1. Use your name

Perhaps the oldest and certainly still one of the more popular forms of business name is one that includes the names or surnames of the founder or founders (or even the names of their children).

In the U.K., with a family business this would traditionally have featured the initials and surname of the founders. In a partnership, the names or surnames could be combined as separate words or run together.

Depending on whether there was a single figurehead or more than one partner, we might see a name like J. Sainsbury or, to take two well-known examples, Arthur and Fraser (nowadays 'House of Fraser'), or Marks and Spencer (for equal partners). Over time these may be shortened (as with 'Sainsburys').

Where a child or the children of the founder were also involved or became directors upon the retirement of the founder, it was once common to see ‘& son(s)’ added, or more rarely ‘& daughter(s)’. (It was even the case that when a daughter or daughters were involved, the term ‘and son(s)’ would still sometimes be used to fit in with that convention.) Although very common in the past, this has fallen out of fashion, and is now relatively rare.

Another variant form of the surname-based company name is the addition of ‘& Co.’ (short for ‘and company’), or sometimes just ‘Co.’. For example, F. W. Woolworth Co., after the company grown by Frank Winfield Woolworth from humble origins in the USA in 1879.

Limited companies are generally shown with ‘Ltd’ or 'Limited' appended to their names, and this may be combined with Co. in a form like ‘& Co. Ltd.’ after the name-based part.

There are still many companies with names of this type, but in recent times more traditional names have tended to be eclipsed by modern trends, and branding sensibilities have tended to drive trendier names to evoke a desired reaction and present something that is hoped to generate a modern public face for the company.

One key advantage of a surname-based company name is that it can support the image of a traditional family business, perhaps appealing to customers who want traditional business values or who are looking for something that evokes the business names that were popular in their youth. It can also give the impression of a local family-owned business, perhaps one handed down through generations. Once established as a well-known name, it can confer an air of prestige and, depending on market positioning, exclusivity.

A potential disadvantage is that until wider public awareness is reached, it may appear to be just another small company among hundreds of thousands, and without that association in people's minds it frequently give no indication by itself of the function of the business and what it provides.

 

2. Use what you do

Instead of incorporating a surname or something derived from a name, many businesses include a word or phrase in their company name that describes the type of products or services they sell. Whether they are butchers, bakers, florists, dental surgeons, plumbers, bricklayers, roofing contractors or publishers, including that in their company name helps the public instantly understand what to expect. And if it is part of the website URL, then having that keyword in the name can boost visibility and the chances of being found in a search engine.

Most often, the descriptive element will be added to the end of the company name, and may be preceded by a personal name, a brand name or a place name, for example the name of the Internet services provider America Online (better known as AOL for short) denotes its country of location and the area of services in which it operates.

Thanks to the advent of the Internet where catchy, short and memorable domain names tend to attract attention, there are also increasing numbers of company names that describe the site's main function, e.g. market price comparison websites like GoCompare, Pricerunner, Pricegrabber and Moneysupermarket.

 

3. Evoke a mood or an image which is relevant to what you do

Rather than a company name that literally says what you do, why not use some words (or a phrase) that evokes a mood, image or experience that is relevant to your company. For example a holiday company's name might include words that evoke sun-kissed beaches, exotic destinations, or the experience of escaping from everyday life to a different place and perhaps a different culture. A marketing agency might use words that evoke success, high visibility and the act of successfully communicating with a mass audience.

Words that are evocative of particular types of experience or image can be very effective at creating the desired tone or flavour of a brand. Ideally, the words chosen should have positive associations in the minds of the target market. The 'Slug and Lettuce' is an interesting counter-example where it is memorable, but the association is probably not such a positive one!

 

4. Add a new meaning to a word 

Another trend that has been particularly marked since the advent of the Internet has been the creation of company names and brands that consist of common words, for instance the business directories Yell and Yelp. ‘Yell’ was an offshoot of what were originally the yellow pages of the printed telephone directory, via the standalone Yellow Pages directory. But ‘Yell’ is itself a common word and the decision to shorten ‘Yellow Pages’ to ‘Yell’ for the purposes of the Internet ostensibly has a lot to do with the advantage of shorter domain names that are quick to type and easy to remember.

'Amazon' is a fairly common word that is now probably better known as the Internet retail giant operating in diverse product areas (having originally started out as a discount online bookseller in the 1990s). The exotic association of the company name with the Amazon river and rainforest, as well as its cultural association with powerful female warriors in ancient Greek mythology, offered a number of positive associations at the outset.

In many cases, common words used as company names may have no apparent relation to the substance or purpose of the business but are nonetheless effective as brands. For example, the company Apple, one of the most famous brands in the world, has no relevance to an actual apple.

 

5. Think of a new word

There is a finite supply of common words that can be registered as company names because no-one else has trademarked or registered them, and domain names that consist of single real words have invariably been registered already. This can make completely made-up or deliberately mis-spelled names an attractive choice for businesses starting up, or looking to obtain a reasonably short domain name in the crowded Internet space of today.

Many of these made-up names may be related to real words without being the same as them (e.g. Qinetiq, derived from Kinetic), while others may group separate words in unlikely-seeming combinations to create a unique and memorable name (such as greetings cards and gifts provider Moonpig).

The food products company Phileas Fogg seems like a name, but was a fictional character in a work of literature – Jules Verne’s novel ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ - and using the novel's exotic 'gentleman traveller' associations, it links well with food that evokes flavours from other countries.

 

6. Abbreviate a series of words (or names!)

There is something peculiarly corporate-sounding about acronyms when used in the names of businesses or in their branding. This may give an impression of brisk efficiency at the same time as being typically fairly easy to remember, once familiarity with the brand is established.

Co-operative Retail Stores have recently been rebranded in a more modern fashion as ‘The Co-Operative’, but for a time represented themselves as CRS, especially on price labels. 

Our company GWS Media arose from a business originally called Grave Web Services, after the founding directors Richard and David Graves and the function of their business. 'GWS' was originally a de facto abbreviation of the full company name that was easier to say, and started to be used by clients and by the founders. The decision was taken to officially adopt the name GWS Media at the time of incorporation some years later, reflecting the fact that the scope of services offered was no longer restricted to services directly connected with websites, at the same time as providing continuity with the original name.