The How To Guide to Naming & Branding for Startups

This week I again had the pleasure of speaking at the Founder’s Institute’s sessions on Naming and Branding.  This is the second semester for the Founder’s Institute, and I saw a lot of great improvements from what was already a strong first semester. 

The slides I presented this January 2010 are here:

The slides are pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t go through them here.  I’ve also spoken about this before on this blog here.  In this post though, I’ll respond to the notion that I heard in one session which was that the name of your brand or company really doesn’t matter when you are starting out.  The argument (I think) was that there are many other issues to focus on, and that any name will do. 

While I agree that a founder can’t get so caught up in naming that the vital stuff—getting product built, getting customers engaged, etc.—I disagree strongly with the idea that a company or product’s name doesn’t matter.  For startups or early stage companies, I think this is even more important.  Here’s why.

First off, when you’re just starting the only marketing you’ve really got is the name and brand of your company.  No one knows who you are.  No one has ever heard of you.  When you tell them you’re name, some neurons fire in their brain and they have a reaction.  Are they going to want to lean in and see the demo or are they going to ask “How do I spell that?” or “Say that again, I didn’t hear you.” 

Here’s a concrete example—try recruiting a rock star A++ engineer with a crumby name.  The types of people you’ll want to recruit, I contend, will respond like anyone else.  A crumby name, without a concrete sense of what brand you’re trying to build, will be uninspiring or confusing to a rock star A++ engineer, as with anyone else.  I’d say avoid it. 

My philosophy with startups is simple: When you are all by yourself, you have to use every tool at your disposal to increase the chances of success.  Taking that philosophy means you have to push forward on anything that can help.  I contend your company’s name can help in important ways, beyond recruiting your star engineering talent. 

How can your company’s name help?  Your name can do lots of things, but to me one of the keys is that it can set the competitive landscape to your advantage. 

Here’s my current favorite example from Niman Ranch.  Niman Ranch is a maker of all natural, humanly raised meats.  When they entered the hot dog market, notice the name they chose.  “Fearless Beef Franks,” is a great name for them—it totally positions Niman’s offering relative to their competition.  Niman is a premium priced provider—this name makes it totally clear why their hot dog will cost more per pound than one from Oscar Meyer.

In closing out, I’d say sure you can succeed without a great name, but why would you want to? 

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