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Naming a Business in 2015: Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities

By Amanda Soderlund
October 21, 2015

Naming a Business in 2015

Recent startups have more outlandish name and domain name combinations than ever before. These new businesses tend to reach for more imaginative types of names over the more descriptive names that were previously expected. Curious about naming and domain name trends, we set out to quantify trends of new venture funded startups and to reveal possible reasons for these trends.

We conducted a study on 700 companies to determine possible naming and domain name trends. We also interviewed naming and branding thought leaders for insights into some of these trends and to uncover what makes a company name successful.

From the study and expert interviews, we found that there is a clear movement towards creating more invented types of names and towards resourceful combinations of words for new company names. We also uncovered practical reasons for many of the trends that we came across. The need for domain name and trademark rights definitely plays a part in the types of names that are available. Additionally, more indefinable factors such as marketing and branding can influence the types of names that companies lean towards. 

Naming and Domain Name Study

Data Sample

To examine some of the recent naming trends, we collected data from 700 companies.

  • The first group contained 350 companies from the 2015 Inc. 500 list; all of these companies were founded before 2012 and had a minimum of $2 million in revenue in 2014.
  • The second group contained 350 companies that were identified through the CrunchBase database; all of these companies are venture funded startups that were founded after 2012 and received a minimum of $3 million in venture funding in 2015.

The data we collected for each company included: the name, the name type, the construction of the name, the domain name, the domain extension, and the industry the company resides in.

We then compared the name types of companies founded before 2012 on the Inc. 500 list to the venture funded startups that were founded after 2012. We made this comparison to determine any naming trends among the recently founded startups.

Name Type Criteria

We used Zinzin’s naming criteria for our name type analysis. We analyzed whether a name was primarily descriptive, experiential, evocative, or invented.

  • Descriptive – “Names that are purely descriptive of what a company or product does or its function”
  • Experiential – “Names that map to the experience of using a product or a service, or to what a company does, or to an aspect of human experience.”
  • Evocative – “Names that map metaphorically instead of literally to the brand positioning. They rise above the goods and services being offered and paint a bigger picture.”
  • Invented – “The purely invented, the morphemic mash-up, and foreign words not widely known to the English speaker.”

Results

Name Types 2015 Graph

In our comparative study, we found that 75 percent of the companies founded prior to 2012 had primarily descriptive or experiential names. Only 17 percent had invented names and a mere 7 percent had evocative names. 

In contrast, of the startups founded after 2012, 41 percent had invented names and 17 percent had evocative names.

The companies founded after 2012 have a much different spread of name types than the companies founded before 2012. While there are infinite reasons for a company to develop a certain type of name, there are two clear trends that elicit discussion. There is a clear attempt for startups to move away from descriptive types of names and towards more inventive types of names.

New companies tend to have more ‘creative’ names that include:

  • Forms of word combinations
  • Blending of parts of words and sounds
  • Invented new words
  • Real words used for obscure meanings.

These new companies tend to reach for more imaginative types of names over the more descriptive names that were previously expected.

While some of these naming tendencies might be due to popular tendencies or industry trends, some are out of necessity. This necessity can stem from domain and trademark issues to marketing and branding survival attempts. 

Analysis

Can the type of name influence the success of a name and of a brand? Tyler Doyle, the creative lead of the naming agency A Hundred Monkeys, illustrates that the success of a name really depends on the company being named.

"The obvious answer to the question of which name type is most successful is: it really depends. It depends on how a name can help a company out the most. Do you need to spread that word of mouth? Is there a smooth conversation you need to have to differentiate you in a crowded field? Are you trying to evangelize some kind of idea that can be brought up by the name? These are all things that vary from company to company."
Tyler Doyle, A Hundred Monkeys

A successful company name is not indicative of the type of name but rather a myriad of factors that are dependent on the company itself.

Jay Jurisich, the founder/CEO and co-creative director of the naming agency Zinzin, unveils the myth of a most successful type of name.

