The dark art of choosing a company name

BlackBerry phone Would more people have bought a BlackBerry if it had been called a MegaMail?

Choosing a name for a new business is perhaps the first big decision that the founder has to make. How vital is it to pick a good one?

When Mikael Cho told his friends he had moved to Montreal to start a company, they would inevitably ask him what he had called it.

To which he would reply: "Ooomf."

His friends would then say they loved the name, but few if any could guess the correct spelling.

He quickly realised he might need to rebrand.

Start-ups are like newborns and, just like children, the wrong name can scar for life. Imagine if Google had been called BackRub, as it was dubbed in its first incarnation.

"Some words have characteristics that fire the imagination and generate interest," says David Placek, who founded the brand-name consulting firm Lexicon in 1982.

"Don't underestimate the power of a brand name to achieve things on its own for you."

BlackBerry's birth

Start Quote

Mikael Cho

We eventually landed on Ooomf because we thought it was catchy and memorable”

End Quote Mikael Cho Crew (formerly Ooomf)

Lexicon, based near San Francisco in California, has helped name an assortment of well-known consumer brands, including Pentium for chipmaker Intel, PowerBook for Apple, and Dasani for Coca-Cola.

In 1998, a small Canadian company went to Lexicon seeking a name for its new high-tech mobile phone which would send emails.

The firm from Ontario was torn between names such as MegaMail and ProMail.

Mr Placek and his team had other ideas.

After free associating words, someone said "strawberry" to convey enjoyment and freshness. Then someone else suggested "blackberry".

The Canadian executives from Research in Motion (RIM) chose the latter, and going with Mr Placek's suggestion, settled on adding two capital letters, and called their device the "BlackBerry".

RIM - itself now known as BlackBerry - has gone on to sell more than 33 million units of the BlackBerry in its various guises, despite being overtaken in recent years by Apple's iPhone and handsets using the Android operating system.

Trademark explosion

Today, Mr Placek says it has become "extraordinarily difficult" to create a new name for a product or company.

When Lexicon launched 32 years ago, it had just five employees, and some freelancers, brainstorming ideas and coming up with names.

The Crew logo and its previous name - Ooomf Ooomf changed its name to Crew earlier this year

At the time there were about 15,000 trademarks and associated patents relating to US technology companies.

Now there are almost 700,000 for Lexicon, whose workforce has grown to more than 20, to wade through.

And thanks to the increased globalisation of business, it now has to employ the services of linguistic experts around the world to make sure that a suggested new name for a product or company does not cause a faux pas in a different country.

Mr Placek adds that he has even invested $500,000 (£290,000) on researching how well each letter of the alphabet performs in a brand name. He says that "Z" is one that resonates particularly well with consumers.

Rebrand required

Start Quote

We named ourselves Seeing Interactive mostly because [the web name] SeeingInteractive.com was available”

End Quote Lloyd Armbrust OwnLocal (formerly Seeing Interactive)

Mr Cho's business is an online marketplace, where designers and developers of websites and mobile phone apps can pitch for work.

Setting up the company in February 2012, he initially chose the name Ooomf because he wanted something quirky.

"We eventually landed on Ooomf because we thought it was catchy and memorable," he says. "It was definitely memorable. But definitely impossible to spell."

So earlier this year Mr Cho changed the name of the company to Crew.

"The definition of a crew is a group of persons involved in a particular kind of work or working together," he says.

"This is what our company does - connecting people together to do great work. It was short and easy to spell. And represented what our company stood for."

David Placek David Placek has helped to name a number of household brands

Lloyd Armbrust, who is based in Austin, Texas, is another boss who ended up changing his company's name.

He founded his business Seeing Interactive in 2010 to help newspapers turn print adverts into online ones, without the need for developers or sales representatives.

Did he think long and hard about about what the name would mean to his own sense of self and his customers? Not really.

"We named ourselves Seeing Interactive mostly because [the web name] SeeingInteractive.com was available," he says.

This proved to be a mistake.

line break
Brands and their former names
  • Sony (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering)
  • Yahoo (Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web)
  • Nintendo (Marafuku Company)
  • AOL (Quantum Computer Services)
  • IBM (Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation)
  • Pepsi (Brad's Drink)
  • Snickers (Marathon)
line break

Mr Armbrust says that because his company was not selling to consumers he thought "the name would not matter, but it turns out that it did".

"It was hard to say, long to spell, and people had a really hard time understanding what we did."

