What's in a name?
For many solopreneurs and small businesses, the term "branding" is synonymous with picking a business name. “What should I name my business?” or “Should I rename my business?” or "Don't you like my clever business name?" are three of the most common questions I am asked by potential or new clients.
They're also not questions I can answer at first blush. Just as branding is much more complex than simply picking a business name, so your choice of business name involves a host of related factors. Not the least among them are:
- The type of audience you seek to reach
- The type of work you do
- How you are positioned in your marketplace
- The tone, feel and style of your brand
- Whether your business is connection-based or commodity-based
- Your personal preference
- How likely you are to scale your business
- Whether the business is an investment or a lifestyle
And if all that isn't enough, there's the even more basic questions of exactly who you are a a person and professional, how you're different from others in your field and what you offer your audience at a core, emotional level.
All that, just to pick a business name.
My job as a storyteller and strategist, of course, is to draw your attention to these deeper questions inside your brand so we ultimately can solve the outside question of what you'll call it. After we have established your core and worked through the other questions, we are better positioned to ask the real question that underlies your name game:
How do you want your clients to work with?
You may be thinking, "Well, with me, of course!" But hold it. Not so fast.
Do you really want your clients working with you? Or do you actually want to place something between you and them? Like a team? Or a storefront? Or a community you've curated? How you want to interact with your clients is the single most important determinant of how you choose a name.
As with your archetypes—the story role you and your business embody—your business name immediately sparks an image in your customer’s mind. Ideally, this image will match your most prominent archetype and evoke associations to what you really offer: thought leadership, companionship, instruction, or one of many other possible offerings.
Many clients will hear your business name before they even meet you. So it’s important your business name genuinely embodies who you are with as little explanation as possible. Mystique is useful in controlled doses. Too much ambiguity or a "clever tease" may actually turn clients away or lower your Google ranking if not properly handled.
Once you're clear on how you want to interact with your clients, and you want to be perceived, you're prepared to choose your option.
What are the most common naming options?
Name Type #1: You, plain and simple
This might sound like the obvious option, but it’s the one solopreneurs and small businesses most often overlook. In the rush to create the most clever name possible, we tend to devalue the power of associating our business directly with … us. It takes guts, after all. If you were raised to equate self-deprecation with humility, as I was, you may have a tough time seeing yourself as the commodity you offer. But as Sally Hogshead has so eloquently asserted, “The greatest value you can add is to become more of yourself.” Whenever possible, I recommend being yourself, right in your business name. Own your moniker and rock it.
If the power of your brand lies in you—in the expertise that resides inside yourself—this is likely your best and most courageous option. Coaches, consultants, and others selling knowledge or self-improvement can find this powerful for building trust. Lifestyle brands also benefit, because what “unites” their offerings is the person behind them. (NOTE: Some entrepreneurs take the route of using their name + their area of expertise, but personally I find this commoditizing. If you tell me you're "Jane Green - Cupcake Specialist" you can't really be anything else. And you may just have overdefined your niche, locking yourself into the endless production-based role of a baker when your real strength turns out to be culinary strategy—a whole different business approach.)
The web is full of entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to rock their name. Marie Forleo is one, and perhaps one of the more famous. Nathalie Lussier is another, as is my own beloved business coach Cat LeBlanc. Even I chose this route. Why? Because if I firmly believe that YOU are your best business asset … and if my brand didn’t invite you to connect directly with me … what would that say about my message? Granted, it takes some self confidence to fully own your brand. But the naughty little secret there is that confidence comes from boldness, not the other way around. Your best business name just might be the one you were born with.
Name Option #2: You, the expert
In this option, your name becomes a descriptor that’s been turned into a title. For entrepreneurs providing a skilled product or service, this is often a good option. Entrepreneurs who choose an expert name ensure that people know them primarily for what they’re good at. The benefit here is absolute clarity. The down side? Expert business names can come across as cold, distant, or utilitarian because you’ve turned your expertise into a “gatekeeper” between you and audience. Going back to our example earlier, if Jane Green chooses The Cupcake Maker as her business name, she's locked into her product offering and immediately put her work between us and her. This is a step closer to a commoditized offering . . . which, of course, may be right for Jane depending on her situation.
If you intend your brand to be ninja-like (swooping in to achieve a certain goal, then pulling out), being known for your superpower could be very effective. Alternatively, if you have a name that’s hard for anyone to remember, pronounce or write, this is a great way to stay top-of-mind. For example, one of my clients is a talented jewelry designer who takes pride in being her client’s “personal” designer. However, she has a very long German last name they can’t remember, so she created an expert moniker, "The Metalsmith Mage." Her clients can say, “It's a Metalsmith Mage design" while flaunting her latest creation to their awed friends. Game over.
You'll find many successful solopreneurs who've taken this approach. Two I know and admire chose this path are: Sarah Schwab, a content marketing expert who has branded herself as The Content Creation Coach, and Theresa Reed, a metaphysical businesswoman known primarily as The Tarot Lady. In each case, their business name immediately conjures their expertise. For their brands, this works very well. Each sells a specific skill set under that business name, a skill that is bought for a limited period of time for a very specific service. This is not to say they don't have repeat clients, just that they are hired for a very unique business offering, one they've committed to long-term.
Name Option #3: You, the team
For most solopreneurs, this is usually the first option they imagine: one that describes their business but does not use their personal name or point to their expertise. This is not surprising. Many if not most multi-person companies use a name that the entire group can “own.” So why shouldn't solopreneurs or very small teams do the same? But therein lies the challenge: solopreneurs are not a team. By choosing this option, you even further remove your audience from the real you. If Jane Green chooses this option, she's likely going to go with a name like JG Confections or Frosting Unlimited (okay, maybe not that one ...) that only barely hints at her.
In cases where a solopreneur plans to add a team as soon as possible, or always works with a team of freelancers they hire, having an “umbrella” for everyone can be helpful. Alternatively, for highly creative entrepreneurs, having an extremely unique name can help set your practice or product apart. Most entrepreneurs, however, will be best served by options one and two. For Jane, if she's got three bakeries full of employees, JG Confectioners might indeed be a suitable option. Although personally, I would still encourage her to keep her brand as personal to her as possible, ensuring her customers feel connected to her unique touch in every cupcake.
For the reasons stated above, you’ll find fewer online entrepreneurs who’ve chosen number three. The fabulous Alison Monday of Tiny Blue Orange comes to mind, as a creative businesswoman whose moniker sticks in your mind and absolutely works for her identity. Another is Katie Lee of The Small Change Project, a lifestyle design business that helps people implement changes in their lives. Either of these solopreneurs could add a staff to their roster without changing their business name.
In the End: Choose Wisely
Whatever business name (or re-name) you ultimately choose, it’s important to make a decision from a place of inner purpose, not the whim of the moment. A clever idea might be perfect for your business. It also might not be so clever depending on your marketplace, your audience. and your positioning online. It all depends on your situation.
Which is why it's important that you've worked through deeper questions of business identity and intent before choosing the name you'll be living with for a very long time.
By starting with the inside of your brand, and working outward to the question of naming, you can be in a much more solid place to make a decision that resonates with the clients you’re seeking to reach.
It all starts with your core story.
Until next time, speak freely.
What's your business name? How did you choose that name? Share below!
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