Lousy Products Might Break Your Bones – But A Name Will Seldom Hurt You

Smuckers“With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.” Really? I would think that with a name like Smucker’s it has to be a vile disease or possibly a large, poisonous, South American leech.

If “Smucker’s” can be slapped on food and annually generate billions of sales, chances are that your company name, no matter how mediocre, will not preclude you from achieving significant success. Thus, join the ranks of Yahoo, Google, Amazon, eBay, Cisco and Microsoft and focus your limited time and resources on perfecting your customer value proposition, not on devising an ideal company name.

When selecting your company and product names, consider the following:

  • Uniquely Familiar
  • Buzzless
  • Intuitive URL
    • Brief
    • Avoid Hyphens
    • No Numbers
    • Sans Acronyms
    • Not Abbreviated
    • .com Suffix
  • Phonetically Spellable
  • Readily Pronounceable
  • Extensible
  • Single Connotation

Each of these naming considerations is discussed at length in the remainder of this entry.

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Name Game

Successful entrepreneurs have a bias toward action, as illustrated in Tom and Huck. Endlessly analyzing and contemplating your company’s name is unwarranted inaction, as your adVenture’s name will have little to do with your ultimate success or lack thereof.

Correspondingly, your products’ names contribute to, but do not dictate, their success. Great product names help and bad product names hurt. However, your ultimate victory will be predicated upon your ability to economically deliver on the promises you make to your customers – a.k.a. your products’ “value propositions.”  If you focus on delivering value to your customers, your products will have a reasonable chance of succeeding, irrespective of what you name them.

Do not fall prey to self-proclaimed naming gurus who will gladly take your money and join you in the navel-gazing pursuit of perfect names. As noted in Beware The Consultant, such pay-for-hire charlatans barter their time for your money – the more time they trade with you, the more of your money they take. If you allow yourself to be sucked into the Name Game, you can be assured it will be an expensive, time-consuming endeavor.

To illustrate the extent to which a company’s name is largely irrelevant to its ultimate success, let’s examine the genesis of six successful technology companies’ names. All of these successful companies have imperfect names – before they became widely known, many of these monikers were difficult to spell, pronounce and recall. Even so, their imperfection did not hamper the companies’ ultimate success.

In all cases, these names were derived by the Founders, without the involvement of consultants, MBAs, focus groups, statistically valid surveys or other detriments to a startup’s ability to make quick, sound decisions.

Yahoo – Merriam-Webster defines “Yahoo” as “a boorish, crass, or stupid person.” The term was first used by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, in which he encountered a brutish race of hideous humans. Jerry Yang and David Filo, Yahoo’s Founders, chose the name, as they considered themselves to be “Yahoos.”.When the company was initially launched, its name was awkwardly similar to the chocolate drink YooHoo. After the company became successful, the backronym, Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle was devised to “explain” the name’s origin.

Google – Based on “googol,” a term devised by mathematicians to describe inconceivably large numbers that are smaller than infinity. When included in mathematical expressions, it is represented as 10100. The term is obtusely related to Google’s quest to catalog all of the world’s information, but wholly irrelevant from a user perspective. Google is not descriptive of the company’s search core competency nor was it particularly easy to pronounce, spell or remember when the site was initially launched.

Amazon – While arguably better than the company’s initial name, “Cadabra.com”, “Amazon” does not convey the company’s initial core competency of online book sales. Legend asserts that the name change from Cadabra was prompted by Yahoo’s alphabetized listing of search results. However, if this is true, “Aardvark” would have been a more clever choice and equally as relevant to online book sales.

eBay – Derived from Founder Pierre Omidyar’s consulting company, Echo Bay Technology Group. “EchoBay.com” was not available, so the firm’s name was shortened to “eBay” in order to acquire the corresponding URL. “eBay” clearly has nothing to do with online auctions and is descriptive of absolutely nothing.