"There isn't necessarily a single most successful type of name, although a greater percentage of successful names, by far, are Evocative names; a much smaller number are unique, powerful Experiential names; while a very small number of great brand names are Invented names – think Google, Oreo, or Zinzin."
Jay Jurisich, Zinzin

If creating a successful invented name is so rare, why are recent startups flocking towards more invented names? While the success of a name varies and depends on numerous factors, there are still obvious naming trends. We unveil six possible reasons for recent naming trends and what each means for the future of company names.

Branding and Marketing

Avoiding Potential Limiting Names

There is an advantage to having a more descriptive or real word name. Descriptive, real word names have meaning and point to a particular market and space where a company presides over the competition. A company can have a name that immediately positions them within an industry so that they are readily associated within that niche.

Brannon Cashion, the global president of the branding agency Addison Whitney, explains the benefits and limitations of more descriptive names.

"A lot of people want to be able to introduce their company to the market with a name that is directional in some way, descriptive in some way. The benefit of that is, when you hit the market, the interpretation of your name and brand helps to put you in your space in regards to what you do. The downside of that is that it could potentially limit your long-term expansion and your ability to expand out from what you currently do."
Brannon Cashion, Addison Whitney

Descriptive names can introduce a company directly into its competitive landscape but, if not named appropriately, this approach can go awry as a company grows and potentially expands out of their initial products or services.

As new companies learn from the mistakes of older companies, they see the consequences of choosing a narrowly descriptive name in regards to future growth.

The move away from more literal, descriptive names could be to avoid the possible limitations that a purely descriptive name holds. For example, Phil Davis, the president of the branding agency Tungsten, discusses Steve Jobs’ choice to go with the name Apple instead of a more descriptive name that would eventually become very limiting.

"An example of this would be Steve Jobs. He was extremely innovative and it manifested through a computer, but he’s not really a computer guy. If he created his identity and called it International Computer Company, he would have quickly outgrown that identity. That’s one of the critical mistakes people make; they create service and product identified brands that end up pigeonholing them and constricting their growth as they evolve."
Phil Davis, Tungsten

By not naming a company on narrowly descriptive terms, companies have room to grow beyond their initial offerings. The trend away from descriptive names could be to avoid limiting names that hinder potential growth. While not a definitive reason, the flexibility of inventive names could guarantee more latitude later on.

Finding the White Space, Standing Out

As every industry becomes more saturated, there is limited room for a new company to enter and directly stand out. This move away from more descriptive names and towards more invented and evocative types of names could stem from an attempt to find the available white space in an industry.

"If you have a name and a brand positioning that’s indistinguishable from ninety-five percent of your competition, and you’re trying to get out a message that says, ‘Hey! We’re new, different, and revolutionary,’ people just aren’t going to buy it, especially when all of your competitors are saying the same thing. No one is going to believe any of them. When one company dares to stand up and stand out with a name and brand positioning that is different from all the others, people are going to notice them, believe them, and remember them. ‘Ah! Here’s the one that really is different."
Jay Jurisich, Zinzin

When developed thoughtfully, these more creative and invented types of names could help to differentiate a company from the competition.  Scott Milano, the owner and managing director of the naming and branding agency Tanj, gives an example of a naming initiative that disrupted the gaming industry.

"A lot of times, really great names push an industry forward and say something dramatically different from what’s already been said or done. One of the examples from my portfolio of work and experience is naming the Nintendo Wii. That’s a classic example of a totally “out there” name, whether you love it or hate it. Compared to all of the other game console names that came before it, it works on an entirely different level."
Scott Milano, Tanj

Another example addresses a past trend that incorporated founders’ names into the company name. Instead of using descriptive, literal names, some new companies are using real human names that have no real association, but carry more empathetic and metaphorical connotations. Margaret Wolfson, the founder of the naming agency River + Wolf, introduces a new company with a name that directly stands out within its industry.

