Choosing a company name

Choosing your company name is often one of the more exciting parts of starting out. There’s an endless choice from the simple ‘say it as it is’ approach to going for something more exotic. Finding a name that suits your business is important, but the origins can be as diverse as the names already out there. By following the guidance below, you’ll be able to come up with a shortlist and the ultimate name for your company, avoiding common pitfalls.

Choosing something suitable

It’s important to ensure that the name you choose is appropriate for your business and complies with the basic naming conventions that are set out by Companies House and other regulatory bodies. If you are planning to trade internationally, then further considerations are added such as translation and meaning in other languages.

Just think about some of the best known brands:

  • Adidas – founded by Adolf (Adi) Dassler (Das)
  • Amazon – the name was born from the founder wanting the name to appear first in alphabetical listings and he chose the name of the largest river in the world
  • Nike – named after the Greek goddess of victory
  • Wendy’s – the American diner chain is named after the founder’s daughter

Companies House rules

Companies House (the government organisation through which your company will be registered) have a number of restrictions related to naming your company. The rules are fairly straightforward to apply and there are a number of tools on their website to help you ensure that your name complies with the restrictions. As a limited company, you should have Limited or Ltd at the end of your company name; there are some exemptions, but as a rule this is a given component. They also make sure that the name (exact or similar) isn’t already in use – more detail is provided further into this guide.

Sensitive words

Sensitive words and expressions are to be avoided in the main. These are defined by Companies House as those that:

  • suggest business pre-eminence, a particular status, or a specific function (e.g. corporation, group, registered)
  • imply a connection with a government department, devolved administration or, public authority (e.g. assembly, cabinet office, commissioner, Crown Estate)
  • cause a criminal offence by infringing controlled or protected titles (e.g. architect, dietician, speech therapist, Olympic)

Certain sensitive words can be used in relation to a particular status or function, but they need to be qualified and permission granted to use them. There is a list of these words available on the Companies House website in Annexes A-C.

Branding and suitability

When thinking of a company name, it’s important to consider the connotations of any part of the name to your target audience. It’s good to stand out from the crowd, but your company name needs to make a positive connection with your audience. Think about what your proposed name says to your audience. Does it fit with your company’s personality and professional persona? Many companies opt for a ‘say what it does’ approach, but it is worthwhile looking at injecting some quirkiness and wordplay into your name if it is commonplace in your trading sector. It is always beneficial to do research into company names in your field; this will provide valuable insight into what’s culturally acceptable and who stands out from the crowd.

Trade mark rules

Not all businesses apply for a trademark, but it’s important to understand what a trademark is and how it can affect you.

The Intellectual Property Office (the government body that is responsible for granting trademark status) defines a trademark as ‘a sign which can distinguish your goods and services from those of your competitors’ or a ‘brand’. A brand is a ‘promise of an experience’ and conveys to customers a certain assurance about the nature of the product or services they receive.

Intellectual property rights provide legal protection for some of the most important aspects of a brand. It is important to understand that any infringement of copyright or a trademark can result in costly legal action. Trade marks protect words, logos or both against others using them in a similar field of business. Even if you do not intend to trademark your company name or any of the goods/services you plan to offer, you must ensure that the names you use do not infringe existing trademarks.

You can protect against other companies in your market using a name that’s identical or similar to your company’s name by applying for a registered trademark. It’s an excellent way of ensuring that all your hard work in marketing your business isn’t then utilised by someone else setting up a website or company name that’s almost the same as yours, and pulling customers away from your business. The application process is covered in more detail later in this section.

There are specific rules around what is acceptable trademark and what isn’t. The Intellectual Property Office provides guidance on what is acceptable and how to apply in a guidance booklet. The core elements for acceptance are that:

  • it isn’t the same as or similar to an existing trademark
  • it doesn’t wholly describe the goods or services you provide
  • it is distinctive
  • it doesn’t use customary phrases or words from the trade
  • it isn’t deceptive, offensive and doesn’t utilise words that describe illegal activities

Checking the name is available

Checking that your chosen name is available can be a little time consuming as there are a number of sources that need to be checked. This is an essential part of selecting an appropriate company name as Companies House and the Intellectual Property Office will reject names that are already in use or are too similar to existing registered names.

