Making a name for yourself

Brand names shape start-ups’ entire identities. Understanding the ins and outs of branding a business is therefore vital for its success

Making a name for yourself

Brand will always form the core of a start-up’s personality. Whether engaging customers, communicating culture or creating a standardised tone of voice, a company’s brand will inform every element of its business. But whilst logos and marketing materials may change, it is undoubtedly a start-up’s name that will indelibly shape everything the company comes to represent.

Unfortunately, settling on the right name for a new business is far from a walk in the park. “Small businesses get tied up in knots with this sort of work,” says Jamie White, director at Overture London, the branding, PR and design agency. Part of the reason for this is the explosion of new brands entering the market and the increased visibility of start-ups.  Ultimately, creating a unique identity for a business that sets it apart from the competition has become much more complicated. “There’s only a finite collection of letters that make sense in every language,” he continues. “So there is sort of a race.”

Because of this, trying to communicate everything that makes a start-up unique can be a real struggle. Fortunately, any fledgling company that has done its homework should have some idea of what helps it stand apart. “Drill down to what the proposition and the company’s differentiation in the market is,” advises Aapo Bovellan, founding partner of Proxy Ventures, a venture capital firm that helps brand its start-ups. “We try to condense this to a really simple premise that outlines what the brand stands for.” This helps narrow down a start-up’s options and gives it something to work with.

Despite this, creating a brand name that sticks in people’s minds can be tricky, in part because this real estate increasingly comes at a premium. “These days Twitter’s always on, our tablets are always on and our minds are always on,” says White. “Things have to be really disruptive to really grab you.” He feels this goes some way to explaining why names that intentionally break the rules of language are the ones that are the easiest to recall; brands like Digg or Scribd stay with us precisely because they are incongruous. “Those things stand out for us,” he explains. “You notice it for its difference, rather than its coherence.”

But whilst creating a name that captures people’s imaginations is essential, start-ups should avoid being too clever for their own good. “Names should be as short and easy to spell as possible,” says Bovellan. Even if a start-up has coined the wittiest neologism in the world, if consumers can’t pronounce it without the help of elocution lessons, you can guarantee they won’t recommend it to their friends. “Snappiness is really important,” he says. “If the name is a real mouthful people won’t keep saying it, which means they won’t keep talking about your brand.”

Another vital consideration in choosing a name for a start-up is how it translates to other markets. Whilst a company might fall in love with a name that seems perfect for a domestic market, it’s important to consider how it might sound to a foreign ear. “Linguistic ingredients that don’t have any touchpoint to anchor them might be very difficult to remember,” says Paul Silvester, managing director of Identity, the creative agency. Worse than this is the potential for embarrassing cross-translations; both the Ford Pinto and Toyota MR2 were undoubtedly met with smirks on entering certain markets. “When you’ve got a list of words, things like potential for innuendo, misinterpretation or mispronunciation determine what gets crossed off the list,” Silvester says.

It’s possible at this stage that a start-up might not have identified a name that is a clear winner. Whilst it’s easy to assume that now iconic brands like Apple or Google were always destined for greatness, this isn’t so easy to identify ahead of time. “When you’re just looking at bald names, clients inevitably find it really difficult to react to them,” says Silvester. “A name in isolation is actually very difficult to judge until you start putting some personality to it.” Part of what comes to give a brand name its meaning is the associations it begins to build once it is given context and a story. “It is typography, treatment and circumstances that actually begin to give the name the personality that it’s going to assume,” Silvester explains.

Even once you’ve identified a creative name that sticks in mind and doesn’t cause Asian consumers to descend into fits of giggles, there is still one last hurdle to clear: did someone beat you to the punch? Before you get too attached to a specific name it’s vital to make sure you aren’t at risk of infringing on another start-up’s turf.

Whilst there are ways to get around your chosen domain being occupied and you shouldn’t face too much threat from a similarly named brand operating in a completely different market, being aware of what’s out there can save you some pain later on. “There are start-ups that maliciously come after a company and try to bully them into paying up or stop using the name,” says Bovellan. “If you do your groundwork really well, the trademark and URL checks, that makes your life safer.”

But what if you don’t want to go through this lengthy process? There are some shortcuts.

Particularly with high-tech start-ups, it’s easy to discern certain trends in naming; just look at Bitly, Summly and Readly or Flickr, Tumblr and Shoppr. This can be an easy way to hint at certain cultural and tonal similarities between your own brand and the start-up du jour but hitching your wagon to someone else can be a risky business. “If your ambition is to come off the coattails of somebody else then you’re obviously always going to be influenced by their performance and success,” says Silvester. “There is the danger that you don’t have the independence to plough your own furrow further down the line.”

Additionally, the very thing that makes a start-up seem of the moment can cause it to seem dated a few years down the line. “Brands can evolve and they can change their meaning,” says White. An example he gives is Oxfam; the charity was originally named for its efforts in challenging famine in Oxford but it has been able to transcend this limited focus to become synonymous with global famine relief. But this is very much the exception rather than the rule and anything that cements a start-up’s name in only one context and time should be avoided. “That’s the last thing that you want,” he says. “You want it to endure.”


Best of both worlds


Weroom was founded in 2013 by Thomas Villeneuve, Isabelle George and Victor Mustar after too many bad flat-sharing experiences. “The vision that we had was to create a community for flat sharing,” says Emilie Blum, communications specialist at Weroom. With rising living costs, increasing numbers of young people struggling to find a place of their own and many international students needing accommodation abroad, the co-founders felt it was the perfect time for a new platform addressing the pain points of finding a flat share.

Having a clear sense of its core proposition made choosing a name for the start-up an intuitive process; Villeneuve struck on the perfect name during a brainstorming session. “The name Weroom fits perfectly because it represents what we’re trying to sell as a service,” says Blum. As the platform was inherently social in nature, it was important that this was conveyed in its name; Weroom was born from dovetailing the social and flat-sharing elements of its service.

As can be appreciated, one of the start-up’s main considerations in creating a name was simplicity. “The more simple it is, the more it sticks out in people’s heads,” says Blum. Its shortlist of names included Roomy and Flatr; it was felt that not only could these kinds of names be misspelt but they don’t clearly outline what the start-up stands for. “In the beginning, it’s quite hard to understand what the company behind them is selling,” she says. “It’s really important the name spells out the vision, that way people will immediately know who you are and what you represent.” 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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