What’s in a name?

What's in a name?

A Kansas City coffee and sandwich shop named after a Native
American word and a New Orleans street? What was the owner
A Kansas City coffee and sandwich shop named after a Native American word and a New Orleans street?

What was the owner thinking?

Most Kansas Citians didn’t know what to make of Tchoupitoulas, much less how to say it (chop-a-TOO-lus) or spell it so they could look it up.

The business didn’t last two years. Its space is now filled by the transparently named Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen.

What’s in a name? When it comes to a business, it better be a whole lot more than something that smoothly rolls off your tongue. A name is not only what the company says it is, it’s what the customer thinks it is, branding experts say.

“Your brand name is your permanent media,” said David Placek, president and founder of Lexicon Branding Inc. of Sausalito, which created some of the country’s hottest brand names, including BlackBerry, Pentium, Swiffer and OnStar. “It’s intellectual property, and you want to protect it just like we protect our homes.”

Ideally, a business moniker should be memorable and distinctive enough to set it apart from its competitors. It should say something about the company’s product or service, should simplify the shopper’s selection process, and perhaps even engage them emotionally, branding experts say.

Business names also should be easy to spell – especially in this day of Google searches – and easy to trademark, and work well in the company’s logo, signs and letterhead.

“They should be distinctive, relevant in the category but unexpected,” Placek said. “Small businesses make an effort to be clever, but it’s all about starting a conversation. The name is the first line of a story. It doesn’t have to be creative or clever, but it has to be interesting.”

Branding experts tend to start by identifying the business.

What do you do you offer that your competitors don’t? What do you do better than your competitors, and how might you express that? Why would consumers want to do business with you? What words would you use to describe the product or service? What’s the company’s personality? Who are your potential customers?

Then they look at competitors’ names and try for something that will set the new company apart.

“You need a clear understanding of what your brand is. Get it down to a small list,” said Kristin Wing, principal with AccelerAction, an Overland Park, Kan., company that focuses on marketing, brand development and public relations for professional services firms. “If you can zero in on the keywords that describe how your business is different, they can be clues to coming up with a name.”

Is there a story behind the name you’ve chosen? The name AccelerAction conveys “accelerate” business by “action” strategies, Wing said.

“When we introduce the firm name, we are then asked, ‘What? What do you do?’ which is terrific because it gives us the opportunity to explain in further detail,” Wing said.

Professional services firms – law firms, doctor’s offices and the like – tend to have the partners’ names in the title. Not New Horizons LLC. The Kansas City environmental engineering and remediation firm picked the name when it opened in mid-2007 partly because the owners wanted a new start for themselves and their clients.

“We were stuck in our careers and we needed something new, and our clients needed something new,” said Stephanie Isaacson, president. “We can also tell our story. When someone says, ‘What is New Horizons?’ I say: ‘It’s 360 degrees of new environmental solutions. You don’t have to call several companies. You can just call one.'”

Nationally, the Gap got its moniker in 1969 when the founders opened their first store in San Francisco and played off the “generation gap” separating parents and their teenage children. Sister company Banana Republic’s founders searched the world for travel clothing before opening their first shop.

The ups and downs of identifying with one person were shown by Martha Stewart. Her name was enough to send the company stock soaring during an initial public offering, then sinking when she was sentenced to prison in an insider-trading case, then back up again once she was back in the boardroom.

In Kansas City, Michael Smith’s investors pushed him to put his name in the title of his restaurant – maybe Michael’s or Smith’s or Michael Smith’s. The upscale restaurant opened in the Crossroads in 2007 as Michael Smith.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but they said they were investing in me so they wanted at least part of my name in the title,” said Smith, a winner of the James Beard Award. “But there are inherent issues; certainly it looks of egotism.”