"An example of a company that broke ranks is Oscar, the startup insurance agency. Unlike it competitors, Oscar’s founders, wanting consumers to feel like they had a doctor in the house, drew their inspiration from the name of a physician relative. As a company name, Oscar represents a striking departure from the industry’s reliance on rocks, shields, and other symbols of protection and power."
Margaret Wolfson, River + Wolf

These are examples of more evocative names that stand out in saturated industries by building a story through unique name types. Not only do these distinctive names slip into the unused white space, they also elicit a story and bring more curiosity to a brand.

Building a Unique, New Brand

New companies try to find ways to stand out among older competitors and many attempt to build their own, unique brand. More inventive names can help a company establish their brand apart from the connotations of real words and apart from typical industry specific names. 

"A lot of clients want to feel comfortable with a name as it’s introduced. But really, a lot of the long-term benefits from the legal, the marketing, and the long-term brand-ability points of view lie in these coined words that you can own, not just in your competitive space, but in any competitive space."
Brannon Cashion, Addison Whitney

An invented name gives a company a clean slate to inject their own meaning and brand story into a word. Purely invented names have no associated meaning built into them. These names are unidentifiable at first and a new company needs to educate people on the meaning of a new invented name.

"In general, there are certain benefits to invented names. Often you can find more white space, and you will find from a legal perspective that coining names is easier than leveraging real words, because you are creating something entirely new. A coined name can function as an empty vessel – there is no attached meaning to it because it’s not rooted in anything that we know to date. As a brand, you can fill the name with meaning."
Scott Milano, Tanj

There is room for a brand to stand out from the established competition with an evocative name or with an invented name that allows them to build new meaning. As various industries populate and more companies attempt to break from the crowd, these invented names could seem like a good opportunity to build a new brand.

Marketing

The way that brands communicate is constantly changing. The rise of different social media channels and new media outlets could have an influence on the use of more outlandish names.

"If you have a weak, boring name, nobody will want to talk about it on social media because to do so will automatically make their social media posts boring. That goes for the press too. When journalists want to do interviews in a specific industry, if they do a Google search and they see twenty different companies that sound the same, they’re going to want to contact those companies or brands that are different and standing out. They figure these people will have something interesting to say, because they’re demonstrating that they can say something interesting right up front with their name."
Jay Jurisich, Zinzin

A name that captures attention and makes people ponder the story of a name can help a company stand out in its industry. Building a strong brand story from a company’s name can help with the long-term marketing of a brand.

"To have successful branding, it’s not so much the word itself, the technique, or how you get to it. The more overarching point, and the question to ask, is, ‘Does the name lend itself to a deeper discussion about your business?’ A good name is one that invites people to know more about your company and allows you to build a platform of marketing language around the name."
Phil Davis, Tungsten

The trend to deviate from more descriptive names and towards invented or evocative names can have several intentions related to branding and marketing. As new companies attempt to enter an industry with new and fresh ideas, many see that more creative types of names look like a good opportunity to immediately stand out. When done successfully, an evocative and/or invented type of name can have extensive benefits. Many reasons for these recent trends could also be attributed to the legal benefits of creating a new or oddly constructed name.

Trademark and Domain

Trademark and domain name limitations are possibly a direct reason for the surge in names that are invented or have odd combinations of various words. Kristen Pembroke, the director of client services at the branding agency Catchword, reveals that many recent trends are attributed to these limitations.

"A lot of what goes on with naming styles and trends stems from the challenges of securing a domain or trademark. It’s gotten to be so challenging for major startups, and for everyone really, and so there are a variety of ways for businesses to get around that."
Kristen Pembroke, Catchword

There are increasingly less real word names and less real word combination names that are available from both a trademark and domain name perspective. However, there are different ways that recent companies attempt to elude trademark and domain obstacles.

Many of the solutions include obscure combinations of real words, blending parts of words to create a new word, using a foreign word that is not widely known by English speakers, or purely inventing a new word.

