Richard Branson's tips for naming your business

William Shakespeare once questioned, “What’s in a name?”, but any business owner knows the importance of choosing the right name – and the pressure that comes with it. Someone who knows this problem first-hand is Richard Branson who shared some advice in a recent blog.

“I’ve founded many companies, but I don’t consider myself an expert on naming them,” the Virgin Group founder admits. “My branding experience centres primarily on two enterprises: Student and Virgin. Both experiences gave me some insights that you might find helpful.”

Richard Branson Virgin Headshot

Student was Richard’s first business venture – a magazine he started with a group of friends while in high school. It was dedicated to giving young people a voice by focusing on the issues that they cared about the most. “The name was self-explanatory,” he says. “Student summed up what we were all about, which made pitching ideas to contributors, advertisers and interview subjects relatively easy.”

But Richard’s ambitions were bigger than just a magazine – he wanted to see the brand moving in different directions: Student conferences, a Student travel company, or even Student apartments. “I didn’t see Student as an end in itself, a noun; I saw it as the beginning of a whole range of services, an adjective. As a brand, Student was flexible – and the name alone would be immediately recognised and bring key values to mind.”

The team branched out from the magazine to launch the Student Advisory Centre – a hotline that young people could call for advice on physical and mental health. The dream of going into other industries didn’t take off until a bit later, though.

“While we were running the magazine, we spotted another interesting business opportunity. Almost everyone we knew spent a lot of time listening to music and a lot of money buying records. We rarely turned the record player off at our offices, and everyone would always rush out to buy the latest album from the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or Jefferson Airplane on the day it was released. I thought about the high cost of records and about our audience, and decided that we should sell records for a lower price by creating a mail-order service and advertising it in the magazine,” Richard says. “There would be little overhead, and no advertising costs.”

Before long the records brought in more cash than the magazine advertising so the team decided to come up with a separate name for the mail-order business – one that would stand alone and appeal to everyone instead of just students. So the team tried to come up with a good name – Slipped Disc was one of the favourites.

“We toyed with it for a while,” Richard says, “until one of the girls on our team leaned forward and said: ‘What about ‘Virgin’? We’re complete virgins at business.’ We all loved it, and it stuck.”

And it’s turned out to be a great name – Richard admits he’s not sure Slipped Disc Airways or Slipped Disc Hotels would have had quite the same appeal.

If you’re struggling to come up with a name for your business, Richard has four simple tips:

1. Know your audience: Think about the type of people you want to attract, and what appeals to them.

2. Keep it simple: Ensure that your brand name demonstrates what you’re all about. Remember that it doesn’t always have to be obvious: The name can be made up, or left of centre. Just look at names like Google, Apple, Facebook, Nike – and Virgin! Unlike Student, Virgin wasn’t self-explanatory, but it was simple enough that the word has become synonymous with the brand.

3. Choose something striking: If you hope to grow your business into other products and industries, it’s important to come up with a name that can be recognised far and wide.

4. Have fun! We created the Virgin brand in the 1970s, so you can imagine how people responded to the name. On one hand, it was the age of free love; on the other, much of society was still very conservative. By naming our brand Virgin, we challenged the status quo and had a hell of a lot of fun doing it. (And it served us well in terms of generating publicity!)

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