The Names the Game

Nov. 1, 2006
Selecting the right name for your company is a crucial element in the future success of your company. Unfortunately, many budding entrepreneurs are especially

Selecting the right name for your company is a crucial element in the future success of your company. Unfortunately, many budding entrepreneurs are especially prone to fall into the trap of ego names, oatmeal names, or initial names.

Ego Names
If you were going to start a high tech company and you wanted the world to associate your company with quality, precision, and engineering, what kind of name would you come up with? Two young entrepreneurs named Bill and Dave decided they were going to do just that. Being algorithmically gifted (i.e., they were engineers), they figured the logical thing to do was name it after themselves, Bill and Dave. Can you imagine buying an oscilloscope from this company?

Of course you can. Bill and Dave chose their last names and called their company Hewlett Packard. Today we do associate HP with quality, precision, and engineering. In a way it’s a pity. But, HP is one of the exceptions. Most companies don’t fare nearly as well, but company founders look at the legendary companies named after their founders and figure, “Why not me?”

These budding entrepreneurs start their companies and call them “Joe’s Plumbing” or “Wilson Pest Control.” They name the company after themselves as their defining legacy to the world. The problem is the name doesn’t work for them. Unless you’re already a well-known celebrity, your name doesn’t help. It doesn’t add punch. Unfortunately, by the time most people figure out that an ego name may not be such a hot idea; it’s too late to change.

Remember, the family named companies that have built up brand equity didn’t do it overnight. They had to have a lot of things go just right, merely to survive. Then they had to have years — decades — to build the name. For every Ford Motor Company that survived, there’s many more Packards and Studebakers that didn’t. There’s nothing wrong with your personal name per se. It’s just that your personal name doesn’t help the public understand what your company does, what it offers. That leads to the next problem, oatmeal names.

Oatmeal Names
Oatmeal names are those that have the flavor and consistency of oatmeal. They tell little about the business. Ego names are by default, oatmeal names, but at least with an ego name you’ve got the misplaced benefit of family pride. With oatmeal names you’ve got, well, oatmeal.

Technical companies are brilliant at creating oatmeal names. Oil companies have done it especially well. Think about some of them: Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Citgo. They’re well known, but what the heck do they have to do with oil?
The computer industry is full of oatmeal names. What do these companies do? Cisco? Diamond? 3Com? Gateway? You may know, but you certainly can’t tell by their names.

Telecom is another great source of case studies. Look at the baby bells. By the time the Bell System was broken up, there was tremendous equity in the name “bell.” A few like Bell Atlantic, Bell South, and Southwestern Bell were smart enough to retain “Bell” as part of their name. Others must have hired some high priced business name consultant. How else can you explain Nynex? After they paid a consultant a million dollars to come up with Nynex, they figured it had to be good. Right?

C’mon, what’s stronger, U.S. West or Western Bell? And Ameritech? I can see it now . . . a group of executives huddled around the conference table saying, “We’re going to be an American technology company. Why not call ourselves Ameritech?” “Sounds good to me J.B.” “Yes sir, brilliant choice, yes sir.” It’s a good thing they were a monopoly and didn’t have to face any stiff competition.

I’ve been picking on computers and telecom, but they’re not unique. Just look at the energy utilities. As they’re heading toward deregulation, they’ve been undergoing a mad scramble to come up with the most banal oatmeal names imaginable. There’s Cinergy. There’s Entergy. Even my local rural electric co-op got into the act. Instead of Denton County Rural Electric Co-op (which I admit, is a mouthful), they’ve changed their name to Coserv. Sounds more like a new type of ice cream dispenser than an electric utility.

Even worse are the generic oatmeal names. They’re generic because they use a generic name as the basis. Take “united.” United . . . what? United Airlines? United Van Lines? United Refrigeration? United States? United Brotherhood of Teamsters?

Here’s the test for an oatmeal name. Does the name offer some kind of hint at what the company does? If someone were to move here from another country, never having heard of the name, would they have a clue about the line of business? If not, the name’s got all of the distinguishing characteristics of oatmeal. Go ahead. Try to describe oatmeal without saying what it’s not. It’s bland. Um, let’s see. I guess, well its just oatmeal.

Initial Names
At the other end of the spectrum are the companies that get too specific. The name ends up getting truncated or reduced to a set of initials. International Business Machines may have described Tom Watson’s company perfectly, but IBM is just a set of initials, meaningless without lots of advertising. Digital Equipment Corporation becomes “DEC.” Why not keep it “Digital” or “Digital Equipment?” The International House of Pancakes becomes “IHOP.” IHOP? As in, “I hop, you hop, we all hop?”