"One of the things you see quite a bit of is combined words or two word names. Examples of this are Wealthfront, ClassDojo, and Blue Apron, or from our own portfolio, names like Upwork, Livescribe, and Keysight. What people like about this style of name is that they’re able to get a couple different messages across. It’s also less likely that there’s going to be a trademark or domain that exists with those exact two words, either put together or used in combination."
Kristen Pembroke, Catchword

The use of foreign words for a company name is another tactic that some companies embrace for trademark purposes.

"One of the bigger challenges in our space is the ability to trademark or secure the legal trademark or registration of a name in various markets, especially if it’s a global company…. One of the trends we’re seeing – and we’re actually encouraging companies to think this way – is to look at a name that may not be a common usage English word. A name that is a common usage English word oftentimes is already going to be trademarked by someone else."
Brannon Cashion, Addison Whitney

A common naming trend that attempts to circumvent trademark issues but keep some real word recognition is to use slightly invented names that offer suggestive and memorable elements of real words.

"Another style is a slightly coined name, like Lyft, taking out the “I” and replacing it with a “Y”. Coining names is a staple in the namer’s toolkit. We just recently named Javiva for Peet’s (coined from java and viva), and Optane for Intel, coined from words like opt, obtain, and octane. These kinds of names are still suggestive of what the product or service is, but they’re tweaked to make them more unique, ownable, and memorable."
Kristen Pembroke, Catchword

Domain

Many of the incentives and trends associated with securing a name trademark also apply to securing a domain name. However, there are further solutions for getting around domain name issues. There are new top-level domains that continually arise and give more leeway for new company names. However, 88 percent of the startups have a dot-com domain extension, demonstrating that a dot-com URL is still incredibly important for many companies.

Domain Names 2015 Graph

A dot-com domain name has always been the staple of a legitimate, successful company online.

"Dot-com has been going strong for 20 years, and it’s always going to be the preference. If you have a dot-com, you’re going to appear established and you’re going to look like the real deal."
Kristen Pembroke, Catchword

The fact that 76 percent of the startups have an exact match dot-com domain name shows how important the exact company name with a dot-com extension still is. However, securing a domain name that is not already taken is an immense obstacle for many companies that desire a dot-com domain.

A direct example of valuing dot-com domains is from the naming agency Tungsten that collects domain names in hopes that they can guarantee a dot-com domain for their clients.

"My approach has been to aggressively seek domains from the very beginning. Since I got into this business years ago, every time I do a naming project I keep all my names, all my little brand leftovers. I call them my brand children. Over the years I’ve gotten about 3,000 brand-able domain names."
Phil Davis, Tungsten

For those that haven’t been seeking out viable dot-com names, there are various tactics to create a name that has a matching dot-com domain extension.

"At River + Wolf, we stress that a good name is more important than an exact match dot-com. But if a client must have an exact match, we will focus almost exclusively on the creation of unusual compound or invented names since these have a greater chance of securing an exact match dot-com."
Margaret Wolfson, River + Wolf

Since most real word dot-com domain names have already been acquired and are either very pricey or not available, these strategies of creating new names are widely used.

Beyond an exact match there are other options to secure a dot-com domain. One option is to use the company name along with a relevant descriptor word.

"A couple of easy examples: Teslamotors.com and steampowered.com. It’s really easy to add a suffix that feels right, that tells people a little more about what you’re doing, and, if you’re a bit smaller, that even helps your SEO."
Tyler Doyle, A Hundred Monkeys

Another domain name trend is to add an action word or an inviting word before the brand name. For example, many companies that target consumers will add ‘join’ or ‘get’ before their brand name for their domain. It is increasingly more common to add action words or invitation words like welcome or hi before the company name as a tactic to acquire the domain as well.

Alternate Top-Level Domains

While recent naming trends could stem from the need for a matching dot-com domain, there are other alternative domain options that are rising in popularity. These alternatives could influence future domain trends.

Recently, there has been a rise of alternative gTLDs (Top Level Domains) and many have assumed that startups would gravitate towards some of these alternate domain extensions. The number of startups with an alternate domain extension (12 percent) is double the number of companies founded prior to 2012 (6 percent). However, the data shows the looming prevalence of the dot-com domain name.

