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Top Mistake 1 When Naming a New Company or New Product

Bear with me, because when I tell you the number one mistake people make when selecting a name for their new company or new product, you are going to be surprised. Ready? The top mistake in choosing a name is deciding on the name you like best.

That very obvious-sounding strategy is wrong because of several pitfalls. First, names can go off the rails because you, the namer, are not your target market. The name needs to appeal to potential customers, not to you. Second, the name you like the best may have negative connotations that you didn't stop to think about. Third, your favorite name, or a close variant of it, may already be in use, causing you to seem imitative or even landing you in legal trouble. And fourth, the name you like most may limit you in ways that may become painfully clear in the future.

Let's go through these pitfalls now one by one.

Not long ago New Jersey fell into the trap of thinking of themselves rather than of the target market when officials asked their residents to vote on a tourism slogan for the state. The winning entry, "New Jersey: Come See for Yourself," received just a few more votes than "New Jersey: The Best Kept Secret."

Both of these tag lines fail because they do not give a reason for outsiders to come explore. Outsiders, who may have an image of New Jersey as an over-industrialized collection of chemical factories, won't see anything compelling in those phrases. If the contest organizers had let non-New Jerseyites react to possible slogans, it would have become clear that those slogans were lame and uninteresting to the target market.

For business names, what insiders to the business choose may have a meaning element that customers don't relate to or cannot pronounce. For example, if an optical shop decided to call itself Refractions, they'd be sabotaging themselves, because the average person doesn't know that "refraction" is the principle of physics that enables glasses to correct vision.

Likewise, a bakery might fall in love with the name Painique (pan-EEK), where "pain," which means "bread" in French, was supposed to be pronounced in the French way rather than as rhyming with "rain." However, where the typical shopper doesn't know French, the name would be baffling and off-putting.

Choosing the name you like best can also be disastrous if you don't take the time to explore whether or not there are negative implications to the name. This happened to a shoe company in England, which was exciting about naming a sport shoe Zyklon, not realizing that this was the brand name of the gas used by the Nazis to kill millions during World War Two.

Similarly, someone who went with the company name Grand Poobah Publicity because they loved the way it sounded would eventually find out that to language mavens and Gilbert and Sullivan fans, the company was mocking itself. The Grand Poobah was a haughty character in "The Mikado" who had an undeservedly high opinion of himself.

Going only by what you like can also blind you to the fact that your name, or something resembling it, may already be in use. For instance, a golf course near me in Western Massachusetts called its modest little eatery Tavern on the Green, and found it ridiculous when the famous restaurant by that name in New York City sent it a letter demanding it stop using the name. Ridiculous or not, most businesses receiving such a letter sooner or later have no choice but to give in. It's smarter to check whether or not a name is legally in the clear prior to finalizing it.

Even when a name just echoes something else rather than exactly imitating it, the public may feel that your name is derivative and unoriginal. If you fell in love with the name Sir Salad for your casual restaurant, people might think you'd copied the chains Sir Speedy or Sir Pizza, even if you weren't aware those existed.

Finally, the name you like most could be so narrow in scope you are unable to expand. With the name Becky's Bookkeeping, Becky may have trouble later when she realizes clients need help with filing and organizing as well as with their financial records.

Perhaps the most surprising point to many people is that it isn't essential to have a blinding love for your new company name. It's far better if you think systematically about what the name should accomplish for you and go rigorously through your brainstormed list with those criteria in mind. You may already have overlooked the name that best meets those clear-headed, unemotional naming criteria!

Marcia Yudkin is Head Stork of Named At Last, a company that brainstorms creative business names, product names and tag lines for clients. For a systematic process of coming up with an appealing and effective name or tag line, download a free copy of "19 Steps to the Perfect Company Name, Product Name or Tag Line" at www.namedatlast.com/19steps.htm

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