Human Names Are Great for Babies; Maybe Not for Companies

Oscar, Casper, Lola–entrepreneurs are naming their companies after humans, but if you’re going to play the name game, watch out for these tricky rules.

Nobody’s perfect. Google was originally founded with the name BackRub, Best Buy was once Sound of Music, and Yahoo … Well, Yahoo was dubbed Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web after founder Jerry Yang. Who knows what would’ve happened to these companies if they hadn’t come to their senses?

These days there’s a new naming trend among startups that could just as easily come back to bite you: entrepreneurs are giving their companies human names. Maybe you’ve noticed it–CasperLolaOscar.

While using the familiar monikers may help investors and consumers warm up to your concept, there are significant risks. Here are three.

  1. Sounds like… This game is not fun when it’s your product. 

It’s not uncommon for a perfectly normal name to have offensive connotations or translations in different countries. Case in point, the name of Apple’s flagship personal assistant: Siri. Maybe you’ve wondered before about what that name mean? The Swedish name has no glaringly negative implications in English, but when spoken aloud it sounds just like the Japanese word for “ass.”

Another surprising suspect? Chloe. French luxury fashion brand Chloé doesn’t appear to have suffered from the unfortunate coincidence, but in Germany the name Chloe is very similar to the name “klo,” which means “toilet.” If you plan to expand your brand internationally, just be aware: A completely innocent-sounding name in the United States might not be so innocent oversees.

  1. Beware uncomfortable bedfellows–and felons.

In 2013, Belgian chocolate maker “Italio Suisse” rebranded. The company, which had been around since 1923, was no longer associated with Italy or Switzerland, so instead, changed its name to “ISIS Chocolates.” The name change came at an unfortunate time, however, because a year later, a terrorist group with the same name began to dominate international news headlines. Needless to say, people didn’t want to buy sweets from ISIS Chocolates anymore.

Obviously it’s impossible to predict whether someone or something with your company name is going to suddenly shock the nation, but using a human name may be tempting fate.

  1.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, except when it gets you sued.

If you plan on going with a human name for your company, remember there are some legal risks to using certain names. For example, the names of characters in films or books may be protected by copyright and trademark laws or other personality rights. Although it takes more than just using a name to violate copyright law, the line is fairly blurry, and it might not be worth risking a possible lawsuit–particularly if you’re challenging a wealthy media company.

One such lawsuit emerged when Lucasfilm, the production company responsible for cultural gems like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, sued Ren Ventures Ltd. over using the name “Sabacc” for an app. Lucasfilm claims that Ren Ventures took the name from a fictional board game that was vital in developing the Star Wars world, although it was never explicitly mentioned in the franchise. Instances like this are few and far between, but they do happen. So be original, be creative, and be cautious.

By Jemima McEvoy



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