Posted on October 4, 2015

How to choose a brand name and how to avoid disaster

People searching on phones(Updated 5/10/17) There are few overnight successes and that success often appears always just over the horizon especially to a new start up venture. Finding that magic concept, doing some research to find if there is a market and then funding product full of testing before launching. These all take time, money and a mix of inspiration and perspiration. And along the way you will have come up with ideas for snappy, memorable brand names that encapsulate exactly what your brand proposition is in a differentiated way from your competitors. To get to this stage you are almost certainly; smart, stubborn, persistent, single-minded, inspired and probably favoured with a large amount of luck (or some great connections). The brand naming can appear to be the easiest part. How hard is it to come up with Facebook, Instagram Uber,or Twitter and other such instantly recognisable* names? It was not through beginners luck as this is how they started  – Facebook originating from FaceMash then TheFacebook, Instagram was Burbn, Uber UberCab (see more below) and Twitter was twttr. So they actually evolved into these mega brands.

But each day it gets harder as so many companies and brands are being launched every day, domain names are snapped up for every obvious name and word permutation available. And then if you get that far with your unique but familiar embryonic brand name then you also need to check a variety of our sources and authorities to see if it is actually yours to use.

The most obvious place to start is if your chosen name is already registered as a trademark in a category that might cause potential conflict, in eyes of the Trademark Registrar.  You can search the UK Trademark Office website (search option available, link below) but first you really ought to read this short but excellent article by Tech Startup entrepreneur Tom Leung aptly titled blogpost “How not to name your startup and what you can learn from my mistake” link below.  Tom gives some painfully honest insights of what can go wrong, often unforeseen objections or hard to avoid showstoppers. Tom does not give us all of the answers but does raise many of the most pertinent issues, when talking about his baby Poachable (think headhunters not eggs). After gaining traction in the recruitment market with Google as a client and articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal before hitting an unforeseen immovable object. His company were forced to change, adopting their new name of Anthology here are both logos. Poachable and Anthology logos side by sideI would have thought that the latter name of Anthology would be hard to trademark than Poachable, a slang word only recruiters use.  However not the case and others complained to defend their territory. Do read the short article in full but key lessons from his experience were:

Don’t just go to GoDaddy
Naming your brand or company should be about more than if the .com & are available, post rationalising can be convoluted, when simplcity is needed. And don’t register your chosen suite of domain names through the cheapest register as you may end up paying more than that down the line when you want webspace or to move or even to renew. Also you need to consider other resources such as Companies House (great online search facility) and Trademark searches, see more below. Do consider buying an existing domain name, it’s not as cheap as a first time registration but could be the answer to your needs and save precious time to let you turn your attention to other areas, but it’s not the end of the story, so do read on.

Pick a broad name or be prepared for a future rebranduber_logos
Some of today’s most successful Startups had a pivot moment along the way. Instagram was not an instant hit and Uber were once called UberCab  before they received a cease-and-desist letter from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency which forced them to stop pretending to be a Taxi company. Advice they clearly heeded, legally at least.

Original and New Instagram logosInstagram had a different life beforehand with a previous incarnation being called Burbn, then along came the Instagram name and the older Instamatic logo later refined radically into the familiar icon of today that fits onto our mobile screen so perfectly in colour or mono using only a few pixels. But they had to adapt for various reasons. ISIS Belgium ChocolatesIn 1923 a Belgium chocolatier was named Italo Suisse, but only late in 2013 did they decide to change their name because the chocolate maker was no longer associated to either Italy or Switzerland. They chose the word “ISIS“. Quickly they realised that orders from the US and UK had evaporated, costing them millions in lost sales revenue. Sadly they had to rebrand when others took their name. Easier to change name that fight Isis. But could that name clash have been foreseen? They became Libeert, sounds a lot more peaceful.

The benefits of using a professional naming agency
Creating brand names is mix of art and science involving a process, experienced experts can avoid cul-de-sacs and be objective and give you a wider perspective. They may even advise you that your brand actually means donkey breath in all of the Spanish speaking world, similar cross cultural blunders happen frequently. Here is some great advice from Rob Meyerson (link below) “professional naming firms generate hundreds or thousands of name ideas for any given brand. Quantity is never a substitute for quality, striving for both will yield the best results. At this stage you’re not looking for one, perfect name — you’re looking for a strong set of options so that if one name inevitably fails to live up to legal, linguistic or other forms of scrutiny, all is not lost.” Good advice indeed, would ISIS have made the short list?

Don’t overreact if people don’t swoon
You know your brand inside out and it’s potential name makes complete sense to your team. But if it needs detailed explanation to others then perhaps it’s not the perfect fit you first thought. When people need  to explain what their logo represents, perhaps it is a step too far. However Tom reminds us that many people hated the name Virgin for an airline, Amazon for a bookstore, and Apple for a desktop computer company. Or ask someone why there is no ‘face’ or ‘book’ on FB? If it is brand new we may need to be educated about it, and that can be a barrier or an opportunity.

