Before You Logo: Naming Your Brand
An important part of marketing is having a memorable company name to market
We can certainly discuss who needs a logo and probably should. Before that, we’re going to take a little side trip, right to ground zero. That one crucial step you need to take before we attempt to put pen to paper, or pixel to monitor – the name of your company itself. Even if you’ve already decided on a nifty name and are ready to forge ahead, this step is still fairly crucial – we’ll also take a look at how we’ll work with the name you have.
The DNA of your brand.
A company name is the cornerstone of any logo design or branding project – the very DNA of your identity – and decisions you make now will be with you for the life of your business. You’ll either be blessed with a great name, or haunted by a bad one (see here for some unintentionally bad company names.)
Getting it right off-the-hop.
Naming a company has always been a difficult feat and with the advent of the internet, even more so. It involves a least a cursory knowledge of trademarks, domain names (especially if you plan to market yourself via a blog or full-blown website,) your market and some thoughts about taglines (also known as straplines) that describe exactly what your company does. Your company name has to be something that you’re proud of, as well as resonate with both your established, and potential customers. It will set the design ‘theme’ – later to be incorporated into all your branded marketing material – and establish to some degree the type of services you offer, as well as how you offer them – be it Discount Bob’s Crazy Cheap Autos or at the opposite end of the spectrum, Bob & Associates Fine Automobile Emporium.
Shifting sands of the marketplace.
There’s also the issue of what will happen to your name in the future, as the market evolves or as new factors change how people view certain names and themes. Take my studio, The Logo Factory. Back in 1993, when I came up with the concept and the name, it was a fairly effective way to brand a graphic design company that specialized in logos. It was unique. It described exactly what I did. No problem. People have tried to pinch the name so many times over the years, we had to officially register the trademark back in 2000. It’s a name that I’ve always been proud of, and one that’s served us quite well for over fifteen years (view the pictorial history of our brand here.)
Conveyor belts & logo mills.
Fast forward to today, where the advent of ‘cookie cutter’ design websites have earned the ire of many in the graphic design community. Referred to as ‘logo mills’ – evoking images of garment sweatshops from days gone by – these outfits are generally looked down upon by designers as the very antithesis of what graphic design should be about. Arguably, The Logo Factory name, and our old ‘house’ logo itself, can be interpreted as leaning towards the ‘logo mill’ imagery. Many designers like to point out that the boxes and conveyor belt – yes, they do represent logos being shipped – re-enforce this ‘mill’ idea. Recently, during a forum discussion about my are logo contests legal article, one designer had this to say about an article they’d read on our site –
“It is a good read. Although, I admit it was tough ignoring the fact that such a logo-mill wrote it, especially one that calls itself The Logo Factory. Such a name lends itself to the image that all it does is mass-manufacture logo after logo with no real connection to their respective clients. But, an interesting article, nonetheless.”
One even opined that “that guy” (me) “doesn’t understand brand communication.” With some admitted personal bias, I’m of the opinion that our name, while apparently not sitting well with some designers, is targeted quite well at people who are looking for the type of design services we’re specialists at. The Logo Factory isn’t about marketing design services to other designers, but rather to small business types for whom a logo factory might resonate. However, our critics do have a point. This ‘mill’ concept wasn’t even in existence back in 93, and was never factored into my naming decision.
If I were to start The Logo Factory today, and being aware of the pejorative opinion towards ‘mills’, would I still use the same moniker? Probably. But I might be tempted to spend a little more time coming up with alternative solutions that are free of a connection to the “mass-manufacture (of) logo after logo.” The landscape has changed, and perhaps The Logo Factory isn’t a cool as it was way back then. I thought about rebranding ourselves as PixelWürx New Media a while back for the reasons I just outlined, but didn’t due to my personal connection to The Logo Factory DNA.
Should probably point out that the discussion we’re referring to took place on a forum called LogoPond – not exactly the epitome of naming conventions itself – an otherwise excellent resource for folks looking for information on logos and inspirational design work (sorry – couldn’t help myself.)
