Jul 19, 2020

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens

written by Lisa Eason

Names matter. I have participated in many conversations with founders deciding what to call their business or product. Often not much effort and very little science is applied to the process. But this can be a big mistake: having a strong name can boost a brand enormously.

Very often, founders name their company after themselves. This gives an authentic ring to a business and is an easy choice, but it can be hard to stand out unless you have an unusual name. Obtaining the digital domain and trademarking it can be a struggle unless your name is unique. My business partner Andrei Lussmann, who runs an eponymous chain of brasseries, is lucky — he is surely the only restaurateur in Britain bearing that Swiss surname.

Ideally a name signals something to a customer, even if it is abstract. My late business partner Russel Joffe named his restaurant chain Giraffe because he wanted it to be fun and to appeal to families. We named our wood-fired pizza business Strada when we created it in 2001 because it was a common Italian word that was straightforward to spell and pronounce.

Sometimes a longstanding name can be a challenge. At the Institute of Cancer Research, which I chair, we are often confused with the much bigger Cancer Research UK. In fact, we have been around since 1909; they were founded in 2002 by the merger of two large predecessor charities. Inevitably we are reluctant to give up our illustrious heritage and identity, so we proudly retain our name and manage the occasional muddle as best we can.

When my private equity firm bought Brighton Pier a few years ago, we faced a challenge: locally it had been Palace Pier (there used also to be a West Pier in Brighton) since it opened in 1899. There was resentment when the previous owners renamed it, dropping the word “Palace”. But as there are still 60 seaside piers around Britain, we felt it essential to keep Brighton in the name. So we agreed on the obvious compromise of calling it Brighton Palace Pier, and erected a new sign to celebrate.

Names should be memorable — a quirky one can be a positive. However, the simpler a name is, the better. Of course, a great many of the simplest words have been taken. It is harder to find original names in English because we compete with the US for the same pool of words. The majority of the roughly 350 million internet domain names registered are English. Names should also be euphonious — ugly names, or names that are awkward to pronounce, tend not to work.

Names are needed not just for companies but for products, services and charities too. Occasionally names need to be updated to be relevant to modern stakeholders. The Noise Abatement Society, which campaigns for the very worthy cause of reducing noise, has in my view a rather obscure, old-fashioned name. Compare it with Exhausted, a new pressure group set up by a friend to campaign against noise pollution from cars and motorbikes.

Entrepreneurs have invented names, just as they have invented devices. George Eastman called his photographic company Kodak. Pfizer called its erectile dysfunction drug Viagra — surely one of the most evocative medicine names of all time. Pharmaceutical drugs are unusual in that they tend to have three names — and the first two must adhere to an established nomenclature system. Drugs firstly have a chemical or scientific name, typically complicated; then a generic or non-proprietary name (paracetamol, for example); and finally a trade name (such as Prozac).

I dislike abbreviations and acronyms, but some work. 3M is an example — only a tiny number of its customers know that originally it stood for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. However, the vast majority of standard three-letter abbreviations are forgettable and send no message.

Some names feel better than others. Some years ago, I co-founded a non-profit organisation called the Centre for Entrepreneurs. More recently it merged with a charity named the New Entrepreneurs Foundation. Although the foundation was bigger, the sensible decision was taken to adopt our name for the enlarged entity because it better encompasses all the activities.

There are specialist naming agencies that will devise you a brand for a fee, but a good brainstorming session can do the trick — as long as the participants are creative enough.