Cisco – Originally called “cisco Systems,” the name was derived from San Francisco. The lowercase “c” was eventually capitalized after nearly 10 years, due to the awkward representation of the small “c” when the company was discussed in newspapers and magazines. Other than a second-rate musician, “Cisco” is descriptive of nothing, offering no hint as to the company’s initial core competency in router design and development. At the time of its launch, the name “cisco” was also confusingly similar to SYSCO, the $20B food distribution company.

Microsoft – Initially descriptive of the company’s software developed for the “micro” computer market, which eventually evolved into the “personal” computer market. The original spelling of “Micro-Soft” was not changed until twelve years after its founding, once the MBAs had transformed the scrappy startup into a BDC. The company continues to dominate a variety of markets, despite the fact that no one has used the term “micro computer” during the past 25 years.

What Works?

Even though the names of the preceding companies are less than ideal, they clearly did not stand in the way of these organizations’ success. Despite their imperfections, some attributes of these company names are desirable and illustrate conventions you should consider when naming your company and its products, as discussed below.

Uniquely Familiar – A name that sounds familiar but is not confusingly similar to another company is powerful and equally elusive. Proper nouns, such as Amazon, engender a feeling of familiarity. The risk with this approach is that it can lead to a name that is too generic and indistinguishable. These “Acme”-sounding names often couple empty words with proper nouns, such as: Phoenix Technology, Eagle Systems, Lewis Enterprises, Malibu Industries, or suffixes such as, “plex” or “tronics.”  Such neutral names are neither detrimental nor additive to a firm’s efforts.

Buzzless - As noted in Buzz Kill, avoid incorporating trendy terms in your company and product names, as today’s buzzword darlings become tomorrow’s passé clichés. By avoiding chic terminology, your adVenture will never end up on the wrong side of the ever-changing buzzword bandwagon, such as the unfortunately named “NanoOpto.”

Intuitive URL – Legacy companies, which were named before the advent of the Internet and subsequently did not have the financial resources to purchase their company name URLs, are forced to shoehorn their names into URLs they can acquire. However, there is no need for a startup to compromise with respect to its URL.

When devising your company and product names, keep in mind the following impact that such names will have on your ability to conform to the following URL guidelines:

  • Brief – The shorter, the better
  • Avoid Hyphens – Many customers will not know where to position hyphens, so do not settle for a hyphenated URL.
  • No Numbers – Some customers will be confused. Should they spell the number or enter the numeral? Yes, you may be able to purchase all the URL variations, but why add this element of potential confusion to your name?
  • Sans Acronyms – Acronyms that are crystal clear to you and your team may be utterly foreign to your customers.
  • Not Abbreviated – You cannot expect your customers to figure out your abbreviations. If the only URL you can acquire requires you to abbreviate your proposed company name, select a different name for which the non-abbreviated URL is available or can be reasonably purchased.
  • .com suffix – Minor league suffixes, such as.Net, .TV and .BIZ, will confuse your customers and make your company difficult to locate and contact.

Your company name will also impact your employees’ email addresses. A cumbersome, non-intuitive company name will make it more difficult for potential customers and other stakeholders to communicate with your adVenture.

Phonetically Spellable – Due to the importance of obtaining a reasonably short URL, a number of startups settle for suboptimal company and product names, resulting in spellings that challenge even the most ardent, motivated customer. Steer clear of Americans’ penchant for unique spelling conventions. “Amy” should not be spelled “Aimee” and “Storage” should not be spelled “Stoaredge.”.

Even if the name’s meaning is obvious when read, the proper spelling of such names may be difficult for a casual user to recall. For instance, “Hautespot” might be a clever name for a wireless video company, (as in “hot spot”), but it is difficult for uninitiated users to spell correctly.

Netflix has been widely successful, despite its phonetically challenging spelling. A quick search of “Netflicks” shows over 50,000 unique instances of this misspelling (contrasted with the nearly 12 million distinct references to “Netflix”). Even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing, numerous potential customers still misspell the company’s non-intuitive name.

