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.