Conflicting views aside, it does illustrate that a name developed in 1993 without any negative connotation, can pick some up over the years. The real important point here is this – while the designers making the comments thought the article was a good read, the impact of same was lessened because it was written by someone who owned a company called The Logo Factory. The message had somehow been lost, because of the name of the messenger. Told you naming your company was real important. So let’s take a look. For interest’s sake, you can always check out the most valuable Fortune 500 logos and their names for some inspiration.
Personal vs. corporate brands.
Dell Computers, one of the biggest computer companies in the world is named after founder Micheal Dell. Microsoft, an even bigger company, bears no mention of founder Bill Gates. Similarly, Apple Inc. never even considered calling themselves Steve Jobs’ Super Cool Computers (and I imagine Apple wouldn’t be such a powerhouse brand if they did.) Featuring your own name in your company identity is solely up to you, depends on exactly how you want to promote yourself and the corporate extension of yourself. It’s a neither-here-nor-there decision that only you can make, and depends a great deal on your character and personality.
From a personal point-of-view, I was never comfortable with using my name in any company I created. I never had the confidence to present myself naked to the world as Steve Douglas Inc. (though I do have the website,) and am much more at ease ‘hiding’ behind a corporate identity shield – in this instance, The Logo Factory Inc. My ego never allowed me the luxury of tooting my own horn, but I’ve never had a problem bragging about the accomplishments of my company, or doling out some fairly cocky opinions under The Logo Factory banner. Especially on our logo design blog. However, if you’ve already established a name for yourself, or wish to do so, then you may opt to create a company name that reflects that – *Your Name* Incorporated kinda thing. That can be cool, albeit with some considerations that you should think about. If you use your identity as part of your company name, then don’t be surprised if customers only want to deal with you. I’m sure to this day many people want to complain to ‘Mr. Dell.’
Having a faceless company name allows you to delegate responsibilities to underlings, who will be accepted instantly by customers as talking on behalf of The Company. On the other hand, if you’ve developed a reputation in your field, or are in the midst of doing so, abandoning that ‘cred’, and attempting to develop an entirely new corporate reputation may be at cross-purposes with the selection of a name. This ‘from the ground up’ development will require a great deal of time and effort, mostly redundant, because you’ve already expended sizable effort in the development of your personal reputation. Your personal attention may be a valid selling point to attract customers who believe that you’re an expert in your field.
In the graphic design field in general, logo design in specific, there are many designers who’ve built up a decent-sized reputation using their own names. UK based David Airey is one. USA based Jeff Fisher is another. As is Von R. Glitschka, despite being hard to pronounce or spell, with his company Glitschka Studios. If you do decide to use your personal name as your company brand, the use of ‘& Associates’ is always a nice flourish (even though it’s largely smoke and mirrors) with the added bonus of giving you the ability to to delegate responsibilities to the “associates.” Adding what you do to your company name rounds off everything nicely, be it accounting, real estate or mechanics. It’ll help when it comes to registering a domain name, an important facet of naming a company, and something we’ll deal with in a bit.
Developing a corporate identity.
After thinking about it for a while, let’s say you’ve eschewed the personal route, and want to develop an entirely new corporate name. Fair enough. You can choose several routes – each with pros and cons – and keeping in mind some fairly basic trademark principles. This isn’t something to be taken lightly either. While you may be selling computers out of your garage for the time being, you may be at the helm of a bazillion dollar empire five years from now (ala Michael Dell.) You want a name that contains your business core, is unique enough to stand out, and is protectable when you achieve a fair level of success. There are several avenues you can take –
1) Fanciful Names:
These are company names that have no relation to the core business activity and are usually words that never existed before. Think Kodak, Nike, Verizon. There’s a great deal of advantages in using a fanciful name – trademark protection and web domain availability for examples – but such names are often difficult to ‘get off the ground.’ Using a made-up name, often a hybrid of various aspects of the company function or amalgamations of founders’ names, offers some decent opportunities when it comes to designing the logo (the point of this series in the first place) but requires a great deal of marketing to establish what the company actually does.
