A Business By Any Other Name... Naming fictional organisations.
"You know, not every local business name in your book has to start with 'Middlesbury'." This was a comment made one of my beta readers, as she worked her way through the completed first draft of my next book. As always, she made a very valid point.
So the first question is - why bother making up a company name at all? Why not just have your book populated with familiar high street stores, well-known coffee shops and easily recognisable pub chains? Well there is certainly a good argument for doing so. If you write fiction set in real locales - or even made-up towns in an otherwise realistic setting - eg a fictitious borough of modern-day London, then sprinkling familiar names throughout the story helps ground the reader and adds to authenticity. If you are writing a story set in a specific time-period, then perhaps the inclusion of a couple of shops that no longer exist may add to the realism. References to Woolworths or BHS (or even British Home Stores if you set the book before its revamp) will help set the scene for a high street from a bygone age. Needless to say, you will need to do your research here.
But using real businesses isn't always possible. First, it might not fit the narrative. For example, your character might need to be a small business owner. Imagine a scenario where your character is murdered late at night whilst closing up their coffee shop. You could fudge it and have them as the manager of a franchised Starbucks, for example, but think of all the problems that then causes. What are Starbucks' procedures for closing at night? What about the security system and CCTV cameras? Would SB keep their shop closed for weeks, allowing your detective to return to a pristine crime scene days later to follow a hunch - or would SB have reopened as soon as they were allowed, probably after redecorating? Get this wrong and you risk some smug barista calling you out on your Amazon review page. Instead, give your character their own independent coffee shop, and within reason, you can do what you want. Second, there is the thorny issue of Trademarks. As a rule, you can usually get away with using real businesses, as long as you don't paint them in a bad light. But technically, the holders of a trademark can demand that you don't use it, and seek damages if you really annoy them. If you were to write 'The murder occurred around the corner from WellKnownCoffeeShop', you are probably not going to be bothered too much. If you write 'The murder occurred inside WellKnownCoffeeShop, exploiting their well-known lack of security', then they may well object if they get wind of it. Everything in between is a grey area. I was once told of an author who had to rewrite a passage in a novel when they mentioned the bouncers on the door of a well-known, highly litigious, US-based burger chain. Said burger bar's lawyers objected to the use of their trademark, specifically because they didn't like the implication that their restaurants might not be safe at night. The fact that the author could give examples of actual restaurants where they employ bouncers cut no ice. Remove our name or we sue for trademark infringement. Whether they would win or not is irrelevant, given that authors' contracts usually have a clause that basically tells them that any litigation of this nature is the author's responsibility to sort out (and pay for); the publisher isn't going to risk having their fingers burned. Choose your battles. Third, you need something really nasty to happen in your book to people associated with the business and you don't want to tarnish some poor innocent business owner. When I wrote Forgive Me Father, I spent a lot of time coming up with a plausible-sounding religious order from Spain. I took great care to ensure that there were no actual religious orders with that name, because the last thing I wanted was for some poor bunch of monks minding their own business to be associated with the unpleasantness in my book!
So how does one go about naming a business? Giving a fictional business a plausible sounding name that isn't currently in use can be quite difficult. That's probably because people with marketing expertise and plenty of time on their hands have already spent many hours trying to come up with perfect names, and a lot of the good ones are already taken! My get-out-of-jail-free card is that my books are set in a fictional town. As far as I can tell, there are no real-world towns called Middlesbury, so there are unlikely to be real-world businesses called 'Middlesbury Vehicle Rentals' or 'Middlesbury Security Solutions' or the 'Middlesbury Leisure Centre'. And this is where my beta reader's observation becomes pertinent. Using the name of the place where the business is situated in the name is quite common - but don't over use it. And of course it's probably not really possible in a big city like London, as there would be dozens of businesses using that name.
Needless to say, Google is your friend here. Almost all businesses have an internet presence these days, so you can easily test out potential names. Facebook search can also be used.
So here are a few suggestions:
Keep it descriptive and combine with locale. eg Middlebury Vehicle Rentals. This is what I often do, but don't over-use it.
Name it after a person eg Bob's diner.
Name it after a location or landmark.My fictional town has a ruined Abbey, so I sometimes reference this in place names - eg a street call Abbey View Terrace.
Keep it generic and look up traditional or common names eg Red Lion Pub. This works well for pubs etc but perhaps less well for other business types.
Look for common patterns when naming businesses. Company names don't always have to be clever and original. For example, look up nail bars and you'll find that a lot of them have very similar names, perhaps prepended with the owner's name. www.yell.com is a great tool for this. Search for your business type, in a broad location and then scroll through for inspiration.
Ask for suggestions on social media! I recently asked for ideas for a name of a brand of cheap cosmetics; pocket-money friendly, aimed at young teens, the sort they might buy for a couple of quid off the shelf in Claire's Accessories for example. I got loads of suggestions, which I then mixed and matched until I had something that sounded about right, and which didn't already come up in a Google search.
Have you got any tips for naming businesses? Feel free to comment here or on social media. All the best, Paul