Top brand consultancies and naming agencies charge five- or even six-digit fees to develop company names. What’s behind those price tags, and what’s a less expensive approach to finding the perfect name for your company?
In 1999, Salon published “The name game,” a 5,000-word hit job on “big-league corporate naming.” The article portrays a late-’90s brand consulting industry full of pettiness, delusions of grandeur, faux-Latinate names like Agilent and Naviant, and price tags ranging from $75,000 “for a mere suffix” to a million-dollar “naming module.” A few quotes in the article seemed too good to be true; sadly, the author has since been outed as a serial fabricator and plagiarist. It’s likely some of the Salon story is embellished—if not invented whole cloth—but what about those prices? Are people really paying that much for a brand name?
A million dollars for a name?!
I’m not sure what that “naming module” included, but as far as I know, no one’s regularly charging $1,000,000 for a brand name. However, while $75,000 sounds steep for a syllable (especially in 1999 dollars!), it’s in the ballpark of typical fees charged by naming and brand identity agencies. In my experience, hiring an agency to help you name your company can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on factors like the nature of your company, the type of name you want, and the size and reputation of the agency.
Why would anyone pay so much?
It’s hard—impossible, probably—to pin an exact value on the handful of letters that make up a company’s name. But there are at least three reasons to invest in getting it right:
The right name can give you a leg up. If you’ve ever been moved by an inspirational speech or studied the lyrics of your favorite song, you already understand the power of language. A name is a company’s first and best opportunity to harness that power—to convey meaning, make an emotional impact, or stick in people’s minds.
The name lasts the lifetime of the company. If all goes well, the company name will outlast the brand’s initial logo, website and ad campaign—assets for which businesses willingly pay top dollar.
Naming is hard. Getting it wrong can lead to anonymity, bad press, a hasty rebrand and lost brand awareness. Unlike naming a pet, company naming requires legal availability, linguistic and cultural viability, internal alignment and customer acceptance. Leave it to amateurs, and you could be the next Bodega or Poachable.
For that price, what’s included?
Bear in mind, any five-digit price tag for naming should get you far more than a list of name ideas. Beyond the hundreds of ideas developed by multiple experienced namers, brand consultancies are usually charging for trademark prescreening, linguistic checks to ensure the names don’t mean something nasty in a relevant language or culture, and multiple rounds of presentations to company leaders. And those are just the tangible deliverables. The true benefits of working with an experienced namer or consultancy are intangible: experience, expertise, confidence, an outside perspective and the ability to drive consensus. Ultimately, you’re paying for a process that gets you to one name, which is far more difficult—and therefore more expensive—than 100 good name ideas.
But couldn’t I just do it myself (for less)?
If you’re bootstrapping a startup, even the low end of the price range above probably sounds expensive, if not outrageous. You can save money by taking a DIY approach to naming your company, but you’ll still want to make some small investments, just to play it safe:
- To find something that’s legally available, you’ll probably need hundreds of name ideas. You can spend time generating these yourself, collaborate with teammates, hire a reasonably priced freelancer or use an inexpensive crowdsourcing tool. For some inspiration and advice, check the websites of naming agencies for free naming guides or buy a book about company naming.
- Learn how to navigate the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s online trademark database to see whether your ideas are “ownable” from a legal standpoint. Or, to save time (and a headache), hire someone to conduct preliminary trademark screening on your strongest name candidates. Depending on how many names you want to screen, outsourcing this step will likely cost somewhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. But prescreening names will likely save you money in the long run, as you’ll ensure a more efficient naming process and a company name you can own.
- Don’t assume your multilingual friends can give you a good sense of whether your name ideas will work overseas. If you have any aspirations of doing business outside your native language, contact a translation firm or expert in linguistic checks. For one or two thousand dollars, they’ll reach out to multiple native speakers in other countries and ask about meaning, associations and pronunciation concerns.
Once you’ve taken these steps, all you need to do is get everyone involved to agree on a shortlisted name. Then have a lawyer help you with the trademark registration process, buy a domain, and prepare to launch your company. It’s easier said than done, but if you’re lucky, you’ll have a great company name for a fraction of what a big-league corporate naming agency would charge. If you’re not as lucky, however, the experience of trying to name your own company may make a better case for that hefty price tag than any naming agency ever could.