Finding That Perfect Business Name Is No Easy Feat
A few years ago, Brandon Leach and Zack Poleto were ready to open their pop-up restaurant in Bloomington, inspired by their favorite dishes from all over the world.
But what to name it?
That, as it turns out, was no easy feat. They did deep dives on Google, looking for a cooking-themed name that popped—one or two syllables—and was not already being used by someone else.
“It wasn’t just sitting down and shooting one out real quick. It was a process of vetting a bunch of cooking terminology,” Leach said.
Eventually, they landed on BraiZe, a variation of the cooking term braise. The “B” and “Z” are capitalized as a nod to Brandon and Zack’s first names. They say it’s a good fit. They grew from a humble pop-up restaurant inside a Bloomington VFW post to a full restaurant and bar space in east Bloomington.
“We’re slowly and gradually getting better, just like that piece of meat would when you braise it,” Leach said.
Starting a business is hard. You need money, a product or service people actually need, a lawyer. You need to find a space, a staff, and start advertising. It’s a lot.
One of the hardest parts is picking a good name. And good doesn’t just mean catchy or clever.
A good name means it’s both appropriate and available, said Laurel Sutton, senior strategist, linguist, and co-founder of Catchword, one of the most prominent naming agencies in the world.
“That’s the biggest hurdle that most people face,” Sutton told GLT. “There are so many names out there already. There are hundreds of thousands of trademarks in the U.S. alone. There are millions worldwide. To find the name for your thing that’s not already taken, that’s the hard part.”
Sutton said Catchword takes a very structured, businesslike approach to the products, processes, and businesses it’s hired to name.
“You gotta get through the really obvious stuff before you get to names that aren’t as obvious but are still relevant to what you’re trying to do,” Sutton said. “People think it’s like on ‘Mad Men,’ and we’ll just go to the bar and write some stuff down on a cocktail napkin. That doesn’t work.”
In reality, it’s highly iterative, starting with hundreds or even thousands of possibilities. A client might see 40 or 50 names in a first presentation. By the time that client’s own legal team reviews names, six or eight might still be in the mix, Sutton said.
“It’s never a case where there’s the epiphany, where the heavens part and the light comes down and shines on the name and they go, ‘Ah! That’s the perfect name.’ That never happens,” she said. “There’s always a group of names that are in contention.”
A quick tour through Bloomington-Normal will turn up all sorts of names with interesting origins. There’s Biaggi’s, a national restaurant chain that got its name from a motocross racer. There’s Pub II and Alamo II—which always leave people asking where the originals are located. And there’s Country Financial which vexingly capitalizes every letter of the word COUNTRY—even though it’s not an acronym.
There’s actually a lot of science behind this. The field of onomastics is the study of names. In academia that’s historically been place names or people’s names.
But more recently that’s expanded to include branding and trade names, according to Sutton. The California-based trade names expert is part of the American Name Society, a nonprofit that seeks to find out what really is in a name and to investigate cultural insights, settlement history, and linguistic characteristics revealed in names.
“We’ve tried to incorporate more papers and study about how important business names are, or product names, and I feel we’ve been quite successful,” she said.
A great business name is rarely great on Day 1. Consider Starbucks. If you focus-group tested that name before launch, people would’ve been confused. Today, it’s synonymous with coffee. (Starbuck was the first mate in the Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”)
Twitter—a reference to a bird’s twittering—is an especially great name, Sutton said.
“It’s very light, it’s very ephemeral, it doesn’t last very long. And that’s exactly what Twitter was” at the beginning, she said. “It really conveys this idea in an extraordinarily clear way. It was a good name from the start. One of the few.”
Most of all, a good name means an available name.
A recent trend in naming is creating new words by adding prefixes or suffixes to other words, like Netflix or Bitcoin, said Jennifer McCarron, president of Business Builders, a Bloomington-based marketing firm that’s developed names for clients.
“It’s hard to find an original name that isn’t taken, either by trademark or URLs,” McCarron said. “But when there’s something that’s combined—an original creation of a combination—that can not only describe what your brand does, but it’s something powerful that you can own. We’re seeing more of that.”
The trademarking process can be intense—and frustrating. The creators of BraiZe saw their trademark application rejected because it was too close to the regular word “braise,” said Brandon Leach.
“No one will be able to trademark the word ‘braize.’ Ever,” he said.
They also found a French community called Braize, but that’s only an issue when hashtagging photos on social media, Leach said.
That potential for global, cultural conflict is no joke, said Sutton. Her firm, Catchword, does linguistic and cultural evaluations for clients. They run names past real people living in countries where a company does business. Can they pronounce this name? Does it sound like a word that already exists in their native language? Does it mean something bad? Does it mean anything at all?
“It’s been really, really, helpful for a lot of clients,” she said. “Often it turns out, a name just won’t fly in some country because it’s literally unpronounceable.”
In other cases, a little tongue-in-cheek double meaning can be intentional.
Take Lil Beaver Brewery in Bloomington. Co-owner Chad Bevers got his start home-brewing. But when he was ready to open a full-fledged taproom and brewery, he seriously considered changing the name to avoid any negative connotation or slang related to a woman’s anatomy. But they stuck with it. And now their beer names are legit family friendly. Bevers’ own daughters help name many of the beers.
“There’s a lot of people who kind of chuckle when they say it and assume it means something,” Bevers said. “Every once in a while we’ll get someone who’s not sure they like the name, but when I say my last name, they say, ‘Oh my God, I love it.’”
Other local names are even more personal.
INtegRIty Counseling recently moved into a larger space in west Bloomington. Its logo is a nod to co-founders Don and Luella Mahannah’s fathers and their faith.
The fish—drawn by Don’s father decades ago—evokes the so-called “Jesus fish” adopted by early Christians. The tagline “Do. Be. Heal.” uses the initials of Luella’s father. The capitalization of the I-N-R-I is a reference to the message posted above the cross when Jesus was crucified, “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum,” meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
“It reflects our fathers, our faith, and our passion for doing things right,” said Don.
But can you be too clever or overly edgy?
Sutton said it’s all about finding something appropriate for your audience. On the other end of the spectrum from the Christian inspiration behind INtegRIty is the Hand Job Nails and Spa salon in the culturally hip Castro District in San Francisco.
Sutton’s firm didn’t come up with the name. A competitor did.
“It serves a very hip, modern, young clientele. They wanted a cool, hip name that would be borderline offensive to older, more conservative people,” Sutton said. “For their target audience, it works really, really well. You would never give a nail salon a name like that in the middle of a mall in Illinois. But in the context of a hip, trendy neighborhood in San Francisco, that actually works.”
Instead of a challenge, businesses should think of naming as an opportunity, according to Jennifer McCarron of Business Builders.
“Sometimes people miss that opportunity. But when we’re able to take that opportunity, boy it can be fantastic,” she said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that Biaggi's is named for Italian motocross racer Max Biaggi. He was incorrectly referred to as a race car driver in a previous version.
Mary Cullen contributed to this story.
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