When you allow your name to get truncated down or turned into initials, you’ve lost the whole point in having a descriptive name in the first place. The initials become oatmeal. Bland.

What The Name Should Do
A good company name should communicate something about your business. Microsoft is one of the few computer companies with any marketing savvy, so it’s not surprising that they’re also one of the few companies with a good name. They started out in microcomputer software. It makes sense. It wasn’t neutral. It didn’t work against them. It worked for them.

They’re lots of good names. AutoNation is a great name. It communicates exactly what the company is trying to do, provide automobiles to the nation. Home Depot implies a warehouse with stuff for the home. Terminix suggests termite extermination. Toys R Us shouts toys. The Museum Company fits the products offered, which are replicas of famous museum pieces sold in museum stores. Petsmart has the double meaning of a “pet’s mart” and smart items for your pet. The Container Store suggests exactly what you’ll find, every type, size, and shape of container imaginable. Circuit City implies products using electronic circuitry. Play It Again Sports fits with the sale of used sporting goods. Just For Feet tells the consumer exactly what to expect.

While there are lots of bad names out there, there are also a number of strong ones. These are names that work in tandem with the corporate strategy and the marketing message.

What About Small Business?
How do you think those companies got to be big? It wasn’t all in a name, but it certainly didn’t hurt. In fact, it helped. There are examples of small businesses that do well with their names. Just Water Heaters is the name of a West Coast company specializing in water heater replacements. The name says it all. Comfort One is the name of a small air conditioning company in Southern Michigan that wanted to appear large before its time. Sounds to me like they’re on their way.

Sometimes in small business, a derivation of an oatmeal name is appropriate. When Johnny Tubbs was starting his air conditioning company in Conroe, Texas, he was shocked to learn that no one had locked up the name Conroe Air Conditioning. He grabbed it because it implied the air conditioning company for the area, the oldest, the best established. Today, it is. Fancy that.

Given Enough Money Any Name Will Do
If you can afford to throw enough money at a name, almost any name will do. In fact, you may want something of an oatmeal name because it’s malleable. With $50 million you can make it into whatever you want. It happens all of the time and $50 million isn’t even all that much money in the world of big advertising. Take Lennox. They’ve reported spending $40 million annually in advertising. It’s a well-known name in its category, but certainly not universally known. And they’ve had over 100 years to work on it.

Money is the reason why you want your name to have some synergy with your mission. It’s less expensive to communicate what the name means and represents if it works for you.

For example, if I were going to start an air conditioning company, Matt’s Air Conditioning would be the last name I’d choose. What would I select? I don’t know. ComfortNation has a nice ring to it. It communicates the purpose and piggybacks on the AutoNation name to imply a certain scale.

Your Name Can Limit You
It’s tough to anticipate the future when you select a name. You might change the direction of your company and the name suddenly shifts from being an asset to a liability. Roto Rooter has a huge amount of equity in their name. It’s synonymous with sewer and drain cleaning. Now that the company is trying to expand into full service plumbing, they’re finding the name to be a hindrance. But they’re fortunate. They can throw enough money at it to change the perception over time. At least plumbing is closely related. For another business line, they’re better off starting from scratch.

Names can also limit your ability to expand geographically. The Conroe Air Conditioning name that works so well in Conroe does make it more difficult for Tubbs to expand down the highway to the booming suburb of The Woodlands.

This is the unfortunate flipside to a great name. It communicates what you do, limiting your ability to do something different.

What If You’re Stuck With A Bad Name
First, don’t run out and change it for the heck of it. You’ve got to factor in the equity you’ve built up in the name. If Dad started the company and there are tens of thousands of people who recognize it by now, don’t change it on a whim. Make sure you understand the switching costs. Besides, bad names aren’t the end of the world. There are ways you can overcome them, other than spending millions you don’t have.

If you’re in a position to select the name for your company, choose it with care. Once you’ve invested in a name, it becomes expensive to change. Select a name that communicates what you do, that works for you. But also, try to anticipate the future and select a name that offers flexibility, though take care that you aren’t so flexible that you end up with oatmeal.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (, an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at You can contact him directly at [email protected]. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at [email protected].
About the Author

Matt Michel | Chief Executive Officer

Matt Michel was a co-founder and CEO of the Service Roundtable ( The Service Roundtable is an organization founded to help contractors improve their sales, marketing, operations, and profitability. The Service Nation Alliance is a part of this overall organization. Matt was inducted into the Contracting Business HVAC Hall of Fame in 2015. He is now an author and rancher.