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June 12, 2015

Pun and done: The risks of a witty business name

By Emma Peters

Some people see a wine store named Planet of the Grapes or a restaurant called A Salt and Battery and roll their eyes, or groan, or wince. Others, though, might appreciate the creativity that goes into naming your Vietnamese noodle shop Pho Sure or your bar Tequila Mockingbird.

But even the wittiest business owners have to be careful that their name doesn’t become a pun-hit wonder.

“It’s very hard to remember a pun,” says Steve Manning, CEO and founder of the naming agency Igor International. “They’re amusing at the moment – but then they’re like vapor – they’re gone.”

Some businesses get in trouble when the puns start to sound alike. Think of all the punny names for a hair salon that businesses could (and do have): Hair Today Gone Tomorrow, Million Hairs, Hair Me Out, Hair Force One, Hair Majesty, Hairs Johnny, Mane Attraction, Maneframe, you get the point. Pretty soon, all the punning on the same word starts to blend together.

“You’re using basically the same keywords all mixed up,” says Manning. Screenshot of Farecast's site, Microsoft's now-defunct airline price predictor tool.  

Creative-minded business owners might think their names are memorable for being quirky, but if a whole bunch of businesses pun with the same material, consumers won’t be able to distinguish or even remember them in the long term.

Naming a business is a big deal – the wrong name can doom a company even before it gets up and running. That’s why companies like Manning’s charge over $30,000 for their services. And, Manning adds, businesses can and do fail because of lackluster names.

There’s no formula to naming a company, but the general consensus is that a good name is well researched and strikes a balance between being specific and holding wide appeal.

Manning suggests considering certain questions during the naming process: Can this name accomplish anything for your company? Is it able to communicate a message to your target audience? Punny business names, he said, generally neglect these questions rather than answer them.
Manning says the only situation where a pun might work well is for a local business with no competition. If Cycloanalysts is the only bike shop in town, they don’t have to worry about having a name that’s easily confused or forgotten.

Tequila Mockingbird, Mexican restaurant and bar in New Canaan, CT. (Image: Tequila Mockingbird)

That might explain why punny business names are more prevalent on the local level (see hair salons mentioned above). There are only a handful of pun-named national companies - Petsmart, Men’s Wearhouse, Bare Escentuals and Staples chief among them.

Some luxury brands are not averse to taking on a little puniness in their names. One Fine Stay, a more upscale version of Airbnb that launched in 2009, operates in London, Los Angeles, New York and Paris. The company, which admittedly ranks quite low on the pun cringe-worthy scale, has gotten some favorable write-ups in Vogue and the New York Times. There’s also Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a Chicago-based company that owns over 100 restaurants throughout the country, including the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Las Vegas.  

So what’s a business owner yearning for some humor in their company’s name to do?

“What you’re really looking for is something that works on multiple levels instead of one,” Manning says. “You can’t do it in a sophomoric, juvenile, linear way. You can’t spell it all out for people. You have to let them get it.”

Such as? Well, Smart Mouth, for instance, a dental practice with offices in Texas and Oklahoma, is a good example, says Manning, whose company (of course) helped name it. Award Wieners, Disneyland restaurant in California. (Image: Disney)