Is your business name holding you back?

I’ll admit it.

It makes my toes curl when a well-known business decides to be known by some made-up word.

I first became aware of this snobbish trait of mine in 2001 when Andersen Consulting decided it was going to call itself Accenture. I simply thought it was faddish and pretentious.

In the same year, I was even more horrified when the Post Office rebranded itself as Consignia. I wasn’t alone. After some 15 months of widespread derision, it sensibly backtracked and re-emerged as Royal Mail.

Yet, despite my dislike of made-up names, I have to admit they are distinctive. And these days, a distinctive name can give you a major business advantage.

Let’s think about it in terms of internet search. A few years ago, a lot of businesses realised that it could be a good idea to rename their firms after internet search terms.

So for a while, companies that had been known for years as something like ‘J. Jones, Widget Manufacturers’ would rename themselves as something like ‘Widget Manufacturers London’.

The thinking was that people in the capital who needed widgets were much more likely to type in ‘Widget Manufacturers London’ into Google than they were to type ‘J. Jones, Widget Manufacturers’. Companies thought they would rank better in the search engines if their name was the same as a popular search term – and in return they’d attract more business.

It was an updated version of firms calling themselves ‘1A Widget Manufacturers’ so they’d be at the front of the alphabetical queue in the ‘Widget Manufacturers’ section of the Yellow Pages. As the Yellow Pages went into decline, so too did the number of companies sticking 1A, A1 or 123 in front of their name.

Unfortunately, companies that changed their name to get better listings in either the Yellow Pages or Google soon faced the same problem – lots of their competitors did the same thing.

When someone like J.Jones changed the company name to ‘Widget Manufacturers London’, he’d quickly find his competition consisted of renamed firms called things like ‘Widget Makers London’, ‘London Widget Manufacturers’, ‘London Widget Suppliers’ and so on.

In other words, his firm wouldn’t stand out among the crowd – in exactly the same way that hundreds of firms with 123, A1 or 1A in front of their names didn’t stand out in the Yellow Pages. If anything, the name change cheapened their brand.

Clever companies don’t fall into this trap because they build their brands on a name, not a naming strategy.

Think of companies or brands like Adidas, Nike, PWC, Ikea, Boots, Sony, Jaguar, Ben & Jerry’s, Innocent, Nestlé, BP and the like. Not one of them has a name that explains what they offer. Each has a brand name that has become synonymous with what they offer.

And when you want to find them in Google, you’ll simply type their name and find them in an instant. They aren’t lost in the crowd.

So should you rush out and change your business name to something distinctive and unique? It’s a difficult call to make. Accenture has been such a successful rebrand that I struggled to remember the company was originally called Andersen Consulting.

On the other hand, people were so fond of the Post Office name that a child could have told the company that the ‘Consignia’ rebrand was doomed to failure.

In short, if you have a lot of years and brand capital invested in your company name, think very carefully before changing it.

On the other hand, if you’re starting a new venture or your current business name is often confused with similar ones, then giving it a distinctive new name could be a very smart move indeed.

After all, there are a lot of widget manufacturers out there. Imagine how much more business you’d get if people knew to search for you by name.

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