A site for registered investment advisors (RIAs) recently featured an article on naming for financial advisors. In it, the author underscored the tendency of some practices to adopt names that are already being used by others.
He noted that among the most successful RIAs in America,
I find 16 (again, apparently unrelated) firms whose names begin with ‘Cornerstone.’ Five are Heritage Financial Something and four more are Heritage Wealth Something. In addition to the 18 firms beginning with ‘Summit,’ another seven start with ‘Peak,’ and eleven names begin with the synonym ‘Pinnacle.’
Many larger practices eventually decide to adopt a true brand name rather than continue to be known by their partners’ names. (See the reasons why many financial advisors choose to rename their firms.) Creating a brand name enables a firm to really stand out in an industry cluttered with founder names. But instead of choosing a unique brand name, the firms noted in the article chose to be the same as others. They chose to be different from most, but the same as some.
These RIAs are succeeding even though their names aren’t unique, so should it matter?
Absolutely. Here’s why.
Someone Else Owns the Trademark
For each of the commonly used names quoted above, there’s a practice that actually holds a trademark on the name. For example, the oldest version of CORNERSTONE in the financial planning area is CORNERSTONE CAPITAL SYSTEMS, filed in 2003. Without my getting too deep into the weeds, understand that generic descriptors cannot be trademarked. So the only protectable word in that practice’s name is CORNERSTONE. Therefore, it wouldn’t help to try to register “CORNERSTONE FINANCIAL,” for example, if you are offering similar services as the practice who holds the trademark on CORNERSTONE CAPITAL SYSTEMS. Your registration will most likely be denied.
What all this means is that if you adopt a version of a name that’s already registered, you’ll likely waste time and money by trying to register it with the trademark office. If you use the name in commerce regardless, you’ll be violating someone’s trademark. You’ll never truly own your firm’s name, and theoretically, the trademark owner could send you a cease and desist letter at any time.
For an industry as risk averse as financial services, a surprising number of practices are willing to adopt a name that they don’t own. It’s like buying a house with a cloud over its title.
When it comes to naming for financial advisors, I understand that there’s a certain comfort level in using a familiar name. Everyone wants a safe-sounding name that’s positive and aspirational. But sorry to say, those familiar, expected names have already been taken. (Are we running out of trademarks? Unfortunately, yes.)
But look at this challenge as your opportunity to be fresh and different. Your new brand name can and should set you apart from other firms. When someone Googles your firm’s name, they shouldn’t have to wonder which result is actually you.
For Predisposing Potential Clients
Hearing your firm’s name will likely be a potential client’s first brand experience. Make it count. Your name can and should express an inherent truth about what you will do for your clients. Or how you’ll work together. Or the feeling your clients will have knowing their financial future is in good hands. While it’s challenging to develop an available brand name that expresses a compelling promise or differentiator, it can be done. (See our Brands page for just a few examples of the many Ameriprise firms that Pollywog has renamed.)
And when you’re finished, you’ll own a valuable intellectual property that will be a long-term asset for your business.
Kim Kardashian is abandoning the controversial name of her new line of shapewear.
As the old saying goes, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” A highly visible company will get an earful about a new brand whether it deserves criticism or not. (Witness the kerfuffles when Nintendo’s Wii and Apple’s iPad were introduced.)
But the line in the sand for naming is whether the brand is culturally offensive. Brand names that wander into ethnically or racially sensitive areas can expect to take a drubbing from the public. While Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and the Washington Redskins live on as brand names, it’s unlikely they could ever be introduced today. [Update 8/1/2020: All three of the aforementioned brands have or will be changing their name due to public pressure.]
An edgy name can be highly effective at getting attention and sticking in a customer’s mind. But invariably, someone is going to complain about the name. That’s the nature of edge—it’s controversial. And these days, social media gives everyone a microphone, and business owners can feel pressure about a questionable brand name choice from relatively few voices.
There’s nothing wrong with edge, per se. It’s a tool in the branding toolbox that can be used to great success. The question is, what kind of names can overcome controversy, and what kind should a business always stay away from?
Here are five cases in Charlotte, NC of names that stirred the pot. I have my opinion on which names went too far, and which rode that keen edge between acceptable and disaster. What do you think?
Here’s what happens when a business or product gets offensively named.