OnederReadily Pronounceable – A name’s proper accent should be obvious, as made painfully clear in the 1996 Tom Hank’s Movie, “That Thing You Do!” in which Mr. Hank’s character discovers a small town band named “The Oneders.” A running gag throughout the movie is that no one can properly pronounce the band’s name, calling them “The oh-NEE-ders,” rather than “The ONE-ders.”

The band’s leader is emotionally attached to the cleverness of the band’s name and thus blames everyone else for their inability to “get it right.” Avoid this mistake – never become irrationally fond of a company or product name. Perception is reality. If the market “does not get it,” you are wrong and they are right. Emulate the fictional record company which signed The Oneders. It promptly changed their name to “The Wonders.”

Problematic pronunciations are also prevalent in the business world.

  • The small “e” in “eBay” caused many early users to improperly place the accent on “BAY”.
  • The telephony company Vonage suffers from a name that is both difficult to pronounce and challenging to spell (the proper accent is on “VON”).
  • The insurance provider Geico has to use a gecko “spokescreature” to reinforce the proper pronunciation of its name.
  • The Southern California Tody car dealership in is forced to waste its mantra on explaining how to properly pronounce its name (“Not Toady… its Todey (toddy)”).

Extensible – The greater extent to which you can leverage a name across a product family, the better. A common prefix or suffix which can be applied to a variety of products is an effective way to generate awareness and promote sales across a product line. If the brand is properly managed, this naming convention can foster a halo effect over all the company’s products. For instance, Citrix utilizes the “GoTo” moniker for its line of remote access solutions, including, “GoToMyPC,” “GoToMeeting” and “GoToWebinar.” Apple utilizes a similar approach with the prefix “i”, as in “iPod,” “iTunes” and “iPhone.”

Single Connotation– A non-native English speaker whom I once worked with devised a company name, without realizing it had negative connotations. After a great deal of buildup, the name was proudly announced: “Soar.” After I stopped laughing, I said, “Like an oozing sore on your face?” The diligent marketing person was devastated, as this was not a meaning they had contemplated. Even worse, the marketing person had worked with a consultant and spent over ten thousand dollars coming up with the name. Shameful. Your names should not be open to such misinterpretation.

Rabobank

Another example of a name with a deleterious connotation is “Rabobank.” This regrettable name is derived from the Dutch word “Boerenleenbank” (i.e., a farm credit bank). Unfortunately, when viewed quickly, it is easy to transpose the “a” and “o,” resulting in “ROB-a-bank.”

The Company You Keep

Another reason to not obsess about your adVenture’s name is because your business focus, markets served and value propositions will likely evolve over time. As such, if you tie your company name too closely with your initial go-to-market strategy, you might achieve success with a company name that does not ultimately reflect the true nature of your business.

This occurred at both Expertcity and Computer Motion, two companies in which I was a senior executive. Expertcity was initially named to reflect the company’s “marketplace for services,” which enabled independent, global experts to directly access customers’ computers and fix their technical problems. Expertcity was a great name for that business. Unfortunately, we completely abandoned the “technical support marketplace” after the dot bomb crash and began licensing our screen-sharing technology. Our name was so disconnected from our business model that we were in the midst of a protracted and expensive name change initiative (along with a small army of consultants), at the time we sold Expertcity to Citrix.

Computer Motion was named after a clever software algorithm that allowed primitive (circa 1990) computer processors to render graphics in 3-D. The company’s logo was a three dimensional bouncing ball. Unfortunately, we never made a dime from the 3-D algorithm. Instead, we evolved our technology to power medical robots and eventually pioneered the medical robotics industry, which led to the company’s eventual sale to Intuitive Surgical, a far more aptly named company.

In both of these instances, the highly specific nature of the companies’ names proved to be problematic the companies matured and modified their value propositions.

$30M Name In 15 Minutes

Product names clearly have a more direct and significant impact on your company’s success, as compared with your company’s name. This is especially true of consumer-oriented products. However, most startups do not have the financial wherewithal to build a brand based upon a product’s name and image. All branding efforts within a startup should be focused on communicating product utility, as the value derived by end-users ultimately dictates a product’s success or failure.

