Heck, yes! I can’t believe how many times I’ve been asked this question by clients or prospects who don’t believe their names really matter, as if “good enough” is good enough. It’s as if they never heard Johnny Cash sing “A Boy Named Sue.” “IBM is a nothing name and look how big they are. And what’s so special about McDonald’s, anyway?” True that. but those were brands that grew up in much simpler times. Would Apple be Apple if it were called Good Business Computers? Evaluating the value of a company’s brand is a tricky business. But the last estimate I saw for the value of the Apple brand on the Interbrand “Best Global Brands 2010” list was a little north of $21B. How much of that $21B you think is attributable to the name? If it’s even one percent, that’s worth a few thoughts, no?
In the words of a colleague of mine, a not-so-good name doesn’t help you any, but a good one “puts the wind at your back.” In a world teeming with new companies, new products, new restaurants, new ideas, new every-fricking-thing, why WOULDN’T you want the face you present to the world to be as memorable, meaningful, interesting, and maybe even as provocative as it could be?
But don’t take my word for it. Check out this great post by Jason Cohen about how he stumbled onto the name of Smart Bear Software and what that did for the business. And if that doesn’t convince you, read what David Placek of the naming company Lexicon recently wrote about the importance of corporate on his blog.
The important question about names isn’t “Does a good one matter?,” but “What IS a good name?,” or “How do I create a good name?,” or “How much is a good name worth?”
We’ve spoken to two different companies in a little over a week that — among other issues — need to consider renaming. It’s a radical move when you take into account how much equity you may have built into your brand name and how costly and disruptive it may be to change it. But if your name is more of an impediment to growth than a boon, you have to consider a change. Here are a few situations when a renaming may be in order:
- You can’t own your trademark. Even if you never got your name trademarked you’re probably safe within your immediate geographic region. But there’s no telling what you’ll discover when want to expand geographically. If you need to move to new pastures where you know you’ll encounter trademark conflicts, you have little choice but to rename. It doesn’t have to be the end of the world. St. Louis Bread Company faced a situation like this and changed their name to Panera. They’ve done OK.
- Your name is very misleading. One of the companies we recently encountered has been able to gain some regional renown selling a super premium product despite the fact their name is an Italian phrase that sort of means the opposite of premium. Some of their retail customers actually prefer to private label their product. To their credit, the company has come to the realization that their name so misrepresents their brand, it’s a millstone — wisest to change it sooner rather than suffer with it any longer. A few other weak brand names that were changed? How about BackRub, Brad’s Drink, Blue Ribbon Sports, and Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web (Google, Pepsi Cola, Nike. and Yahoo!, respectively).
- Your brand has experienced radical change. GMAC was certainly well known. But when they spun off from GM and acquired new capabilities, they made the (correct) choice to change their name to Ally Bank. New mission, new name, new opportunity.
- Your brand has been disgraced. About two years after its shocking fall, Enron came out of bankruptcy to be renamed Prisma Energy Company. Who can argue with the wisdom of THAT decision? (Prisma Energy survived a couple years, before being swallowed name and all by Ashmore Energy.)
A colleague of mine likes to say “a good name won’t make you a success, but it can put the wind at your back.” Likewise, a really bad name can be a powerful headwind. Sometimes, a radical course change is the best decision.
I took a meeting the other day with an erstwhile restaurant franchiser who was eager to take her first steps toward becoming the next Panera Bread. Let’s call her “Fran.” Fran’s restaurant was hopping, people were raving about the food all over Yelp, and with a little polish her brand concept could be different than any other out there. So she was ready to make it happen, right?
Wrong. She didn’t have a trademarked name. What’s worse, the $450/hr. IP attorney we’d invited had serious doubts about whether she’d ever be able to trademark her current name. And why is a trademark so important? Because without it, Fran has nothing to franchise. What budding franchisee wants to plunk down $300k+ to open a restaurant that could be the subject of a cease and desist letter or worse?
Now this isn’t a total show stopper. It’s not impossible to create a new name, logo and all the trade dress that goes with it. But who wants to lose the hard won equity in the name they invested in from the get go? And renaming isn’t easy, either. Especially in a world where it’s becoming more difficult by the minute to find a name that’s not taken. Just ask the folks at Panera Bread, who when they started franchising had to drop their St. Louis Bread Company name (too generic) to become Panera .
So if you believe you will ever be interested in growing out of your single location, take some time to start with a name you know you can keep. Here’s how:
- Create a few names that fit your brand and aren’t generic, i.e. they aren’t just based on a place (like St. Louis Bread Company), a common dish (The Spaghetti Place), or a type of establishment (The Bistro). This sounds easy, but it’s not. In fact, many words have been written about what makes a good name and how to create one. I’ll spare that discussion for another time. (But if you want to check a couple cool sites about naming, try these: Igor and The Name Inspector.)
- When you have a few names you think might work, do some quick searches in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s online Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS). It’s not difficult. If you see any of your names on the list, get rid of it.
- One hopes after this exercise you have at least a couple remaining acceptable names. Now it’s time to bite the bullet and get an intellectual property (IP) attorney to help you. I say this with full knowledge that there are ways to do it yourself and plenty of online services that say they can make it happen for a couple hundred bucks. I have seen those methods work. But I have also seen disasters. Please, hire an attorney.
- The first thing the attorney will want to do is conduct a global search, probably through a company called Thomson Compumark. It should cost less than $400. Do it.
- Within a couple weeks, the attorney should have a very good idea of the availability of your names. Assuming you have at least one option, you ought now to feel comfortable dressing your new name up in a logo (with a ™ to protect it until your registration passes) and moving ahead with your plans.
- It will take a few more months for the attorney to file paperwork and for the USPTO to register your name (at which time you can switch to a ®), but you should be home free.
Total cost for this whole operation should be less than $2,000. That’s not inconsiderable for a start-up. But before you take a short cut, consider our friend Fran, who is now looking at starting all over again. Seriously, do it right.