has lead to them having defacto protected brands. Also important to consider is that you can’t “sit” on a great brand idea. It must be used in commerce in order for it to be trademarkable.

Hire an attorney — please.

And finally, you will need an attorney at some point in the process. While much of the research (availability, domain name, etc.) plus the design and creative can and should be done by an agency, an attorney will be needed to ensure proper filings with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Yes, there are do-it-yourself applications and websites available for less money. But if you’re going to invest your company’s future in a new brand, trying to go this last little bit alone is false economy. One misstep and you could turn a great branding idea into a can of worms.

If you’re looking into a rebranding or naming project, call us to see if we can help. We love working with small businesses (the ones that really need the kind of advice we offer).

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