"It is very hard to break the obsession with dot-coms. Every so often ICANN—the non-profit organization in charge of maintaining and coordinating the Internet, specifically the Internet Protocol addresses and the Domain Name System—introduces new extensions. But despite repeated efforts, dot-coms remain the extension of choice for business. But given the fact that so many are either in use, parked, or for sale at jaw-dropping prices, entrepreneurs are slowly warming to other domains. Many technology start-ups are now using, “io”, which stands for the Indian Ocean."
— Margaret Wolfson, River + Wolf

Many naming experts believe that the company name should take preference over the need for a dot-com domain extension. Thus, many of the experts believe that alternate domain extensions can be a useful resource for many companies that have a quality name and that can’t acquire a dot-com extension.

"We advise companies all the time not to let domain names dictate their choice of names. It's far better to have a great brand name with a modified domain name, or a non-dot-com top-level domain, than a weak name with an exact-match domain. Thanks to Google and social media, brands can easily be discovered regardless of their Web address. The brand name should always have priority over the domain name; the only exception being Internet pure-play companies in which the brand and the domain are one."
— Jay Jurisich, Zinzin

Many of the naming experts believe that a quality, well-positioned name has greater importance over acquiring the dot-com exact match for the name. In many cases having the alternate domain extensions can also help position a company in the right space. Whether it be an industry specific extension, a relevant country code extension, or even an extension that acts as a portion of the company name, these alternative extensions could benefit a company more than a dot-com extension.

"There are a number of extensions that have come out that sometimes help better position a company. It could be dot-biz, dot-country, dot-us, or dot-uk, et cetera. Those extensions might better position a company or product, where the dot-com is not necessary."
— Brannon Cashion, Addison Whitney

These new top-level domains can also be helpful for Search Engine Optimization (SEO), allowing companies to include a relevant keyword as a part of their domain name like dot-bank or dot-tv.

Furthermore, the latest option is for a brand to acquire its own brand name as a domain extension. This relatively new opportunity allows companies to create brand specific top-level domains. These domains can be bought for a hefty price tag but can result in unique and powerful branding opportunities.

When asked about the future for branded domains, Bill Hartzer, the senior strategist at Globe Runner, commented on the possible changes ahead.

"We're already seeing several brands moving and many that have moved, including Barclay's Bank (see https://www.home.barclays/). And over 600 brands have already committed towards moving. I predict a major change and movement away from dot-com in the very near future for many large brands."
— Bill Hartzer, Globe Runner

While many still dwell on the power of the dot-com, others recognize possible breaks from the familiar. Even large, reputable enterprises are departing with their well-known dot-com domain for better branding, security, and customer experience opportunities.

Even though a specific branded domain might not be realistic for smaller companies or startups, it might influence a movement towards acceptance for a diverse range of top-level domains.

With various options available for viable domain extensions, a domain should never be a reason for holding back on a desired name. While there are still trademark limitations, a name should represent a company and its brand positioning the best it can.

Beyond Trends

While a company should consider the marketing, branding, trademark, and domain implications when choosing a company name, the right name still depends entirely on the company and their intended brand positioning.

Many of the thought leaders in the naming industry contended that, while these trends are apparent and informative, they are still solely trends. A trend does not necessarily mean that a certain name type will be the most successful, and a trend should not determine how a company is named.

Naming a company is immensely difficult and there is a continual need to rise above the trends to find the best name for a specific company.

"A lot of times, really great names push an industry forward and say something dramatically different from what’s already been said or done…. For us, the key is to constantly strive for fresh ideas and innovative thinking in names."
— Scott Milano, Tanj

A reliable naming company rises above trends and uses their creative abilities to come up with successful names. Naming a company is one of the most important steps in building a brand and is reason to consider hiring a professional naming company. For more information on the process of developing a name, take a look at the full naming expert interviews.