Choose a name, any name – then move on

perfect name[Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash]

I had an interesting discussion a couple of weeks ago about naming a business. 

A friend of mine is just about to set up as a sports therapist, and was wondering how best to brand his venture. And of course it goes beyond simply choosing a name, because he had to find an available domain name for his website.

Which complicated matters. 

Should he go for a play on therapist or sport? Or maybe he should brand himself, as in Smith Therapy? Or get around the other side of the computer and think of a potential client’s search terms – so maybe Cambridge Sports Therapy? Or even Cam (the river that flows through the city) Therapy?

(I’ve altered the name and discipline – slightly – to preserve anonymity.)

There was also the option of choosing an evocative word that was sports-related such as peak, fit(ness) or balance. Or even something with a little more activity, such as jump(start)excel or reach

“It’s all so complicated,” he said, staring forlornly at the page where he’d jotted down dozens of permutations and combinations. “Maybe I should have a tagline like Sports therapy in Cambridge and a one-word name for the business. Something snappy and obvious – like Facebook.”

Obvious, Facebook? Really?

I asked him if he knew what a facebook (not Facebook) was, and he looked at me blankly. Wasn’t it just a name plucked out of thin air by Zuckerberg & Co way back in 2004?

Facing facts

In case you don’t know, a facebook is an informal term in the US for a university year book. So when Zuck and his chums decided to set up a closed network for him and his fellow Harvard students, it seemed a pretty obvious name. It was – if you lived in the US, and were familiar with the jargon. 

But for the rest of the world, it wasn’t.

And you know what? It didn’t matter.

Because as soon as it began to take off, the origin of the name became secondary. It’s often mentioned in longer pieces about the company, but quickly forgotten. Ask any avid user what it means, and they’re more than likely to respond that it’s just the name of the company. 

Which it is, to the point that the original meaning (that university yearbook) has been overshadowed, and using it now would most likely lead to confusion. Did you see him in the facebook? would provoke a quizzical reaction, and slight unease at the preposition and article.

You mean on Facebook? they’d probably reply. 

Snapping up the best names

So it’s a great name, but it wasn’t obvious. Not like Instagram or Snapchat. Those are brilliantly succinct and memorable.

WhatsApp is probably less so, and even native English speakers I’ve asked sometimes don’t get the allusion to what’s up.

Non-native speakers I’ve quizzed are usually surprised when they learn what the name refers to. One Chinese friend broke into a broad smile, but quickly followed with an observation that it was a pretty silly name. The Chinese equivalent makes much more sense, he told me.

And he’s right.

WeChat (no prizes for guessing where they looked for inspiration for that one) works far better as a name, and is a perfect example of something that does what it says on the tin. It’s hugely popular in China, way ahead of its US rival in terms of market share.

The obvious – and not-so-obvious

The fact of the matter is that some names are obvious, and others aren’t. As I’ve mentioned before, a rainforest would probably not be top of your list for naming an online book (now everything) retailer, and yet it didn’t stop Amazon.

Apple may be one of the most recognised and admired brands on the planet, but why is it any more obvious than banana or mango? BlackBerry was flavour of the month for a long time, in a similar fruity – but ultimately nonsensical – vein. 

In the UK, Orange was a mobile phone network for 15 years, until it was merged with T-Mobile and the resulting company was rebranded. EE (the brand formerly known, à la Prince, as Everything Everywhere) raised a few eyebrows when it was launched, but now it’s an established name, with shops across the UK. 

(Interestingly, Orange was available in England, Scotland and Wales – but never Northern Ireland, where the colour had Loyalist connotations, which instantly ruled it out.)

At the end of the day, the brand name really doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s aspirational and promises entry to a select circle (LinkedIn) or maybe it doesn’t mean anything in particular (care to explain Edge, Firefox, Safari and Chrome?).

Or maybe they’re apparently meaningless, such as Skype. I say apparently because the name comes from sky peer to peer, which became Skyper, which then morphed into its current incarnation. 

But who knew that? And who really cares? The name has universal brand recognition, and nobody (except the inveterately curious, like me) actually know what it means. 

My friend is still no nearer choosing a name. I’ve told him there’s no correct answer, and that he shouldn’t let indecision and the chase for perfection slow down his launch. Which is my standard spiel. 

His reply included a mention of the sound of ice cracking. 

That really hurt.

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