Companies House provides a WebCheck service to search against names in use.

The IPO has a similar tool to check against all registered trademarks in the UK. This ensures that you do not try to apply for a Trade Mark that looks or sounds similar to one that already exists in the same class of business as you intend to register it under. Once you’ve checked on the registers, the next step is to perform a web and domain name search for the name. This ensures that your chosen name isn’t registered as a domain name already. Many companies trade via a different web address to their registered company name, plus there is the added frustration of ‘speculative domain registrations’ where companies and individuals register domain names in the hope of selling them at inflated prices, due to their attractiveness as trading names. While you could bid for the domain name, it is sometimes too costly to do so.


Is it appropriate for your company?

Not all companies trademark their name, trading name or specific products and slogans. If you are looking to set up a limited company as quickly as possible, then applying for a trademark in advance can be prohibitive given the time it takes for the mark to be passed. The typical lead time for registering your trademark is three months; this covers 30 working days for the name to be assessed by an examiner, then it is published to enable other brand and trademark owners to raise any objections before it is registered. You need to assess whether protecting your company name is important enough to trademark it. For example, if you plan on building a business known by its name and want to ensure that nobody can use the name or a similar name to try to win business by confusion, then having a trademark could be a worthwhile investment. The same is true if you plan to trade online – there are many instances where near-duplicate URLs have been set up to try to capture business meant for the original provider of the goods or service. Having a trademark on the name will ensure that you have legal protection against this, which you can then use to have the site renamed and for the competitor to cease trading under that name.

Applying for a registered trademark

Applying for a trademark is a relatively simple process, but there is the risk of your application being rejected without a refund of the examination fee (£170 plus £50 per each additional class of business). Many companies opt to have their applications assessed and submitted by professional trademark specialists. To find a reputable firm, you can use the Institute of Trade Mark Attorney. A qualified specialist can provide you with sound advice on your application as well as filing the application for you and dealing with any resulting objections. Whilst there are additional fees for the service they provide, this can give you peace of mind and expedite the process of securing a registered trademark.

The class of business system means that a trademark is protected against duplicate or similar names within a particular field. Duplicate or similar names could be registered by a different owner in a different class e.g. ‘Green Giraffe’ could be trademarked by a landscaping firm and still be legitimately trademarked by a marketing firm because they are registered under different classes of business.

The business classes can be a little wide and confusing, but broadly speaking goods are covered by classes 1-34 and include everything from paper to beer and rubber to foodstuffs. Services are covered by classes 35-45 and include all services offered to individuals or companies. For example class 38 covers telecommunications as well as email services whilst class 35 covers business management, advertising and accountancy. The full list is available here and you need to register your trademark in the correct class(es) at the time of application.

If you are looking to trademark a name internationally, you can do this through the World Intellectual Property Organization.

The trademark application process can take months: UK examinations can come back sooner, but it is best to allow three months within the business start-up plan. It is also worth considering when you feel comfortable applying for the trademark. Many individuals starting brand-led businesses apply for their trademark first and wait for the application to at least pass the initial examination before then registering with Companies House and HMRC using the name.

Do I need a trademark?

  • Are you looking to trade online or build your business using a website as one of the main advertising tools? Great company or product names that aren’t trademarked can be undermined by near-duplicate URLs looking to capture customers searching for the original company.
  • Are you planning on building a brand around your company, or do you think you will in the future? Strong brands attract imitators.
  • Are you looking to sell the business or set up a franchise at a later date? A trademark defines the name as your property to allow you complete control over its use.
  • Are you just using your limited company as a trading vehicle for contracting or freelancing? If you are using your own name and you foresee little need to advertise or build a brand to secure work, then applying for a trademark may not be business critical.

Even if you decide against a trademark, you must ensure that the name you choose for your company does not infringe on any existing trademark to avoid costly litigation.

Now that you know the rules and perhaps have some ideas in mind, why don’t you get creative and see how to coin the ultimate word or phrase that best reflects you business? Check our popular series of blog posts for more inspiration on choosing:

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