What’s in a name?

Everything! This is the bit people usually obsess over when starting something new. As it happens, I didn’t.

I just went with my own name. Easy, quick and boring. My business trades as “Tiffany Markman Writing & Training” but this wasn’t a deliberate choice. It just… happened. By the time it occurred to me to brand the business separately from myself, it was already becoming well-known.

But what are your options when naming a business, brand, product line or service area? You might use your own name, like I did, or a version of your initials. Alternatively, you might come up with something entirely original. Here’s what you need to know.

If you use your name:

You can showcase a story. People like to learn about the businesses they’re buying from and the products and services on offer. Having a story will help you build a personal connection with your audience. Think of local companies such as RaizCorp.

You’ll seem warm and accessible. Companies and organisations named after their founders tend to seem easier to reach than those with “real” business names. Whether or not this is true, it can help you to attract customers.

It’s easier to boost your SEO. If you have a unique name, you’re at an advantage when it comes to search engine optimisation. Depending on how rare the name is, you could be the only brand using that name, making it easier to rank highly.


You could limit long-term growth. If you plan to scale up, building a company that’s named after yourself could stand in the way of your success. For example, it could discourage ambitious employees from working with you in the long term if they think there’s no space for them at the top.

It’s harder to sell the business. If you want the option to sell your business or brand one day, using a name that’s not tied to you personally will make this easier.

You enjoy less online privacy. Choosing a business name that’s different from yours will help to separate your personal and private online presence. This is something I’ve always battled with.

And the other route?

Let’s say you decide to go for a completely original name. Here’s the process:

#1. List your favourite words. At first glance, they may not say much about your work — at least, not explicitly — but they should evoke a positive feeling. Then, take the words you’ve collected and play with them. Combine them with each other, add different endings (think Spotify), and translate them into other languages to double-check meaning.

#2. Brainstorm words and phrases that describe what you offer. A descriptive name indicates what the company, product, or service is or does, like Happy Socks, PhoneTradr, Merchant Capital and Rockstar Freelancing. These clearly position the brand and make it easier for consumers to identify it.

#3. You might consider an acronym, which is an abbreviation of a descriptive name, such as BCX, FNB, BMW, CNA, and PnP. On the up side, these have been pared down into bite-sized pieces, are quick to say, and are easy to remember. On the down side, though, they can lack personality and ‘soul’.

#4. Many originators and innovators opt for invented names, created specifically to represent a brand. These are powerful, because they don’t come with baggage. But they can be hard to find, because they must resonate with the audience and the product/service. Think Whipping the Cat, Zapper, Superbalist and Takealot.

What if my company name idea is too weird? The Companies Act, 71 of 2008, says your company name may comprise words in any language, irrespective of whether or not the words are commonly used for that purpose. The name may also contain any letters, numbers or punctuation marks, as well as any of the following symbols: +, &, #, and %. A company name can use round brackets in pairs, too. So, go wild, as long as your consumers can make sense of it.

#5. You might want to come up with an experiential name, one that’s rooted in the feeling or experience the brand delivers. This is a powerful class of names and it’s where you’ll find the most iconic global brands, such as Apple, Virgin, and Oracle. In South Africa, think Jacaranda FM, Howler, Naked Insurance, Spur, and Macaroon.

#6. At this stage, it can help to map the competitive landscape by developing a comprehensive list of your brand’s competitors, direct and indirect. Once you have a long list, look for trends in terms of common words, naming conventions, the attitudes or beliefs evoked, and which brands stand out. This will reflect industry norms, show you what you’re up against, and help you to differentiate.

Once you have a shortlist:

#1. Consider how each name option will look in the subject line of an email.

#2. Consider how it will sound when it’s said aloud. (You might be interested to know that a number of leading companies in recent history have chosen names with 5–10 letters and at least one hard consonant: Starbucks, Verizon, Exxon, Mattel.)

#3. Check the availability of your desired URL before making a final decision. Run it through something like  to make sure that the social media handles and website domains are available, and check the national register for businesses () to make sure no-one’s already registered it.

#4. Be warned: The greatest threat to creativity is decision by committee. Don’t let group-think slip into your naming process by allowing too much input.

#5. A name can’t always tell a story by itself. You can boost the impact of a name with a tagline or slogan (a memorable phrase that captures the essence of your business and how it’s different). The tagline can appear below or near your name, depending on how you choose to implement the name graphically.

Be inspired by the giants

And, because I’m kind/the research was fun, here are 15 famous name inspirations:

• Create mash-ups, eg Netflix.
• Get inspiration from mythology and literature, eg Nike.
• Use foreign words, eg Uber and Volkswagen.
• Create something totally random: Zappos
• Leverage a technical term: Google comes from “googol”.
• Take a look at a map; think Amazon, Adobe and Nokia.
• Mix things up. IKEA = the founder’s name and his hometown. Adidas, same story.
• Leverage nicknames. This worked well for Wendy’s and Audi.
• Use symbols or elements. Pepsi comes from the enzyme pepsin.
• Make it obvious, like 7-Eleven and TripAdvisor.
• Convey a message, benefit or image: Audible, Apple.
• Use Latin. Volvo means “I roll.” Lego? “I put together.”
• Abbreviate. Cisco was established in San Francisco.
• Tweak the spelling, as in Flickr, Tumblr and Reebok.
• Pick a word from the dictionary, like Twitter.

Okay, that’s Tiffany Markman Writing & Training, over and out. (Crikey, what a mouthful!)

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