As futile as it would be in this digital age, I could start a film company today and (trademark issues notwithstanding) call it Kodak, but it would require a great deal of consumer interaction before they started to understand that I sold film. Such market penetration is probably beyond the financial means of small to mid-sized companies. That’s not to say you shouldn’t name your company using a fanciful name, it’s a great creative option, but keep in mind that it’s going to require some work, and some funds, to connect the name with your day-to-day business activities. A tagline, or strapline, can certainly help – using our not-so-hypothetical Kodak film company for example, we could add the phrase Film Supplies and Accessories under the Kodak logo. That phrase would help us push the company’s activity. At some time in the future, we could ditch the cumbersome sub-phrase to complete the establishment of our fanciful name as a leader in photographic supplies. And then trademark the whole shooting match (someone give me a ‘tah-dah.’)
2) Arbitrary Names:
The notion of arbitrary names is quite simple really – actual words that have nothing to do with the company activity itself, but usually feature some rather abstract connection. Think Google (a really, really large mathematical number,) Yahoo (a yodeling phrase or description of a hooligan,) anything with Vista (panoramic view) in it. These offer a myriad of brand building options, but are a riskier option when it comes to trademarks. You could, for example, start up a company called Apple Widgets & Co. (just an example – apols if the trademark already exists.) You’d find out exactly how lawyers work if you tried to start up Apple Computers. While the Cupertino company doesn’t own the word Apple, they do own it as it applies to computers, mobile phones and music too (the Beatles’ guys lost.) They’re also pretty ferocious when it comes to protecting their trademark, even in cases where you’d suspect they don’t have the rights to do so. Arbitrary names are also sparse in the web address department, most having been snapped up years ago – including the .net, .org, .info variations. In terms of taglines and straplines, the same general concepts apply as we’ve already discussed in the ‘fanciful’ names section.
3) Suggestive Names:
Suggestive names infer some feature of the product, service or company itself. Think names like Mustang (a fast car,) Tiger (a fast Macintosh operation system, though that was arguable,) Rocket (fast whatever,) Quality (name speaks for itself,) Micro (small,) etc, etc, etc. In order to turn a ’suggestive name’ into a decent company name, you’ll probably have to add a descriptive phrase – Rocket Computers as one example – in order to establish core business activities. Due to the infinite number of variables, suggestive names are easier to trademark, if your category of business is available. You’ll find most have been snatched up over the years. Not that it isn’t possible – continued use will establish some rights – but some opposition is pretty well to be expected if you’re entering a saturated market. Like ‘arbitrary’ names, most suggestive web addresses will have been purchased eons ago, and you’ll find that even with a secondary name added, an available domain will be quite rare.
4) Descriptive Names:
These are company names that spell out, in no uncertain terms, what the company does. It is the least creative and imaginative of our options but in many ways, the simplest. Think Car Wash Center, Nuts and Bolts Manufacturing, Register A Domain, Paycheck Loans, etc. Names like these have enormous search engine potential (if you plan to use Google and Yahoo search indexes to promote yourself) as they’re keyword-laden and describe exactly what users are searching for. Trouble is, they’re generic names, not terribly creative and won’t earn much in the brand loyalty department. It’s a 50/50 proposition on whether the domain for a descriptive name will be available (I’ll leaning towards no for most) and while effective one way, these kinds of names run the risk of being seen as – for lack of better phrasing – cheapo and hacky. In my industry, there are (were?) companies that called themselves “Cheap Logo Design” though I’m willing to bet that’s not the real name of the company behind the website. They figured many people would be looking for “cheap logo design” in search engines and hoped this name would give them a boost (though imagine answering the phone “Good morning, Cheap Logo Design, how can I help you?”)
Anyway, you get the idea. If you’re looking at selling boutique level services or products, I’d suggest you avoid a descriptive name like the plague. Conversely, if you plan to market your services exclusively on the internet, and don’t care much about your corporate image, a descriptive name may be just what the doctor ordered.
In terms of the four types of company names, we didn’t happen on those by accident. They happen to reflect the various types of trademarks which is very important if you’re going to protect your brand name when you come up with it.