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Are Descriptive Names Superior for Your Company or Product?

by Marcia Yudkin

In her book Roadmap to Revenue, Kristin Zhivago argues against arbitrary or unusual names for products and companies, claiming that sales will always go up with a name that simply describes what is being sold. 

"Just the other day I was trying to remember the name of a stock photo website I had used only once," she writes. "It wasn't an easy name to remember (such as StockPhoto.com). I tried to find it via Google. It was, as it turns out, 'Veer.' It wasn't in the top 25 search results, and the name was so odd that it would have been easy to click on any other odd name, hoping it was the site I was looking for. StockPhoto.com has an advantage over Veer, right out of the gate. If you have a name like Veer, come up with a new name that is memorable and descriptive."

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I found Zhivago's example surprising, since the following companies compete against one another with minuscule differences in their names:

StockPhoto.com
iStockPhoto.com
BigStockPhoto.com
eStockPhoto.com
AStockPhotos.com
OStockPhoto.com
MyStockPhoto.com

Looking at that list, are you certain you would remember correctly which of these you'd previously visited? I would definitely not be sure about that. Now how about these competitors:

Getty Images
Shutterstock
Fotalia
PictureQuest
Mira ("look" in Spanish)

Outside of the realm of stock photos, examples of descriptive names include Quick Oil Change, Shampoo Etcetera, Animal Crackers, Green Home Accessories and Bargain Domains.

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Descriptive names do have advantages, but distinctiveness in the eyes and minds of customers is not one of them. The more flatly descriptive a name is, without an unexpected or creative element in it, the more easily it is confused with names of competitors.

Descriptive names are more likely to receive fortuitous search engine traffic, because they include syllables or words potential customers type when searching for a vendor. Normally they're also easy to pronounce and spell. And with a descriptive name, those who haven't transacted business with the company before can easily guess what line of work they are in.

On the minus side, descriptive names often cannot be trademarked. They have little cachet. Because the names are dull, they don't lend themselves to imaginative branding or design. Their descriptiveness can inhibit growth beyond the specifics in the name. And as mentioned, confusion with similarly descriptively named entities is common. 

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Need some hard evidence that descriptive names don't necessarily improve popularity? According to Alexa.com, which quantifies and compares traffic to web sites, Veer.com ranks 9,083 in popularity worldwide, while Stockphoto.com has a much lower popularity rank of 235,934. Veer sports a registered trademark, while StockPhoto does not.

So in what circumstances would I recommend descriptive names? First, when you have evidence that business has suffered because of an overly creative name. Second, when you're a startup and need all the search engine optimization advantages you can muster. And third, when you're hoping to horn in on a similarly named company's success, knowing that customers easily confuse descriptive names. (Whether such horning in is an ethical strategy I'll leave to you to decide!)

Copyright 2011 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

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