Pollywog creates names that go beyond mere cleverness and creativity. Each of our names tells a compelling story of what’s unique and desirable about a company, product or service — and makes it memorable. As veterans of the advertising, design, and marketing world, our team thrives on building brands, leveraging the latest trends, staying committed to our clients.
In fact, we’ve been identified as the leading naming agency in Minneapolis, and thanks to Clutch, the B2B research and reviews agency, the world now knows how well our market presence, customer service, and industry position stand up to our competitors. Pollywog has a sustained track record of success with developing businesses’ brands and stories, and we’re thankful for this recognition.
We were evaluated by Clutch based on a set of quantitative and qualitative criteria – chief among them being client reviews. We’ve collected 11 reviews since joining Clutch, and retained a 5 out of 5-star rating! We wanted to use this opportunity to highlight some of their comments below:
The project was about finding a name that meant something to our customers … You have to be a great writer or strategic thinker to get to the heart of a B2B liquid chemistry product and have it resonate with people, and Pollywog did an excellent job,” highlighted one client, the head of customer insights at a major chemical manufacturer. “Anytime we had a question, they were quick to answer, and they seamlessly managed our time. I appreciated their flexibility and creativity.
My business wouldn’t be where it is today, 11 years later, if it weren’t for them,” raved a second client, the founder of a concierge service. “They nailed the name to a T on the first round of options they provided, which had a lot to do with the fact that they took the time to get to know me and my brand very well. Their work has helped my business as it’s evolved over the years – it’s the best investment I’ve made, because my company wouldn’t be on the map without its branding.
Sister sites to Clutch, The Manifest and Visual Objects, have also recognized our top performance and expertise, with business news website The Manifest calling us one of the city’s best naming firms and portfolio curation platform Visual Objects featuring us as one of the industry’s premier branding agencies.
We’d like to think that our expertise and passion speak for themselves, but if you’re interested in learning more about our approach, please connect with us here. We’d love to talk about how we can help guide your brand in its most critical formative stages!
When you’re thinking about naming your company, what’s on your Must-Have list?
- Common English word.
- Connected to your brand promise, differentiator or offering.
- Easy to pronounce and spell.
- Available for trademark.
Seems reasonable—until you start checking to see which of your favorite name ideas are available to trademark. Unless you’ve tried naming a business in the last 5-10 years, you may not realize how barren the trademark landscape is. To put it simply, short, positive, common English names are largely no longer available in most trademark classes.
Last year, the Harvard Law Review published a study quantifying what we in the naming business have observed intuitively. In their article, “Are We Running Out of Trademarks?” the authors analyzed a number of factors and concluded: Yes, word-mark depletion is real, and it’s severe.
The Most Common, Positive Single Words Have Been Trademarked
Let’s look at the “common English word” criteria from the wish list above. To determine whether a word is common, the authors of the study looked at how many of the 1,000 most frequently used English words were registered as single-word trademarks. The result? 813, or more than 80%.
What about the other 187 words, you ask? Why not use those? Because you probably wouldn’t want them. They’re words like, “disease,” “killed,” “died,” “despite,” “drug,” “loss,” “older,” and so on.
When the frequently used word list is expanded to 86,408, the authors found that 74% of them had been claimed as a single-word trademark. In other words, when we speak conversational English, we’re saying someone’s trademark almost 3/4 of the time.
Who Will Find It Most Difficult to Register a Single-Word Trademark?
What about single-word trademarks within a particular class? US trademark law allows companies to claim identical marks if their goods and services are distinctly different. That’s why ACE hardware store and ACE bandages can co-exist as registered trademarks. When the authors analyzed single-word marks withinInternational Classes, they found some of the busiest classes using more than half of the most frequently used 86,408 words.
Trademarks are Getting Longer
As we’ve seen, single-word common English trademarks are in short supply. To find trademark availability, companies are filing multi-syllabic and/or multi-word marks.
The above graph shows us that today, most filings that successfully register consist of more than one word. Whether one word or two, trademarked names are also trending toward more syllables—again, because most positive, common English words with fewer syllables are simply no longer available. In the graph below we see that most successfully registered names have between four and five syllables.
