The golden rule for choosing a business name

If you’ve ever Googled around for naming advice, you’ll have seen all the usual tips like ‘don’t choose a name that’s hard to pronounce’ and ‘make sure the domain name’s available’. Those are fine, and you should absolutely follow them, but they won’t really help you decide your company name.

The fact is there’s only one tip that matters, and I’ll give it to you at the end if you bear with me for a 56-second diversion through New York.

You’ve seen the archetypal Manhattan alley before. Piles of rubbish bags. Metal fire escapes. A couple of dumpsters. An underpaid extra lying still in a pool of ketchup. If anything, alleys are a defining characteristic of the place.

But there aren’t any. (As you’ll know if, like me, you’ve listened to this episode of the brilliant 99% Invisible podcast.)

Manhattan’s famously set out on a grid system of avenues running north to south and streets running east to west (and Broadway, granted). There isn’t any need for alleys. Well, I’m exaggerating a bit. There are two or three of them, but the one you’ve seen in all the movies and TV shows, the one that feeds the myth of the New York alley, is Cortlandt Alley. Seriously. Google it after this and you’ll see what I mean.

Hollywood directors are just as familiar with it as you are. So their briefs to location scouts always say something like Gimme that alley from Law & Order. In behavioural science terms, they’re choosing the alley that’s most available to them (the one that comes most readily to mind).

So directors are looking for the perfect representation of New York, and what’s available in their minds is Cortlandt Alley. But Cortlandt Alley isn’t the perfect representation of New York at all. It’s a phony.

Now for the segue: you’re looking to decide on a company name, and what’s available to you are famous examples like Apple, Nike and Google, as well as the placeholder name you came up with in three seconds when you first had the idea for the business. Those are your very own Cortlandts, and they’re stopping you coming up with the right name.

Once upon a time ‘Apple’ was just a word Steve Jobs scribbled on a notepad, and it’s no different to Banana or Melon. It only became a ‘great’ name because Apple became a great brand. And that placeholder name you’re so attached to, well, I suppose it might well be the right name. But then why are you reading this in the first place?   

Which brings me to that golden rule: resist your Cortlandts. They’re where naming projects, as well as movie extras, go to die.

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