brand

Choosing a trademark name for a brand or product can be an extremely stressful experience for small business owners.

By Darpan Munjal

After months—if not years—of sprints, sleepless nights and shoestring budgets, founders finally find themselves with a real product or service which is ready to be showcased in front of the rest of the world. But under what name?

Like new parents, startup founders generally struggle to choose a suitable title for something so special, which they have invested so much time and energy into. However, unlike new parents who will inevitably discover how unoriginal their choice was once little Olivia or Oliver starts kindergarten, the consequences for founders are much more serious.

If founders screw up and choose a name that is already taken, they risk losing brand reputation, being slammed with a cease and desist order and having to start from scratch to avoid a potential lawsuit. And with a recent Harvard Law Review study revealing there have been 6.7 million trademark applications over the last 3 decades, if founders don’t do their research and really think outside of the box, the chances of them having to re-name their startup not far down the line are high.

Based on our experience helping to name more than 17,000 companies, here are four tips to choose a brand name which really sticks:

1. Do your homework

To reduce the risk of annoying, time-consuming cease and desist cases further down the line, it’s important to think outside the box and be creative to reduce the risk of choosing a name which has already been registered.

Many companies go for the low hanging fruit of choosing descriptive words, however  considering there have been more than 6.7 million trademark applications, and there are only 171,476 words in the English language, this is often a recipe for disaster.

The common danger zones are :

  • Single English words (Adobe, United, Heritage)
  • Power words (Edge, Force, Spark)
  • Symbolic words (Sage, Sprout, Lab)

If a company is determined to use one of these word types in their trademark, it is best to highlight certain phrases or words they would like to use, and then do research to find out if they are already registered. In the US, companies can use the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database. However, if a company aims to scale internationally, it is always best to check international databases from organizations like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)  and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) to avoid issues down the line.

It is important to recognize from the outset that trademark law is not solely based on the exact match between one name and other but instead based on likelihood of confusion in the marketplace. As such, trademarks can be considered in breach, even if they are not identical. One common slip up is in names which look or sound similar. The USPTO offers the example of “T. Markey” and “Tee Marquee” to illustrate similar names.

So, to avoid stumbling at the starting line, when checking a trademark status, it is also important to try out different alternative spellings, prefixes and suffixes, not just exact matches.

2. Start with the end in mind

If after browsing trademark databases it becomes clear that SneakerKings isn’t a viable name anymore for a shoe shop (surprise surprise), then it’s time to get creative. Instead of focusing on the descriptive element, we often advise clients to focus on expressing one or two core concepts which are essential to their brand, their culture and their values.

Sticking with the shoe example, Zappos, one of today’s ecommerce success stories, began its journey as ShoeStore.com. However, as the brand scaled, and outgrew its name, the founders went back to the drawing board and chose Zappos, a name which depicts speed but also has links in the spanish word for shoes, ‘zapatos’.

In the highly saturated trademarking world, names which are more creative, and less descriptive have more chance of sticking. We always recommend our clients to bring their team together, and play around with various different brand name types.

A good starting point is to decide which aspects of your brand identity are going to be incorporated, choose the style which will resonate most with the target audience (classic, fun, high-end, powerful, modern), and then start fitting these aspects into different name types.

Choosing a great trademark is about trial and error, so get a whiteboard out, get some snacks—and maybe even some beers—and involve your team in what should be a fun, lighthearted exercise.

Remember that there is no wrong answer when brainstorming. Just let the ideas flow, as often seemingly bad or silly ideas will in turn inspire more suitable ones.

3. Remember a brand name has to serve a purpose

With the chance of securing a remaining single English word being so slim, naturally your brainstorming sessions are going to produce some pretty ‘out there’ suggestions, especially when using certain name types such as:

  • Misspelled (Lyft, nimbl, Mohawx)
  • Compound (SnapChat, SplitWave)
  • Blends (Groupon, Yurconic)
  • Abstract (Orizia, Itorix)
  • Transmutations (Zappos, Zumba)

However, while getting weird and wonderful is great, it is important to remember that a brand name that has a good chance of sticking has to be easy to say, easy to remember, and easy to type into Google.

From a technical naming standpoint there are some important principles that you want to keep in mind:

Is it easy to say? Remember that the end goal of a great brand name is that it is used regularly. From shop assistants, to receptionists, to consumers telling their friends about their amazing new product or service they discovered, the name has to roll off the tongue, rather than twist it.

We generally recommend clients to limit their names to a few syllables but more importantly test saying the word out loud to make sure it flows. For example, PriceWaterhouseCoopers is quite long, but it is easy to pronounce. On the flipside the Latin word patriae (country) is short and meaningful, but the ‘iae’ vowel construct could cause much confusion if used in a business name.

Is it easy to hear? We live in the Google age so consumers should be able to hear a brand name, and quickly tap it into a search engine to find the nearest store or your website.

According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising, but if people can’t understand or remember your brand name easily, then your wacky name might be counterproductive.

A good test of this is to call a teammate and tell them, “I’m thinking about choosing [insert name] as our brand name. What do you think?” If there is a long pause or the answer is “What’s the name again?” you might have to head back to the drawing board.

Is it easy to spell? Simple misspellings such as Lyft, Flickr, Xero are growing in popularity. But while misspelled are easier to trademark, if they are too hard to spell, this could ultimately hinder a brand’s marketing and communication efforts.

After all, as mentioned before, the end goal is for consumers to find a brand on social media and search engines, and if they try more than one or two spelling options without results, the chances are they will lose interest and go with what they know.

4. Try before you buy

Once a team has come up with a handful of potential options, it is always advisable to get some unbiased feedback to know that a brand has chosen a name which meets their aims, and will ultimately help their company grow and succeed.

A good way to do this is by utilizing your existing network. Find a diverse set of people (if they are in your target market, even better), then share a list of 4-7 names that you’ve found that meet your initial criteria, and ask them which brand they’d be most interesting in learning more about. Don’t overshare. Just provide the simple facts in one or two sentences and ask which brand they’d like to learn more about. Otherwise, your risk over analysis and confusion, which results in unhelpful data.

Vetting potential names against each other with an unbiased audience will help choosing a name which can stand the test of time. After all, if you are going to go through the long process of trademarking a name, you better be sure that its available, catchy, and worth all the hard work.

So before blindly following your heart, and choosing the first name which clicks with you and your team, do your homework, and get creative, to find a name which sticks for the long term too.

Darpan Munjal, Founder of Squadhelp (a naming platform), is passionate about disruptive, internet focused businesses and has over 20 years of experience, ranging from bootstrap startups to multi-billion dollar Fortune 100 companies.

Brand name stock photo by focal point/Shutterstock