Descriptive Names: Wasting Space Since 1900

By Ben Weis
February 5, 2015
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Filed under Naming

A name shouldn’t tell people what a business or product does.

These names—descriptive names—are everywhere: Microsoft, General Electric, Carfax, Jacksonville Sports Store. The business version of occupational names like Smith, Carpenter, and Miller, they’re united by their flare for generic description. They do little to help the businesses and products they describe.


“But that’s counterintuitive!” the skeptic says. “I could name a successful company with a descriptive name in every industry. This post has named three already, for God’s sake. Plus, people have been giving businesses descriptive names for centuries. It’s a time-honored tradition, and the easiest way to tell people what a company does. They’re everywhere for one reason: they work. And most importantly, how else are customers going to know what we do?”

Let’s start with that last point. Imagine a brick-and-mortar sports store called Field Day. You’re standing outside. You’d have to be an idiot to stand outside and not know it’s a sports store. There are shoes in the window behind a poster of Stephen Curry. The name is on a sign with a football on it. How could anyone miss it? A descriptive name would be redundant.

Online, names come with even more context. Field Day’s Google ads would have metatext in support. Banner ads have background images and room for extra text. The web is media-rich. It’s next to impossible to find text without context. A name doesn’t need to say what you do—there are better ways to say it.

The skeptic says that descriptive names are everywhere. He’s right. We chalk some of this ubiquity up to fear: these names are safe, obvious, and expected. They don’t help businesses stand out. Sure, names are the most powerful way to tell people what happens behind the door, but names are the most powerful way to do a ton of other stuff, too. They’re the handle, the first thing anyone learns. Make people smile, get them curious, show them how you see the world: these are worthwhile naming objectives. Stating the core focus doesn’t have to come first. (It’s probably not the most interesting point to make, anyway.) Descriptive names, in that sense, are like starting a dorm room conversation by saying your major.

“Did I mention that I majored in divinity?” “So I guess I’m done reading, then.”
“Did I mention that I majored in divinity?”
“So I guess I’m done reading, then.”

Yes, descriptive names have been around for a long time. There’s another way to put that: descriptive names are dinosaurs. They’re artifacts of a bygone era. They were perfect for the yellow pages, but good luck on Google with a name that describes what you do. Descriptive names worked in the 19th century, when reproducing an image cost more than firebranding a name into a sign. Today, context comes cheap, and descriptive names not only decrease search visibility, they’re also less likely to get clicks. No one needs to learn more once they’ve read your name—and no one wants to.

That’s not to say that a descriptive name prohibits success. It just won’t help. It’ll make a company work harder to communicate personality, and when the brand suffers, the marketing team has to pour time and energy into pumping life into a lifeless name instead of being more useful elsewhere. Anyone who watched TV during the early 2000s remembers how hard Microsoft had to try. Their descriptive name typecast them as dorky and rigid, a mold they so desperately tried to break.

And I'm a paid actor.
And I’m a paid actor.

Did we mention what happens when companies with descriptive names change their focus? (Hint: we get more business.)

So use that precious, waterfront real estate to say something interesting. Or get in touch and hire someone who can.