When computer scientists Gary Knott and Barry Bunow started their own software company on a shoestring, a big advertising budget was out of the question. That's why the Bethesda pair picked a name that expressed what they invent: Civilized Software.
"You should be as descriptive as you can about what you really produce," advises Mr. Knott, chief executive officer. The company, which does mathematical modeling for academics and research scientists, prides itself on software that's more than user-friendly and wanted to convey that in the name.
"User-friendly doesn't capture the idea of civility," says Mr. Knott, who went into business for himself after retiring from the U.S. Public Health Service. "We produce software that is not condescending or obscure -- software at which people don't become annoyed."
With just $30,000 in sales in the 2 1/2 months since its product went to market, Civilized Software is too poor to launch a big marketing drive. But naming experts say the firm took the right approach by selecting a name that was relatively simple and descriptive rather than arcane or technical.
"The biggest mistake high-tech companies make is that they talk to themselves and not to their customers. They look inward rather than outward," says S. B. Master, the president of Master-McNeil Inc., a San Francisco firm that helps technology companies name themselves and their products. Too often, Ms. Master says, such firms select overly technical names that can have the effect of intimidating rather than attracting would-be customers.
"The idea of names is to communicate," she observes.
It's a rare company that can get away with an obscure name, say identity consultants, who are paid to assist in the naming process. In particular, use of founders' own names, which rarely have wider meaning to the public at large, offer little to a new company, they say.
It's hard to overestimate the importance of a company's identity, says Joel Portugal, a partner in Anspach Grossman Portugal Inc., a New York-based firm that helps businesses select names, logos and other identifiers.
Before hunting for a specific name, Mr. Portugal says, a client is asked searching questions about how the name will fit with the client's business strategy. American Express, for example, wanted to create a credit card distinct from its traditional convenience card. It also wanted the name to convey that the card would allow a user to maximize his personal finance options. Optima is a manufacturered name derived from "optimize" and "maximize."
Anspach Grossman Portugal uses its own proprietary software to process the answers to key questions about naming criteria. Working with the criteria, the computer offers numerous words related to the client's objective. Navistar, for instance, was a computer-generated name related to the former International Harvester's objective that the name relate to navigation and direction.
But identity consultants caution that a computer program isn't the be-all and end-all in the naming process. Even where a computer is used, it is usually a person who refines the rough suggestions into proposed names. Then the names are often placed before a focus group to determine how they will sound to the public.
"What's a stupid name today usually in three to five years from now isn't stupid," Mr. Portugal says. Both Exxon and Xerox sounded silly to the public when first presented, he says. But the idea is not to solicit emotional reactions from a focus group. Rather, it is to present the group with a list of criteria and have members select the names that best fit the criteria.
A fabricated name is often best for a company with widespread operations. That's because a name must clear a rigorous search be sure it's legally available in all states and countries where a business intends to operate or sell its products. And the proliferation of global products has made name competition all the keener.
"Trademark lawyers earn their money -- it's a very tedious process," Mr. Portugal says. It's far better to go through this often lengthy process beforehand rather than be faced with a lawsuit or the need to change a name later, identity consultants insist.
Another vital step involves clearing the name in foreign languages. A name may sound fine in English yet have a negative or embarrassing meaning in a foreign language. And with more overseas sales, cross-cultural implications are becoming all the more important, Mr. Portugal says. American Express, for instance, was extremely careful that Optima had no bad connotations in the Far East, since it is determined to market the card there.
Despite the importance of a name, too many firms wait until the last minute to make a selection, Ms. Master says. "If you wait that long, it becomes a big, emotional thing within the company," she says.
One explanation for such procrastination is that many firms, especially technical companies, operate with code names that give them something they can call their product. They wait until the 11th hour to convert the code name into something they can take public. That turns name selection into a crisis that must be dealt with hurriedly before the product can be labeled, promoted and shipped.
"It's best to start thinking about a product name at least six months before the product is due to be shipped," Ms. Master says.
Besides avoiding crisis thinking, advance planning in name selection provides legal protection in an era when names can be "banked" for future use. Under previous federal law, a trademark
wasn't valid until a product was actually sold across state lines, Ms. Master says.
"New trademark regulations now let a company reserve a name prior to product shipment," she points out.
Given the mounting rivalry over names, Ms. Master argues against becoming too attached to one at the outset. It's better to select several good names on the assumption that the preferred choice may be unavailable, she says.
"A company may find an absolutely perfect name only to find out someone else owns the rights to the name," she says. "If the organization commits prematurely to a name that later turns out to be unavailable, it's very hard to re-energize to look for other names."
Besides the legal dimension, think about the context in which the name will be used. If it's a product name, will the name stand alone or relate to other products or services provided by the same company? Assuming products are related, a company can get the most mileage out of its marketing program by giving them all related names.
Many companies lack the wherewithal to pay identity consultants, whose fees generally amount to at least a few thousand dollars, to help select a name. One less pricey alternative is to purchase a software package designed to generate names and do other brainstorming for your business as well. Such software, which runs on a personal computer, typically costs $200 to $500.
One choice for a company stalking the right name might be Idea Fisher, which is touted as "empowering the thinking process." The software was created following 12 years of research and $3.5 million in development costs by Marsh Fisher, best known as co-founder of the Century 21 International real estate chain.
Idea Fisher works by increasing free association, a key part of the creative process, according to Mr. Fisher. After responding to a number of questions on the naming criteria, the software offers back a large number of alternative names, words and approaches.
"The computer gives you ideas but it doesn't put words together. You have to add the creative spark," Mr. Fisher says.
Idea Fisher is produced by Fisher Idea Systems Inc. of Irvine, Calif. The company can be reached by calling (800) 289-4332.
A similar software package, designed to help companies and individuals brainstorm on names and other innovations, is Idea Generator. The software was invented by Roy Nierenberg, an attorney and former member of President Carter's White House staff before starting Experience in Software of Berkeley, Calif.
"Naming is very important because it can give your customer a glimpse of the product and predispose them to buy it," Mr. Nierenberg says.
"And using a software tool in the naming process can certainly help," he says.
To reach Experience in Software, call (800) 678-7008.
"The Corporate Name: Asset or Liability?" available free from the identity-consulting firm Anspach Grossman Portugal Inc., 711 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017. Telephone: (212) 692-9000.
"The Name Game: How Corporate Name Changes Affect Stock Price," the summary of a study on names done at Dartmouth College. The six-page reprint may be obtained free from Anspach Grossman Portugal Inc., 711 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017. Telephone: (212) 692-9000.
"Naming," available free from the identity- consulting firm Landor Associates, 46 E. 61st St., New York, N.Y. 10021. Telephone (212) 751-6961.