Whimsy vs. clarity: Which is best for your business name?

Wish upon a name

Most entrepreneurs agree that naming your business is as exciting and terrifying as naming your child. It’s a process that often involves long brainstorming sessions, caffeine and/or booze, and deciding between something descriptive and something playful.

There’s a wonderful passage in John Kenney’s novel, Truth in Advertising, about unusual business names. The main character is an ad man who works on television commercials and contracts out his post-production work to various New York shops.

“After you’ve shot the commercial, edited the commercial, you then primp it for air. This takes place at highly specialized companies … [with] uniformly bizarre names that bear no relation to the business they are in. No Stan Whaley’s Plumbing and Heating Supplies here. Instead, Chubby Feet, Hey Gary!, Ham Sandwich, and Super Happy Good Time. It would be gauche and profoundly uncool to ask how these post-production houses came up with their clever names or why they simply didn’t call themselves Alan’s Post-Production Services.”

In certain industries, cachet trumps clarity. If maintaining a certain level of mystery, chic or coolness is essential to your brand, a quirky, conversation-starting name might suit your business perfectly. If, on the other hand, your business practices and persona are simple and straightforward, so should your business name be.

Let’s look at some examples that run the gamut from obvious to oblique.

Clarity makes your business easy to find.

Let’s say you’re in the market for a new leather wallet and the mall offerings bore you, so you’re thinking handmade. You start looking on Etsy, where you search for “leather wallet” and are presented with more than 47,000 options. Gulp. To narrow the field, you search for shop names that include the phrase “leather goods,” and get a much more manageable 96 shops. You love what you see at One Star Leather Goods and score a hand-crafted minimalist billfold that will only look better with age.

If you go back to the 47,000 wallet options, you’ll see that you can purchase a leather wallet from all kinds of retailers with cool and quirky names — like Swanky Badger Design and JooJoobs — but you ended up at One Star Leather Goods because it had the entirety of your search phrase right there in the name.

If you rely on organic search traffic to generate sales, a self-explanatory business name can only benefit your business.

It might not be sexy, but it becomes an easy-to-follow roadmap that leads customers to your doorstep. Or website, as the case may be.

Pair a whimsical name with an straightforward URL.

If those 47,000 wallets made your eyes bug out, you may have decided to scrap the Etsy plan altogether. You’re wondering about locally made options and you live in Minneapolis (Like me! We should totally get coffee sometime.), so you pop “Minneapolis leather” into your favorite search engine. Marked is the very first company you see, and when you click through you fall madly in love with the Minneapolis-based business’s Bi-Fold Veg-Tanned Wallet. Mission accomplished.

When you look at the company logo, all you’ll see is Marked™ Minneapolis. Could be a tattoo parlor or art supply store for all you know. But the folks at Marked have done two clever things to help customers understand and find them:

  1. They’ve titled their page “Marked™ Leather, Hand Cut Leather,” which appears as the title of their search result entry.
  2. They’ve chosen markedleather.com for their URL.

The company name is simple to the point of being enigmatic, but when paired with the explanatory URL, it makes perfect sense. If you just can’t resist a quirky name but still want your product or service to be clear, opt for a tagline or web address that offers vital information to potential customers.

Name for exclusivity.

If you want to find Billykirk, you pretty much have to search for “Billykirk.” This unspeakably cool leather goods brand is popular with hipsters on both coasts, and offers dozens of hand-crafted wallet styles. The company’s founders opted for a cool but inexplicit name, and doing so has helped create some brand clout: Only people in the know have any idea what Billykirk does, and that works to the company’s advantage, albeit subtly.

If prestige, status and cachet are essential to success in your industry, or if building a coveted but somewhat exclusive brand works for your business model, by all means choose a name that sounds fantastic rolling off the lips.

In the end, of course, you must choose the name that feels right to you. And if that means dubbing your ice cream shop, The Green Swan Jamboree, so be it. Just make sure you weigh your options, and understand that naming clarity can be key to new business generation.

To get started, try our Business Name Generator – your future domain name might be available.

Sally McGraw
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, editor, and blogger. She is the creator the popular daily blog Already Pretty, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a Huffington Post contributor, and the author of several books about style and body image. Sally is also a ghostwriter and editor who specializes in non-fiction books and book proposals. She believes that writing is like solving a living, breathing, ever-changing puzzle, and finds the challenge exhilarating. Her favorite word is "crepuscular."