Branding Expert: 5 Ingredients to a Spectacularly Awesome Business Name

By Erica Bray

When Tim McMullen set out to name the advertising agency he founded in 2000, he knew that he didn’t want to name it after himself.

“In our industry, just like law firms, a lot of companies are named after the person,” he says. “We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to be culture-centric.”

McMullen wanted a business name that evoked a community of dynamic and on-trend thinkers -- the type of people you'd want creating your innovative advertising campaigns, in other words.

This led him down a "naming journey" that ultimately resulted in the name redpepper, which subsequently spawned the equally innovative domain name,

His "naming journey" inspired a naming exercise that McMullen uses with clients to this day.

The Chief Marketing Scientist of Nashville-based redpepper, which works with brands such as Claire's, Kirkland's and Cracker Barrel, shares his formula for honing in on the perfect name for your business, project or brand -- based on how these five ingredients have helped to make his own company’s name so unforgettable.

1. Avoid ambiguous words

Your business name should stick firmly in the minds of potential customers, especially when you’re just starting out. Choosing ambiguous words, says McMullen, can work against you when it comes to customer recall.

“Take the word ‘love,’ for example,” he says. “There are literally millions of uses and interpretations of the word, ‘love.’ It means so many different things in the human brain.”

On the other hand, he says, a word such as “red pepper” has just a handful -- such as a chili pepper, a red pepper, a bell pepper.

“We’ll have people pass by our brand -- whether it’s on the web, a visit, a quick phone call, whatever it might be -- and they never forget our name,” McMullen says. “They just remember the word. The word itself is memorable because there are very few meanings.”

2. Use words with high association value

This flows into McMullen's second ingredient: Consider words or phrases that lend themselves to high association value. These are words that stand a higher chance of being tethered to a specific action, thing or moment -- something that ultimately helps to enhance memory recall.

To bring this piece of advice to life, McMullen pits the “love” versus “red pepper” examples against each other: “If I said, ‘Hey what did you love last week?’ You might be like, ‘I have no freaking clue. I loved 50 things last week.’ But if I asked, ‘Do you remember eating a red pepper last week?’ You would say, ‘Yeah, on Tuesday night we went to this Mexican restaurant and I had this stuffed bell pepper.’”

Because “red pepper” has fewer meanings, he says, it’s easier to recall where you would have associated with it.

On top of this, there is a visual component to the word “red pepper” that elevates the recall value -- as it paints a picture in the mind. Creating imagery in the mind of customers gives your business name an immediate association, something a person’s name rarely inspires.

3. Evoke a feeling

Your business name should inspire the feeling or mood you wish to convey with potential customers or clients, says McMullen.

For example, he wanted potential clients to view his agency as innovative and on-trend. Even though his company is not an actual red pepper or a farmer’s market that only sells red peppers, there are qualities that come with the word that McMullen can attach to what his business provides.

“Red pepper, by definition, is a fresh vegetable,” he says. “It’s got some spice to it, depending on which one it is.”

These qualities play into redpepper’s “fresh” approach to advertising, which further enhances recall.

“If someone says, ‘Hey, you should call redpepper. They’re a great, innovative advertising agency’ – you easily remember it,” he says. “But if I said, ‘Call Bob’s Advertising Agency. They’re a great innovative advertising agency’ – does Bob’s Advertising Agency sound fresh, innovative and forward-thinking, or does redpepper sound fresh, forward thinking and innovative?”

4. Sleep on It

McMullen considers sleep an important part of the creative process.

Back in 2000, his team of four initially brainstormed 500 words, sounds and partial words that could define his agency and wrote them on individual notecards. Then they slept. Recharged the next day, they came back to the table and cut that stack of words in half. Then they slept again.

After four days of reviewing options with fresh eyes and asking questions such as “Does this convey the feeling we want?” and “Does this make us sound forward-thinking?” -- they crowned “redpepper” the winner.

5. Choose a memorable domain name

In today’s world, having a website presence is critical to business survival. So thinking critically about the domain name attached to your web presence is just as important as conjuring up your company name.

“Even a domain name is so important because it becomes part of your story,” McMullen says. “It helps tell the story.”

In the case of redpepper, the agency’s creative process is inspired, in part, by “Alice in Wonderland.” Curiosity and exploration, in the form of team brainstorms, are fostered in a physical space nicknamed “Wonderland.” The office also has a library nicknamed “The Rabbit Hole.”

“What ‘Alice in Wonderland’ does is suspend reality,” McMullen explains. “She doesn’t want to be treated normally like everyone else. She wants to go into a fantasyland and think out things differently. She imagines this completely different world.”

This whimsical analogy led to the company’s creative domain: It’s an homage to “Alice in Wonderland” that uses one of the newest “not-com” domain options, 'dot-land' (.land) -- one of hundreds of new options that forward-thinking companies and individuals are gravitating toward.

“redpepper is an agency that creates work that’s found by escaping your normal space of thinking and entering a new one,” says McMullen. “We wanted a domain name that supported that.”

When the ‘dot-land’ (.land) option became available in 2014, the agency switched from to …

"The 'dot-land' [.land] gives the URL some personality and makes it feel like a destination," McMullen says. " was a fantastic way to keep the naming convention and also save ourselves three characters and have an even stickier domain name."

McMullen says new options such as ‘dot-land’ enable companies to further promote their unique brand stories via a website name.

“It’s turning [the Internet] into a creative space ten-fold from what it used to be,” he says of “not-com” domains entering the Internet space. “It’s now an opportunity to extend your brand story beyond just the name.”