So he and his team asked family and friends for help coming up with a new name for the firm.

In the end Mr Armbrust decided that the word "local" needed to be in the new name, and that it should "sound like a brand".

So after checking their options against what was available in terms of trademarks, patents and domain names, he and his colleagues renamed their business OwnLocal in 2011.

Mr Armbrust says the new name seems to have made a world of difference.

"Honestly, I think it's everything," he says. "We hear customers and potential customers saying, 'OwnLocal is an industry leader.'

"Without the name and brand I honestly think people would have a hard time standing behind us so easily."

'Check the competition'

Lexicon's Mr Placek has some practical advice for finding the perfect company or product name. He suggests beginning by looking at the competitive landscape.

"Get all of these names up on a wall and commit to not copying them," he says.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg Facebook was originally called "TheFacebook"

Then Mr Placek says the business has to work out what story it wants to tell and why. And only then is it time to start generating names.

Among the recent names that Lexicon has helped come up with, Mr Placek's favourites include FlyWheel, a taxi hire mobile phone app, and e-book seller Zola Books, which uses the supposedly popular "Z" letter.

Mr Placek is also a big fan of mobile messaging service WhatsApp. He is, unsurprisingly, also very complimentary of the names Apple chooses.

"Take the iPhone," he says. "They took a household word and by putting one letter in front of it, it ends up being game changing."

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

Business Live

  1.  
    08:44: Newspaper review
    Business pages

    Let's have a quick look at the business pages. The Financial Times leads with that thawing of relations between Cuba and the US. It also says plummeting oil prices have hit renewable energy firms. The Telegraph says that BT is looking to raise £2bn by selling shares to fund its purchase of EE. The Times says that investors have been spooked by Russia's crisis and are abandoning emerging market debt.

     
  2.  
    08:28: North Sea oil crisis
    North Sea Oil platform

    North Sea oil firms and service providers are cutting staff and investment to save money and the industry is "close to collapse" the independent explorers' association Brindex has said. Falling oil prices are now beginning to make North Sea oil production too costly it suggests. Brent Crude has now fallen below $60 per barrel and has fallen nearly 50% since the summer.

     
  3.  
    08:10: Sony cancels The Interview

    A cinema in Texas is replacing The Interview with "Team America: World Police" says Radio 5 live presenter Rachel Burden. That might make Texans feel a bit better about the hacking of Sony Pictures, which North Korea is thought to be involved in. As well as satirising gung-ho Americans Team America World Police ridicules Kim Jong-il, the father of North Korea's current leader Kim Jong-un. Take that North Korea!

     
  4.  
    07:56: Royal Mail privatisation Radio 5 live

    "There's a huge opportunity for financial institutions to game the system," Lord Myners tells Radio 5 live. He's talking about the process of "book building" whereby big investors like pension firms and insurers are approached and asked what they think a firm is worth. Transparent digital auctions would be a better way of fixing a price. says Lord Myners.

     
  5.  
    07:42: Royal Mail privatisation BBC Radio 4

    "I think actually the sale of Royal Mail was a well-balanced complex exercise and the government managed to achieve its objective, Lord Myners tells Today. When asked why UBS forecast a price of 450p for Royal Mail shares, around the time the 330p a share price was set, Lord Myners argues that is an example of the so-called "Chinese Walls" within investment banks working.

     
  6.  
    07:23: Sony cancels The Interview
    Movie poster for The Interview

    Jon Taplin who produced Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and The Last Waltz makes some interesting points on Radio 5 live about Sony's withdrawing The Interview. He points out that the biggest US movie chain AMC is owned by a Chinese firm. Many movie theatres are in shopping centres and AMC says it was under pressure from those shopping centres who were worried that shoppers would stay away if The Interview was playing. (The hackers had warned of 911-style attacks).

     
  7.  
    07:08: Mobile phone coverage Radio 5 live
    mobile phone user

    There's been a "huge row" between mobile operators and companies says BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones on Radio 5 live. The result is today's announcement that firms will invest £5bn in mobile kit to achieve 90% geographic coverage by 2017. That £5bn was going to be spent anyway says Rory, the companies wanted the government to abandon a "national roaming" scheme that they hated.

     
  8.  
    06:52: Local government pensions BBC Radio 4

    Local government pensions schemes are "staggeringly inefficient and a national embarrassment", according to the right leaning think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies which has published a report calling for a radical overhaul of them. Currently 89 separate schemes in England and Wales are £47bn in deficit, it says. The report comes on the same day as the local government finance settlement.

