A Two-part Rule for Naming Your Startup

What’s in a company name? Plenty. It’s your first opportunity to brand yourself. Get it right and you’ll stand out as clever, useful, and memorable to potential users and investors — even if your product isn’t any good. But get it wrong and you’ll flame out before your product even gets out of beta.

So, what makes Brightmail, PayPal and IronPort great names, but Lycos, Xobni and Vidoop really lousy? It turns out there’s a formula for effective naming and it’s surprisingly simple.

Look at many of the most successful brands and you’ll notice they’re often compound names, consistently made up of two components:

  • a word that relates to the company product in a direct, literal sense, establishing a clear association between the brand and what the company does.
  • a word not literally related to the product, but rather a metaphorical adjective to evoke a differentiating characteristic or “feeling” about the company’s product.

Our minds are built to make connections, mostly at a subconscious level. When a metaphor is detected, it triggers a process in our brains that associates the metaphor with the next object or reference. This naming system forces the mind to take the cognitive step of associating the metaphor to the product it represents, thus forming a positive association to the brand. And once your brain has woven the connection, it sticks, so there’s a great chance your company name won’t be forgotten.

So when we break down the name Brightmail, we see that “mail” indicates what the product does — they make email — while “bright” is metaphorical, framing their product in a positive light. This same logic applies to PayPal; “pay” is literal, “pal” is metaphorical. Ditto with IronPort, a provider of email and web security products — “iron” is a metaphor for strength and “port” is a literal reference to what the company product protects: network ports.

Search company Lycos tried a made-up word, to ill effect. After all, what’s a lycos? Xobni makes a cool email service, but someone had to tell me that xobni is “inbox” spelled backwards. Vidoop is just yucky. Reminds me of, well, you know.

Of course there are startups that get so far out in front of their competitive fields, or whose products are so exemplary, that names which ought to have been tricky are nevertheless well received.

Consider Twitter. If you had asked me a year-and-a-half ago, I’d have said it was a terrible name — all I could think of was “twit.” But people’s associations with Twitter are good because its communication tool is first-in-class and offers a great experience.

I was recently asked to consult with a startup that is considering re-naming itself. It’s a good thing, because the name they’re using now is totally confusing. It’s one of those Google-wannabe made-up words that sounds vaguely Latin, but isn’t. Worst of all, it doesn’t tell users like me anything about the company’s product (they archive web pages). When the company explained the name to me, I got even more confused.

In my view, while site archiving is useful (and they do it well), this probably isn’t a broad-based enough service to be elevated to the level of a consumer utility, as search or micro-blogging (Twitter) have been. This means their made-up name is unlikely to ever be turned into a verb (like “to google” or “to tweet”).

I suggested some new names, based on the two-part formula:

ArchiText
: Archi sounds like architect, a good association. It also refers to archive. “Arch” as a prefix is “chief,” so metaphorically it evokes priority. Text is literal for content. Combined you might get: “storage for vital web content.”
PermaPage: “Perma” evokes impermeability. “Page” is literal.
ArchWeb: “Arch” for “archive,” and the metaphorical “priority.” Web is web.

Evan Paull is software engineer for Mark Logic and a startup consultant.

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