When the owner’s name is over the door, customers also expect him to be around and available at all times, so delegating jobs or even taking a night off isn’t easy. Smith took a different tack with his second restaurant, next door to Michael Smith. He chewed on such hearty and saucy names as Robusto and Sugo before selecting Extra Virgin, a name he thought would work with a hip crowd. And more conservative customers would simply be reminded of top-grade olive oil.

When Maggie Goldsborough wanted to take her Mairead Design stationery business from her home to a retail location, she planned to keep Mairead (Gaelic for Margaret) in the title. But she reconsidered after talking with retail consultant Lori Scott Pemberton, owner of Square Foot Retail Consulting in Overland Park. “Mairead” wouldn’t mean much to potential customers driving by. Goldsborough also considered Regrets Only, but nixed it because it sounded too negative.

“I needed a name that signified what I did. ‘Salutations’ can cover a broad spectrum of things,” said Goldsborough, who opened Salutations by Mairead Design in late 2009, keeping the Mairead for her shift from home-based to retail. The shop sells fine stationery, invitations, boxed note cards and gifts.

“I think it’s a very positive name, an upscale name that tells people exactly the type of store it is going to be before they walk in,” Scott Pemberton said. “The name doesn’t have to be literal but set the tone of what the business is.”

If the name has less specific meaning, operators also can add a tagline to sum up the brand or product, such as Brookside’s new Element – Wellness Spa Studio.

Some entrepreneurs simply pull out an atlas when naming their operations.

In Kansas City you can eat at Texas Roadhouse (which originally opened in Clarksville, Ind.), California Pizza Kitchen (which sells flavors from Thai to Jamaican jerk), Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue (actually founded in Stillwell, Okla.), and Kentucky Fried Chicken (or the more svelte-sounding KFC).

You can also shop at California Closets, New York & Co. or Nebraska Furniture Mart, and get a pedicure at California Nails.

“Jayhawk” works well for Lawrence-based businesses, as does “Tiger” for those Columbia, Mo., operations. But what if those companies later want to expand into opposing team markets?

“Work local, but think global. Think about where you want to be,” said Jon Stephens, president of Rockhill Strategic LLC, a Kansas City branding and communications consulting firm. “If that is eventually going online, going outside the city or even neighborhood, does that make sense?”

When it comes to company names, don’t make your customers work too hard, branding experts advise.

But even they may overestimate the public.

Kansas Citians sometimes confuse Fritz’s Railroad Restaurants (the ones with food coming on little train tracks) with Fritz’s Chili (famous for, what else, chili).

Some people referred to the former Venue restaurant as “Vanew” and stumbled over the spelling of Raoul’s Velvet Room in Overland Park. Some Salutations by Mairead Design customers are stumped spelling “Salutations” before they even try to take on Mairead.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House can be more of a mouthful than a bite of its thick steaks. When Ruth Fertel bought New Orleans’ Chris Steak House in 1965 she agreed she wouldn’t relocate it under the same name. That wasn’t a problem until the original location burned down. Fertel moved the restaurant a few blocks and put her name in front of Chris. Now customers across the country just call it Ruth’s Chris.

Adams Dairy Bank in Blue Springs, Mo., sometimes has to explain to callers that it isn’t a dairy, just on the site of a former dairy, said David Chinnery, bank president and chief executive. But the cow image is now a big part of its brand – from the cowbell by the front door to its “News and Udder Things” newsletter to its “Who’s your cash cow?” billboards to its debit cards with a photo of an old dairy barn.

“We love it. It kind of differentiates us from other banks,” Chinnery said.

Once owners zone in on a name, they need to make sure it’s available.

Short of hiring an attorney or a branding firm, they can search on the Web and check the U.S. Patent Trademark Office website at www.uspto.gov. If the name is similar to one in the same industry, they probably won’t be able to get a trademark. Register.com will show which Internet domain names are available.

Attorneys can do a more extensive search. Spending a little on the front end is much more cost-effective than fighting a lawsuit later.

Companies considering a global marketplace also might want to make sure the name translates into other cultures.

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