What accounts for the downward trend in the mean? As Herman Cain famously said, “I don’t have facts to back this up,” but the trend line seems to start about the time that neologisms were becoming popular. When you can make up any word, it can be short and monosyllabic. I’m guessing that a flood of short neologisms has had a significant effect on the mean.
We see the same downward trend in character count. But even so, the mean is a whopping 14 characters for successfully registered names.
It’s Even Worse than it Looks
I wanted to give you a broad-brush view of today’s trademark situation without getting too deep into the weeds. Suffice it to say that not only are trademarks being used up, the USPTO has become more stringent in denying marks that they deem likely to cause confusion with an existing registered name. It’s not enough to search an International Class to see if the name you want to use has been taken. You also need to consider the relatedness of the goods and services. Recently, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) ruled that a cigar can’t have the same name as a wine, because they are often used together.
And it’s always been true that trademark examiners will give the boot to names that are similar but not identical. As the authors of the study note:
“… a registration for BLUE in Class 25, for apparel, would likely disallow another entity from registering in that class BLU, BLEU, BLUE MAN, and quite possibly even similar sounding marks such as BLOW as well.”
By now you may be thinking that neologisms are the way to go. But that would be a mistake. Launching with a word that means nothing to your audience will hobble your business. Your name would be easily ignored and less likely to be remembered because it carries no meaning and triggers no emotion. (See Brain Rules for Naming — #2)
On top of all the branding issues, there’s no guarantee that even a neologism will be available to trademark. The study’s authors write:
“Firms that choose neologisms generally prefer short, easily pronounceable, familiar-sounding, and reasonably euphonious terms. Our data indicate that this limited supply of new words is itself being depleted.”
Naming Strategies for Finding Available Trademarks
What’s a brander to do? You need a name. If you go to market without a trademark, you could open yourself up to myriad headaches down the road. Not only could you be infringing on someone else’s trademark, but another company could come along and register your name. If you wanted to fight for your common law rights to the name, it could cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
So be strategic about naming your business. Go into it with your eyes and mind wide open. Here are some tips.
- Understand that this is a business decision, not an emotional one. Unlike naming a child or pet—a completely emotional and subjective process—you’re creating a business asset. Stay objective. The most important factor in your brand name is that it communicate something appealing about your business. You don’t need to love it. (Although once you see how an effective brand name starts a story and creates opportunities, you may grow to love it!)
- Manage expectations.Help your team understand the challenging trademark landscape. Depending on your goods and services, you will probably not find an available name that hits every single criteria on their wish list. Explain #1 above.
- Be different. No, really. Be different.If your brand can differentiate itself in a way that no other company in your industry has, you can mine creative areas that nobody has been in before. Remember that personality can be a differentiator. Imagine the naming potential if you position your accounting company as the advocate who fiercely and relentlessly fights to save your clients money on taxes. You’d be naming in a field of mostly boring brand names. Your bold personality would stand out from your competition, and you’d have more opportunity to find an available name.
- Don’t set arbitrary goalposts.Pollywog was once contacted by an entrepreneur who wanted a name using an English word with five or fewer characters. Sure, there may be a few short names that haven’t been taken in his business space. But they probably wouldn’t have connected to anything appealing about his brand, and he probably wouldn’t have liked them. When it comes to the effectiveness of a brand name, character count is a fairly minor consideration. We put a lot more weight on how well a name connects to a brand promise or differentiator. Be open to longer names, because that’s where trademark availability is these days.
- Stretch creatively.Let’s just say it: The name you’d expect for any given new product is already gone. That’s why you need to come up with names that are completely unexpected, yet still appropriate. This requires creative leaps—thinking about your brand in many different ways. Explore, then explore some more. See our Five Essential Tools for Brainstorming Business Name Ideas.
- Work with an entrepreneurial trademark attorney.A good intellectual property attorney should do more than just protect you from risk. They should be your partner in trying to secure the name you want by being strategic in how they write the application.
In Henry Ford’s day, brakes were brakes, and a steering wheel was a steering wheel. But not anymore. Now auto makers want their proprietary technology to seem superior to their competitors’, so they give it a brand name instead of labeling it generically. The Automobile Association of America argues that this practice is confusing to drivers and could actually be dangerous.
Should auto tech be branded? Maybe, maybe not, but the genie is out of the bottle now.