As we morphed our business model at Expertcity, we needed a name for the technology we had begun to license to large enterprises. With no name whatsoever, we closed deals with a number of substantial companies, including Cox Communications, CompUSA, CDW and Colgate-Palmolive. Our technology streamed pixels from one desktop to another, allowing support agents in call centers to solve technical issues directly on users’ computers. Our enterprise customers were interested in the utility our product delivered to their customer support agents and were indifferent to its name (or lack thereof).

Once we proved that we could license our “marketplace for services” technology, it was evident that we needed to christen the technology with a product name. As such, I did something unusual. I called a meeting.

I wanted to name the product “Tsunami” – a terrible name which we quickly rejected. After a few minutes of discussion, when it was clear that Tsunami was not a winner, we reviewed the URLs we owned, which included “BuddyHelp.com” and “DesktopStreaming.com.”

We walked out of the meeting after about fifteen minutes, with a product name and without wasting undue time attempting to devise a perfect name as we knew it would have no impact on our enterprise customers’ buying decisions. Hopefully you can guess which name we selected.

Another reason not to obsess over product names is that you can later modify them by relaunching the product under a new brand. As noted in Max Brand, rebranding can be expensive and painful, but you only have to go through the process if the initial product, with its suboptimal name, is successful. This was the approach we took with DesktopStreaming.

Once GoToMyPC became a highly successful product, we renamed DesktopStreaming “GoToMeeting,” but not before DesktopStreaming had generated over $30 million dollars of revenue. If we had named the product BuddyHelp, we probably would have generated a comparable amount of revenue. However, we felt that BuddyHelp was too casual and unprofessional for a mission-critical, enterprise software product.

Hall Of Shame Names - The Oneder Of It All

The time and money spent seeking an ideal name is likely better applied to signing up customers and refining your value proposition. However, there clearly are “bad” names that can make it more difficult for your adVenture to succeed. It is more difficult to swim upstream, so you should obviously apply a reasonable but modest amount of time playing the Name Game.

Smucker’s and DesktopStreaming prove that terrible product names (or even no name at all) will not preclude you from success, given that the product delivers to its customers a worthwhile value proposition. Smucker’s grew from a family-owned, small Midwestern business into a $4 billion, global enterprise. Rather than being hampered by its wretched name, it achieved a degree of pop culture notoriety, as evidenced by the following excerpt from a 1976 Saturday Night Live skit, entitled “Jam Hawkers” and written by Michael O’Donoghue.

Jane Curtin: . . . And so, with a name like Fluckers, it’s got to be good.

Chevy Chase: Hey, hold on a second, I have a jam here called Nose Hair. Now with a name like Nose Hair, you can imagine how good it must be. MMM MMM!!

Dan Aykroyd: Hold it a minute folks, but are you familiar with a jam called Death Camp? That’s Death Camp! Just look for the barbed wire on the label. With a name like Death Camp it must be so good it’s incredible! Just amazingly good jam!

John Belushi: Wait a minute . . . Dog Vomit, Monkey Pus. We offer you a choice of two of the most repulsive brand names of jams you’ve ever heard of. With names like these, this stuff has got to be terrific. We’re talking fabulous jam here!

Chevy Chase: Save your breath fella! Here’s a new jam we’ve just put out. It’s called Painful Rectal Itch. You’d have to go a long way to find a worse name for a jam. And good? MMM WAH! With a name like Painful Rectal Itch you gotta bet that it’s great . . .

Jane Curtin: So if it’s great jam you’re after, try this one, the brand so disgusting you can’t say it on television. Ask for it by name!

Do not obsess over your company or product names. The value of an ideal name, attached to a product or company that does not deliver an economically viable value proposition is zero. The only thing you should spend less time obsessing over is your logo.

By selecting a brief, logically spelled and readily pronounceable company name, you can be sure that when you customers “ask for you by name” they will actually be able to find you.

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Copyright © 2007-9 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.


Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.





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