The Impossible Business Name Game

By Gil Gerretsen

I feel sorry for the folks who are trying to name a new business because, in today's global environment, finding a workable business name is becoming ever more difficult. Here's what's going on.

Everyone acknowledges that a dot com website name, and a matching set of social media handles, establishes a company and/or brand as a significant player in the marketplace. The dot com option is by far the preferred option. Weaker variations also weaken the power and influence of that company or brand. They're just not the same.

However, according to Verisign (which distributes the .com and .net options) there are currently 143 MILLION dot com domain names taken. That’s about one for every 50 people on the planet! Every 2, 3 and 4 letter combo is long gone. Most 5 letter combos are also gone. It's also been said that almost every English word and two-word dot com moniker is taken.

Snazzy Monikers Are A Challenge

Coming up with a snazzy and unique moniker is starting to become a real challenge. If you add the desire to have matching social media handles … well, it's becoming nearly impossible! However, the problem doesn't stop there. You also need to be aware of intellectual property rights. Even if you locate a dot com name you like, you may be prevented from using it because someone owns a trademark that would block your use.

Here's how complicated it has become. Google renamed their parent company "Alphabet" but BMW owns alphabet.com. Nissan doesn't own Nissan.com. It's owned by a man named Uzi Nissan and Nissan, the car company, has been trying to get it from him for over two decades. Acronyms like FBI.com, CIA.com, NSA.com, and Mi6.com are all owned by others. BOA.com (a common variant for Bank of America) will teach you a lot about a particular variety of snakes.

Two New Trends

With this growing absence of viable dot com names, what are companies doing? Well, if you have at least $185,000 then you can get a customized dot brand ending with your name to the right of the dot (like .lego or .netflix). Some businesses are making do with the .net or .org or .biz type endings, but people have much less preference for them. In other nations you can get a promoted country code (for example .ca in Canada).  However, most people will still prefer and gravitate towards the dot com. A dot com is the gold standard.

So, what happens if you just can't get your preferred dot com, trademark, and social media handles? The emerging trend is a move towards two things: phrases and invented words.

Since phrases can stick in the memory, some companies are going that route. For example, Crescom Bank doesn't own crescom.com - so it went with HaveANiceBank.com - which takes some getting used to. There are more companies trying this approach, but the jury is still out about whether this method will catch on. It's not looking great at this time because people still expect to use the dot com option first.

The more successful trend seems to be inventing word or letter combinations to define a new brand. For example, the USA merger between SunTrust Bank and BB&T will create Truist Financial at Truist.com. Of course, some folks will love the Truist name and many will hate it. Many are certainly going … "Huh?"

The upside of artificial names is that you can get the dot com and all the variants, as well as a trademark that can be widely protected. The downside is that it will take a lot more marketing to build brand awareness and understanding. Nowadays, there remains little alternative. There's even a growing cadre of websites and services who will help companies invent a new name they can live with. No matter what, it will cost much more than the early days of the internet where you just went and bought your dot com name.

What About Existing Brands?

If you're hoping to build a significant brand, you now have an idea of the battle you will be facing. However, if you already own a distinctive and memorable brand, then take all the steps you can to protect it. Realize its value.

Make sure it is properly trademarked in the countries where you do business or where you intend to do business. If you're considering a merger or acquisition, give great thought to the value of the online and IP values of the brand. It might be better to adopt an existing established brand than try to invent a new brand (i.e. Truist might have been wiser keeping the Sun Trust brand).

A distinctive brand with full control of the dot com, social media monikers, and trademarks could become extremely valuable just for those items. For some, it may be the company's primary off-book asset. Soon, it might even become a key part of a company's appraisal value during merger or acquisition conversations. Investors might become far more willing to commit to businesses that have full control of a memorable brand package.

That's the bottom line. Think about your brand package. You dot com, your social media monikers, and your trademarks. Some could soon be worth millions!