Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to find a unique name for your business, product or service?

I decided to write a blog about how a business owner should go about choosing a name for his or her business, product or service. Branding is very important, and a successful business is one that has a brand that is easily recognizable and unique. I am not an expert in marketing or branding, so I will approach this task from the legal point of view. I will look at trademarks (trade names and service marks) to see which name would be easily protectable by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Choosing a name for me is a two-step process. First, you think of a name using the criteria I list below. Second, you conduct a thorough search on the USPTO database ( and on the internet to make sure that no one is using this name or a name that could be confusingly similar (including misspelled words, synonyms, foreign word translations). If someone has already claimed it, then go back to step one and start over.

So, step one involves identifying potential names. To do that, think of what are the essential characteristics, purposes or attributes of your business. What needs would the product or business serve? Who are the customers who will use or buy it? What images do you associate with this product or service? With this in mind, look at the five word categories below.

Category 1 consists of fanciful or coined (made up) words, i.e., words that do not exist in the dictionary. For example, Kodak, Aveeno or Neutragena are made up words that came to identify with very successful companies and products. These are the best names to have, as they are distinctive and will not be easily confused with any other name. As you think of your company, product or service, think of a play on words or sounds to make up a unique name that may also carry a hidden message describing what your business does. It may not be as difficult as it sounds.

Category 2 consists of arbitrary words, which are real dictionary words but are used to describe something other than their traditional meaning. For example, “Camel” brand is being used for cigarettes, “Apple” – for computers. These are also good names to trademark, as the use of the word is likely to be unique.

As we go down the category list, the words become more difficult to trademark. Category 3 consists of suggestive words, which can be indirectly used to describe the product or service that they are protecting or that invoke an image that can be associated with the product or service. For example, the word “caress” is a suggestive trademark for beauty soap bars or the word “obsession” is a suggestive trademark for a perfume. Some words can have a double meaning (for example, “Pea in the Pod” maternity clothes line). Here, one needs to be careful not to slip into the next category of descriptive words, which is generally not protectable.

Category 4 consists of descriptive words, i.e., words that describe the underlying product or service. Trademark protection is very unlikely for these words, as they are not distinct. Ordinary words used in an ordinary way do not warrant the protection of trademark law, as there may be many other business owners who would want to use the same words to describe their own businesses or products. For example, Reliable Pet Care would not work for a pet care service, as other pet care services would also like to advertise themselves as reliable.

The final category 5 consists of generic words. The rule here is that the USPTO will not register trademarks that are the generic names of the goods or services they seek to protect.

In conclusion, my advice is as follows: take your time selecting the name that is unique, falls under the first three categories, and is legally available. You would not want to spend much time and money only to find out later that the name is already being used by somebody else. Be creative in choosing your name: try new combinations of words, foreign words, words with double meaning or combinations of word and design that make the overall impression unique. The world of business is very competitive and having a unique brand is one way to distinguish your company and gain competitive advantage.

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