     
  9.  
    06:48: Local council spending Radio 5 live

    Later this morning, councils in England will find out how much money they are likely to get from the government for the next financial year. Councils are expecting a 12% cut in their budgets. They are saying that the situation is "virtually unsustainable and services will start buckling under the strain", according to BBC political correspondent, Iain Watson. The government argues that councils have coped well with cuts so far, Iain says on Radio 5 live.

     
  10.  
    06:39: Royal Mail privatisation BBC Radio 4
    Royal Mail Glasgow

    The big problem for the government was judging the price and ensuring interest from institutional investors in Royal Mail, CCLA Investment Management's James Bevan tells Today. If shares were priced too high Royal Mail might not have attracted enough interest from institutional investors. That would have meant the shares would have lost value when they debuted on the stock market, and the government "gets accused of being greedy," Mr Bevan adds.

     
  11.  
    06:33: Royal Mail privatisation BBC Radio 4

    So the report into the stock market flotation of Royal Mail has been released but James Bevan, from CCLA Investment Management tells the Today programme the report tells us "very little about what actually happened. It's more of blueprint for what should happen in the future." He says the report seems to focus more on how to deal with institutional investors in any future privatisations.

     
  12.  
    06:27: Sony cancels The Interview Radio 5 live
    A banner for "The Interview"is posted outside Arclight Cinemas

    Sony Pictures has now cancelled the release of the film that provoked a cyber attack on the company. On Radio 5 live Steve Futterman, Los Angeles reporter for CBS Radio News, says it was primarily a business decision as five major theatre chains had abandoned the comedy (called The Interview), after the hackers made references to 911-style attacks. But Mr Futterman asks: Will the film have a video release or appear on a streaming service when the situation calms down?

     
  13.  
    06:19: US interest rates Radio 5 live

    "Markets are hugely relieved that the Fed will not be tightening rates any time soon," says James Bevan, from CCLA Investment Management. On Radio 5 live Mr Bevan says the markets are now betting there will not be a rise in interest rates during the next calendar year.

     
  14.  
    06:12: Cuba new era Radio 5 live
    Havana

    "It's quite a dramatic and unexpected step," says Phillip Oppenheim, managing director of coffee company, Alma de Cuba. That's after President Barack Obama announced moves to normalise diplomatic and economic ties. Mr Oppenheim thinks that announcement could make a real difference in two or three years time. He says that Cuba is very slowly being liberalised. It's become easier to set up small businesses, for example.

     
  15.  
    06:09: Royal Mail privatisation Radio 5 live

    Peter Hahn from Cass Business School explains that big institutional investors were approached in what's known as a "pilot fishing" exercise to ascertain a price Royal Mail. They, of course, were incentivised to quote a low price. Mr Hahn says that's a slightly simplified scenario - but was basically what happened. "IPOs (initial public offerings) are always more of an art than a science," Mr Hahn says on Radio 5 live.

     
  16.  
    06:07: Royal Mail privatisation
    Royal Mail"s Glasgow mail centre at St Rollox

    The government made £180m less from the £2bn sale of Royal Mail than it could have, a report commissioned by Business Secretary Vince Cable has said. It says shares could have been valued up to 30p more than the flotation price of 330p because of the high level of demand from banks and individuals. It said future government share sales should be more transparent and the pricing could be set at a later stage.

     
  17.  
    06:03: Markets boosted by US Fed

    US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen had some Christmas cheer for investors and borrowers on Wednesday when she signalled the central bank planned to be "patient" before raising interest rates. Most analysts had expected the Fed to signal its willingness to raise interest rates early next year but Ms Yellen's comments suggest the bank it wiling to wait a little longer. That's given markets a boost so far today.

     
  18.  
    06:02: Ben Morris Business Reporter

    If you want to get in touch you can email bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or tweet us @bbcbusiness.

     
  19.  
    06:00: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning folks. It's going to be another busy morning by the looks of things. Yesterday's reassurance from the US Federal Reserve has cheered markets in Asia and even lifted the Russia rouble. Meanwhile, Royal Mail was "underpriced" by £180m, a report into its stock market flotation has found. There's lots more to come, so stay with us.

     

Features

From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • Digital candlesClick Watch

    Inside the 'Harry Potter' church, using technology to explore "digital empathy".

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.