Invest time in trademark research
Spend as much time searching for available trademarks as you do looking for available domain names. Also use a trademark attorney to frame your application and stand a much higher chance of success, we did not think that trademarking Evolution and Evolution Design (as both text and images) would be possible as late as 2012, especially after we searched and found 9 abandoned applications. This part is key, there is no point finding the perfect name if someone else already owns it. As often it can be preventable mistakes which get more costly and harder to correct the further down the process you are at when discovered. You can find yourself in court over a trademark violation and be forced to pay compensation to the trademarks owners for damage to the brand. And before you consider just trying to launch quietly and hope that they wont notice you do think again. If you heard of a direct competitor in Hull who took the same name after you had thought of it first, then paid to trademark it, and then invested money in design and branding and then spent even more money marketing your brand would you defend it in court? Of course you would especially if you were in the right and you could even claim compensation. We wrote to Evolution Design of Hull and pointed out their trademark infringement and they did rebrand.

Invest research time at Companies House research
As the official registration body of all UK Limited companies, Companies House incorporates and dissolves limited companies, registers the information companies are legally required to supply, and makes that information available to the public.  The key parts are legally required and publicly available. Including data you may not be ready to disclose, so prepare before you incorporate. They have a great search facility that anyone can use. At this stage it’s called due diligence. They also have info on Starting a Company and Using a Formation Agent. Read before you even start your company name search here.

Then talk to your design agency as early as possible
Speaking to your design company at an early stage is also an excellent idea. We are always prepared to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement . Often we can advise on imagery – good and bad – suggested by a potential brand or company name before any design work is commissioned.  Sometimes the potential logo design can affect the choice of name. We have been offered a huge number of names that just did not make sense to us, here the part about needing a two-part explanation is often discovered, and how often can you give that speech in person? However it may make no immediate sense to us but your target audience just gets it instantly and at the end of the day it is what your target audience thinks that really matters. As well as an NDA you also need to ensure that the copyright of any work created for you is owned by you. We always offer that as part of our design fee, others do not. So far we have yet to touch upon building brand equity and brand value that’s another story for another day.

For the winners in 2015 here are the brand values in real currency 
Interbrand values these brands at billions – not for turnover or profit but for the value of the brand, see who is worth $172bn and how much has VW’s brand value dropped, it may drop further by the time of next years review.
Interbrand 2015See you favourites brand value here > Interbrand global brand value 2015 ranking it is also fascinating to see those that are not in the Top 10 that we all might assume to be, such as Nike and Facebook. I have to admit at #64 there was one unnamed logo that I did not even recognise. Also how very few British or British owned brands are in there.

Its easy to confuse what your customers actually want from your product
IMAG3217Hard to say anything other than total car crash disaster from the New Product Development Department at Imperial Leather. I’m still unsure how these products could have made in as far as being tested in-store. How did Marsh Mallow become a hair cleaning product? It is an unusual word but really weird when split over two lines, emphasising the word ‘marsh’, who wants a marsh or a mallow or any kind of guey sweet poured over your hair, such as Fruit Salad? I guess it starts with honey and beer, then anything sweet goes? Wrong. How many thousand of pounds did this failed NPD cost and it may not be a complete surprise that neither product exists on the crowded shelves at Tesco today.  In Oct ’15 Tesco announced that it was cutting back their average store inventory meaning a reduction from 90,000 to 65,000 product lines. This is partly aimed at brands including Carlsberg, where Tesco hope to migrate customers to cheaper own brand products that deliver customers saving and higher margin. Thats the pressure from Lidl and Aldi showing.

spunk_logo(Update 2/12/15) There are a huge number of brand names that do not travel well, they are more than just lost in translation they are international brand disasters. Viewed from our side of the world they look ridiculous and you wonder how they could possibly get passed the least travel or language savvy of us let alone the brand men and researchers.  Yes the sports shirt on the right is for a real brand called SPUNK, very big in India where the new clothing range was launched with a huge fanfare earlier this year by Saif Ali Khan, one of India’s leading Bollywood actors is now the face of Spunk, in Asia at least.

brand-ambassador-saif-ali-khan-spunkSo are they nuts or do you have a dirty mind? Either way it is memorable for the wrong reasons and a huge distraction from what the brand wants to communicate. Would you run in Spunk shoes? Not if you will be laughed at in the locker room. You can see a range of odd brand names in this BBC post along with photos in case you don’t believe that they were or are real brands.

* except the first time when we all asked what’s on Facebook? or who are Uber?

Further reading:

How not to name your startup and what you can learn from my mistake by Tom Leung

Three Takeaways For Creating New Brand Names by Rob Meyerson his Tech Crunch article on positive to learn from unfortunate brand name choices >

Why is it called Uber? By Adam Lang published Aug 2014 , the ongoing story of the evolution of Uber and how they made their name and benefited from it’s oddness.

UK Trademark Office website with advice and a search function

Companies House UK Govt agency

Company, Limited Liability Partnership and Business Names (Sensitive Words and Expressions) Regulations 2014 – Naming your company just got easier blogpost by Stewart Moy Solicitor at Morton Fraser

Excellent short  blog post  Exposing Five Myths About Trade Marks, By Oliver Tidman on Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce website September 29, 2017 (sadly now removed)

Posted by Neale Gilhooley (updated 5 Oct 17)