Monday, September 22, 2014

What's in a Startups' Name: Five Things to Consider from a Social Media/PR Perspective

Parents often agonize before selecting a name for their child. They often study books of names to check on potential meanings. They might even check the Social Security annual list of popular names.

When it comes to entrepreneurs deciding on a name for their company, it can seem like a different story.

Instead of taking the founder's name (Ford, Dell, etc.) or picking two words to convey something about the company (
Best Buy or Home Depot), many startups picks one-word corporate names that aren't usually descriptive and often have unusual letter selections, favoring lessor used letters like V (Fivver) X,(Ameex Tech) Y (Lyft) or Z (Zlio), a number (29 Prime, Netcomm3) or some combination (X5 Networks) . 

Sometimes the startup's name combines two words into one to let you know what they do (Pinterest) while others seem to convey something but don't -- like SuperFish (a visual search company). And often enough the name is a deliberately misspelled variant (Bizness Apps or SeaSnax).

We're not in the naming business but we do work with startups that sometimes pick trendy-sounding names that cause problems for them with the media -- that's why I'm writing about this now. And this is not based on a current client. 
But we've compiled five considerations as you're developing a name for your startup.
  1. There's a thin line between interesting corporate names and dumb ones. Make sure you pick a name on the right side of that line. Not sure? Check out this article: "The 15 Dumbest Names for Web 2.0 Startups." (If you represent one of those companies, don't blame me; I just pointed out the blog post.) For an example of successful naming, check out this Eddie Izzard clip about the singer once known as Jerry Dorsey.
  2. Your name is also your major brand identify. (Again someone else can help you pick wisely, for example, check out "5 Startup Naming Rules from SXSW.") Which means, you should make sure a URL, Twitter ID, and other social media platforms are available for your startup. Keep in mind: even if your name is a made up name, with odd spelling, someone else could already have that name, as we found out for a couple of past clients with rather unusual names. (This was not a case of brandjacking because the Twitter IDs had been created before the startups had been a gleam in the eye of the founders.) This left the clients with two options 1) Find another way to represent your company and brand, or 2) Try to negotiate and buy the URL, Twitter or Instagram ID. There is a downside to both those options.
  3. Make sure you and all your employees know how to spell it. That's not as simple as it sounds, even if you're working with a naming company. Take real companies like SwiftPage, Onesource Virtual, epTonics, Stemexpress and Jaybird -- all of them have capitalization errors -- it should be Swiftpage and OneSource, and EPTonics but there's nothing inherent in those names to guide you. So you can be sure people won't necessarily know how to spell your brand. It can get worse. I knew of a company that used an exclamation point to replace the "I" that was the first letter in its name; all the coverage we generated in national media outlets refused to use the "!"; instead they used an "I."
  4. Make sure you and your employees know how to pronounce your company, including how to pronounce the vowels and which syllable to emphasis. For example, the Brits pronounce a lot of words differently; like Al-u-MIN-e-uhm for Aluminum or herb with a strong H as if it were short for Herbert. Inconsistent pronunciation could put customers and employees in an awkward situation of having to correct other people.
  5. If you make up a name, you should research to make sure it doesn't have any not-safe-for-work connotations. Or ironic implications. The famous example is the Chevy Nova, which did not sell as expected when exported to Latin America -- that's because someone forgot to see if Nova meant something else in Spanish. It does: it means no go or doesn't go. With a new name, it might have sold well in Spanish-speaking countries. But it's helpful to have a story about why your corporate name fits your culture, market, etc. We've come across (non-clients especially) whose companies have interesting name but no compelling backstory. The backstory can be important because it can help make the company name more memorable.
My goal here is not to embarrass any organization but we've found that sometimes these issues are not considered when companies are named, and by the time they're ready to launch, it can be too late to make a change. And that can affect how we pitch the client to the media. (It's not good for anyone if we have to spend much of our time on the phone explaining how to pronounce the client's name.)

Let me know if you have any PR- or social media-related stories regarding poorly thought out corporate names.