Why picking a good company name is a tricky business

By Jonty Bloom
Business reporter

  • Published
An Amazon delivery driverImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The pandemic has fuelled a surge in e-commerce leading to a rise in new online retail firms

Although William Shakespeare wrote that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", it wouldn't be a good idea for a new online flower delivery service to call itself Rancid-Thorns.com.

Names matter in business: picking a good one is vital for new companies that want to stand out from the crowd and connect with customers.

As our world moves increasingly online a new firm needs a moniker that also works well as a internet domain name. You cannot just offer a good product or service - shoppers also have to be able to find and remember you.

This issue of dreaming-up a company name is topical because the number of new firms being set-up soared during the pandemic.

In the UK, one study found that 835,494 new companies were registered in the year to January 2021. That was 41% higher than the previous 12-month period.

That is a heck of a lot of new company names in circulation, and the growth on both sides of the Atlantic was led by a surge in new e-commerce businesses in response to many more people shopping online.

To support entrepreneurs who may struggle to come up with a good name, a host of websites has sprung up that can help them both to pick one, and register a connected domain. These 'naming' sites include Alter, BrandBucket, Frozen Lemon, Wix and Zyro.

"Demand for business names went up [in the pandemic] as entrepreneurs were sitting there and thinking what to do next," says Deven Patel, the founder of Alter.

Image source, Alter
Image caption,
Alter has registered thousands of business domain names that new firms can buy

Mr Patel says these entrepreneurs see the challenges experienced by 'bricks and mortar' firms "and realise there is relatively more they can do online. And so the majority of new companies [launched] now are online."

"But then you have to stand out. Consumers online just see 100 companies selling the same thing, but with a good name you stand out - and that gives you much more of an advantage now than it would in the past."

Alter's website starts by asking the user to type in a word connected to the type of business they want to create. It then offers a number of suggestions that it has already registered, and how much they would cost to buy from it.

For example, if you type "wine" it gives you 10 options including searchwine.com for $2,099 (£1,523).

Many firms are, however, still coming up with their own novel names. This is what the founders of Norwegian biotech company, Clexbio, did.

The "bio" part of the name is an obvious choice for a biotechnology firm, while "clex" is in reference to the technology it has developed in the field of human tissue engineering.

Chief executive and co-founder Armend Hati said they wanted the name to be just right.

"We felt it would trigger the interest of investors and let us showcase ourselves as a life sciences company," he says.

Image source, Clexbio
Image caption,
Armend Hati and his co-founders came up with their company name themselves

And it seems to be working, the firm is now getting name recognition, at least within its industry. "Yes this has been the result, and our online presence, especially our presence on Linkedin, I think, has established us as a player."

But what happens if you think of a name, but someone already owns the domain you want? It can be a costly business, as Elon Musk, the boss of electric carmaker Tesla found out.

Musk revealed in a 2018 tweet that the firm had to pay $11m to buy the website tesla.com from a Californian man called Stuart Grossman. Prior to then Tesla had to make do with teslamotors.com.

If you think you have a great domain name for a business, and you've registered it, firms such as Alter can try and sell it for you.

However, don't try to register a business name that is potentially offensive, as it will be rejected by authorities, such as Companies House, the UK's registrar of firms.

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Another branch of the company name-picking process concerns the firms that choose to rename themselves.

Simona Botti, professor of marketing at London Business School, says that this is a risky business, something that Scottish investment firm Abrdn might begrudgingly agree with.

The company announced back in April that it was changing its name to Abrdn from the previous Standard Life Aberdeen, an announcement that met with widespread ridicule. on social media.

Abrdn, which had developed its new name with the help of marketing agency Wolff Olins, said it should still be pronounced "Aberdeen", but that the rebrand would make it "modern" and "dynamic".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Standard Life Aberdeen wanted something more 'modern'
Image source, Abrdn
Image caption,
Abrdn seemingly does not like the letter 'e'

Prof Botti says there are two ways for a firm to change its name. "You can do it very scientifically, with a bunch of researchers, and experiments, and testing, to see what are the names people react most favourably with," she says.

She cites the example of Canadian tech firm Blackberry, which until 2013 was known as Research in Motion. "They had done a lot of research to see how people reacted to this new name," says Prof Botti.

Yet, while members of the public were pleased to see Blackberry the business take the name of its best-know product - Blackberry the mobile phone - it didn't help boost sales of the handsets. They were still trounced by Apple and Android handsets.

Firms that have changed their names

  • Global sandwich shop chain Subway was called Pete's Super Submarines for its first two years from 1965 to 1967
  • Facebook was initially Thefacebook
  • In 2018 Weight Watchers changed its name to WW
  • That same year Wal-Mart dropped the hyphen to become Walmart
  • Pepsi was originally called Brad's Drink
  • Carmaker Nissan was previously Datsun
  • Ebay was first known as AuctionWeb

Prof Botti adds that the alternative to carefully researching whether a new company name would work is for a firm "to just go with its guts".

"Then, that new name becomes almost an empty vessel, and it is what you put in that name that matters."

Brand expert, Rebecca Battman, founder of agency RBL, says that picking a good name for a business is harder than most people realise.

Image source, Rebecca Battman
Image caption,
Rebecca Battman says that picking a good business name is not easy at all

"Few people truly understand how hard it is to find or create a name that is easy to say, easy to spell, has meaning, conveys personality, is protectable, supports a strong domain name, and will be able to grow with the business as its strategy evolves," she says.

And Ms Battman adds that when it comes to the domain name, the sweet spot is definitely to get the ".com".

"While a .com domain isn't always necessary, it makes life so much easier in the long run," she says. "It smacks of global authority, and is definitely worth working harder for."

Additional reporting by Will Smale