Forbes – Is Your Company Name Toxic?

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January 10, 2020

WRITTEN BY: Phil Davis for Forbes

In a rush to go to market, many aspiring startups and entrepreneurs create company names based on what they do, or worse, where they do it. This results in literal and descriptive names that quickly become obsolete or outdated, poisoning marketing efforts and killing future growth. In an attempt to counter the effects of these misleading and outmoded business names, owners spend crucial ad dollars in an attempt to “educate” their potential customer base about their true purpose.

In other words, entrepreneurs fall into the trap of continually correcting misconceptions that they conceived.

If that sounds ridiculous, witness established companies that have made the same mistake but still managed to survive:

• Auto-Owners Insurance now sells pet insurance and long-term care policies

• The original Burlington Coat Factory now sells baby cribs, strollers and toys

• WeatherTech now sells desktop cell phone holders for indoor use

• MailChimp promotes website design and CRM analytic tools

• Just Brakes offers “total car care” (as opposed to just brakes)

In an attempt to be all things to all people, companies pivot, expand and take on new product lines and service offerings, still clinging to their original, literal/descriptive brand identity. A classic example of this short-sighted practice was CompUSA, a brand that made hay when computers were the hot ticket. As products and services evolved, it expanded to other electronic goods, but with the same single product/geographic identity. It’s tough to break into another category when your name shouts something different. Likewise, Books-A-Million found it a tough read to go beyond ink and paper. Regrettably, consumers do judge a book by its cover.

In my 25-plus years of naming and rebranding, here are the top four indicators that you have a toxic company brand name:

1. Your company name reads like a map and you’ve already expanded beyond it.

It makes sense to let your customers know where you do business, just not in your company name. Why? Because it’s subject to change, and it can prejudice potential customers who are just outside your current service area. Why would I want a pediatrician, mechanic, accountant or builder from another city? What inherent benefit does a geographic descriptor infer to your company? And what happens if you move, expand or something happens in the community where you reside?

Only one of Virginia College’s 20-plus campuses were in Virginia. An account came to us years ago with the name “Joliet” in the company’s name. The issue? The city name was closely associated with a major prison. Fighting misperceptions is a life sentence.

2. Your tag line states that you are “more than just __.”

Out of desperation, companies in this predicament often resort to costly advertising as the antidote for toxic branding. Our local More Than Christmas store clamored to explain that they were so much more than their main product offering, stating so right in their name. What they were, no one was sure, but it was not-so-obviously more than Christmas.

When you have to apologize for your main product line, something is wrong. Overstock explains that it sells more than overstocked goods. To this day, Burlington is caught between promoting and disavowing coats in its messaging. This tug of war appears schizophrenic and confusing to potential customers. You are actually accusing them of being ignorant of what you really do, and that’s not their job, it’s yours.

3. You spend most of your introduction time explaining what you really do.

When you operate a company called Urethane Supply Company that doesn’t really supply urethane anymore, that’s a problem. When your company is called PCnet and you no longer use coax cables to network PCs, that’s also a problem. Rather than running costly ads, writing explanatory brochures or clarifying blog posts, consider naming strategies that are more flexible, accommodating and timeless in nature. (Think Best Buy vs. CompUSA). Literal/functional names not only run the risk of becoming outdated, they also reduce your services to commodity pricing. How much per pound for a computer?

4. Your company is lost online in a swill of soundalike names.

The most obvious naming strategies are rarely the best. Chances are if you thought of it right away, so have a host of competitors. What may have seemed like a great keyword-rich company name is now causing indigestion with the SEO crew. Your company name contains the industry buzzwords but so does half your industry. Even our industry is full of companies with naming in their names. The irony is rich.

Great brand names create separation and distinction. This is sometimes referred to as “white space” around the name.

Here’s a test. When potential customers search for your company name online, are you the only result from your industry that shows up? Or do hordes of lookalike, soundalike companies dilute your brand to the point of confusion?

The antidote? Reach for company names that highlight benefits over function.

Great brand names stand the test of time because they can bend without breaking. Apple Computers was able to jettison the computer portion of their name and safely carry on with the “core” brand of Apple. Amazon communicated the evergreen benefit of volume and diversity of goods, while Books-A-Million went BAM! RadioShack persisted with its Cold War-era identity of selling electronic doodads from a hut. It even mounted an effort to rebrand as the lesser of two evils, “The Shack.” The result? Radio silence.

Can singular product identity brand names succeed? Yes, with the caveat of staying in one’s original lane.

Pizza Hut primarily sells pizzas, but even they have experimented with WingStreet as a way to add revenue. Better yet to have company names built on metaphors, positive connotations and other timeless naming strategies that won’t cramp your style and growth going forward. Doing business with a limiting company name can be a bitter pill to swallow, so consider starting your business identity off right or rebranding to a moniker that is healthier to your bottom line.

About Phil Davis

Brand Naming Expert

With over twenty-five years of company naming and branding expertise, Tungsten founder Phil Davis is a marketing and advertising veteran, having personally named over 250 companies, products and services worldwide. As a sought-after naming expert, Phil has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal,, Businessweek, Entrepreneur, and Newsday.

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