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A rose by any other name: how to come up with a company name

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Speed Reading Mode

Much like finding project names, naming companies is very difficult. I used to run a computer games company called Intelligent Games and I came up with the name when I was 18 and had to live with it for over ten years. It seemed right when I wanted to do historical simulations but as the company grew and moved into action, sports and kids games it became increasingly inappropriate and even a little embarrassing.

Roll forward five years and I wanted to turn my nascent corporate writing practice into a more professional business. This meant putting together a crew of writers, editors, photographers and designers to work on projects and new efforts in marketing and a new legal structure. But on the surface, it needed a name to represent the changes that were taking place.

The following isn't intended as a role model or advice. I just thought it might be interesting to describe what I did.

Here's an outline of the process that I went through to come up with Articulate Marketing:

  • I'd already written a business plan and I knew what I wanted the business to do. I tried to pick out of that some of the things that I wanted the name to communicate: something about effective communication and crisp delivery.
  • I wanted to make it clear that it was no longer a one man band but at the same time I wanted to differentiate myself from the host of PR and marcomms agencies that also write for businesses. So I analysed the names and websites of a couple of dozens agencies and a couple of dozen solo copywriters. Agencies tend to have names derived from the people who started them such as Mason Zimbler or (curiously) date-based such as April Six or August One. Although a surname-based name is conventional it wouldn't differentiate me from the other agencies. Most individuals didn't have company names but had websites like (I'm making this up) or something. I needed a more memorable, web-friendly name.
  • At this point I found Igor's lovely, helpful, friendly PDF on naming that gave me a rigorous intellectual process for coming up with a name. I find the phoneme-based approach a bit impersonal and, having talked to some real experts in the branding at Wolff Olins and elsewhere, I felt that the big agency brainstorming stuff was both too expensive to buy and very difficult to replicate as an individual. This is why the Igor thing was so timely and welcome.
  • I spent a couple of days with dictionaries, thesauri, web sites and so on coming up with names that were rooted in the ideas that I wanted to convey. I ended up with sheets of paper covered in mindmaps and hundreds of candidate names.
  • I whittled down that list to around a dozen that worked for me. I then did the Igor Process on them, evaluating each one for appearance, distinctiveness, depth, energy, humanity, positioning, sound and I also checked domain name availability.
  • I also asked about 20 people whose opinion I respected to tell me which of the names they liked the most and which ones they liked the least.
  • I practiced answering the phone using each of the names!
  • I placed the names on a 'name taxonomy chart' along with the names of my big agency competitors and my small one-man-band peers. Igor categorises names as functional ("The word workshop"), invented ("writerz"), experiential ("Articulate") and evocative ("Bad language"). They prefer evocative names. I found this process revealing and challenging.

The short list was:

  • Espresso (initially my favourite)
  • Ink Razor
  • Articulate (the eventual 'winner')
  • Bad Language (the cheeky option and my third choice - hence this blog's old name)
  • Park Walk Associates
  • Word Candy
  • WordLabs
  • Writerz

Looking back on the list now some of the names are much less exciting in retrospect than they appeared at the time!

The results of the vote were interesting. People hated Bad Language and Writerz. Some people liked Park Walk Associates (probably because it sounds comfortingly familiar) and Espresso but Articulate was overwhelmingly popular. Since many of the people I asked were current or potential clients this was an important consideration. Also, their comments were as interesting as their votes. I loved the name Espresso but most people didn't see the depths and overtones of the name (express, expression, high energy). They just heard coffee. Also, when I practiced answering the phone with the name I found it hard to say. The nail in the coffin for espresso was domain name availability. This was how Articulate surfaced as the final choice.

What's funny is that after only a couple of months it is hard to imagine the company having any other name. As one friend said "don't worry about it too much, just pick a name and get on with it." And perhaps that is good advice. I think it is a much better name than Intelligent Games but it is ironic that after a massive effort I've ended up with an adjective-noun compound name again. However, at least I know that I came up with it after a lot of thought and effort rather than making it up one morning before breakfast.

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