How to name a company

Here are 5 steps to help your business find a suitable name

11-minute read

Choosing a name for your business is an important and challenging endeavour and affects how your company will be perceived.

Selecting the wrong name is like putting up a building on shaky ground. The right name, on the other hand, will serve as a strong foundation for your company’s future success.

The idea is to choose a name that you believe is going to work well with your customers.

Step 1. Decide on your company structure

Before selecting and registering a name, you’ll need to decide on a business structure for your future company.

If you choose a sole proprietorship, you can operate under your own name—you do not have to register a business name. You will need to register, though, if you add any words to your name (e.g., Jane Roy Consulting).

The other forms of business structures, namely general partnership and incorporation, must register a corporate name or a trade name with the government.

In Canada, you can incorporate your business, including registering your name, in 14 different jurisdictions: at the federal level, and in 10 provinces and three territories.

If you decide to incorporate federally, you can do so with Corporations Canada.

Legal names, trade names and trademarks

Legal names, trade names and trademarks are often used interchangeably, but each one is distinct.

Legal names

A corporate name is your company’s legal name. It will appear on your bank statements, invoices and contracts.

Corporations Canada offers two options for legal names: a numbered or word name.

A numbered name A word name
A set of digits followed by the word “Canada” (e.g.,15273498 Canada Ltd.) Letters, numbers and symbols followed by a legal element
Assigned to you by Corporations Canada Selected by you and approved by Corporations Canada if it complies with the requirements of the Canada Business Corporations Act
Cannot be assigned to a cooperative, only to business corporations or not-for-profit corporations Unlike a numbered name, a well-chosen, distinct word name can more aptly represent your business
Can be obtained more quickly than a word name When you apply online, Corporations Canada’s turnaround time is one business day. The speed of the final decision depends on how well you prepare before applying

Once your name is approved federally, you will have exclusive use of it throughout Canada.

If the jurisdiction of your incorporation is territorial or provincial, you will have the right to use your name only in the area(s) where you incorporate.

Trade name

For marketing purposes, you may choose to carry out your business under a different name than your legal one. This will be your trade name, also known as an operating name. Typically, it appears on a website or a storefront.

You must register a trade name at the provincial or territorial level. The only province that does not register trade names is Newfoundland and Labrador.

Tip: Make sure you find out what the registration process is for each province and/or territory where you want to operate. You can find that by going to the registry of the respective jurisdiction(s).

Trademark

A registered trademark is a recognizable sign, word, logo, symbol or combination that distinguishes your goods or services from those of other businesses.

If customers know your goods or services under your trade name, you can apply to register it as a trademark. If you use a different name to identify and promote your goods or services, you need to register that one as your trademark.

Once it’s registered with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, you will get a certificate that proves your ownership. It will give you exclusive rights to use the trademark for 10 years, renewable every decade.

Step 2. Meet certain requirements

For your legal name to be approved by Corporations Canada, it must comply with a number of requirements.

The government office summarizes the process in a short video, How to name your federal business.

The following are key requirements for a corporate name approval:

1. Your corporate name must abide by language rules

You can give your company a French or English name or use both languages. There is also an option with two separate, interchangeable names, with both the French and English names clearly representing the same corporation.

Examples of acceptable names

In Canada, outside of Quebec, you can combine French and English names, so that you can have a bookstore called Librairie Bonnelecture Inc., Goodreads Bookstore Inc. or Librairie Goodreads Inc. In Quebec, the descriptor, in this case, Librairie, would have to be in French.

If you want to add a word to your company name that has a different origin, you will need to use it in combination with English or French. For example, Ioannidis Greek Resto Inc. You will also have to explain where the name comes from (let’s say, named after your Greek grandfather) and why you want to use it.

As far as your corporate name is concerned, make sure it is distinctive.

2. Your corporate name must distinguish itself from others

A descriptive name is not the same as one that’s distinctive. A name that just describes your corporation’s activities, quality, goods or services, might not get approved.

3. There should be no confusion with existing names or trademarks

Avoid picking a name that looks or sounds like an existing corporate or trade name or trademark.

To avoid any confusion, do some research prior to proposing a name. Corporations Canada will also conduct a name search as part of the federal incorporation process using Nuans—a search tool of business names and trademarks.

There are other commercial services, and some free ones to search a name and get a report back.

If your report lists similar names, you will need to provide some further details to explain why your proposed name would not cause confusion.

Tip: Be prepared to describe the nature of your business, your clients and the area where your corporate name will be used. The more information you provide, the better your chances for approval.

4. You can use your name, or twin it with a descriptor

You are allowed to use your first or last name (or both) as your corporate name; though, a stand-alone name is indistinctive. Take the example of Belanger Ltd. You could expand on the name to convey more information about the business—Belanger Law Services Ltd., for example.

5. A company cannot be named for a specific place

Geographic names cannot be used as stand-alone legal names. For example, Mont-Tremblant Corp. would not get approved, but Mont-Tremblant Ski Rental Corp. would be an acceptable option.

6. Certain names are prohibited

There are several examples of names that cannot be used for your business, in English or French:

  • Parliament Hill
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police
  • United Nations, UN
  • cooperative, co-op or pool (unless you have incorporated a cooperative)
  • obscene or sexually suggestive words

You are also prohibited from including certain Canadian provincial names and abbreviations in federal corporate names.

7. Your name cannot be associated with a government body or financial institution

Your corporate name cannot say that it:

  • operates under royal or governmental patronage
  • is backed by the Government of Canada, or a provincial, territorial or foreign government
  • is connected with a university or a professional association
  • conducts the business of a stock exchange, financial institution or intermediary

Exceptions can be made if you obtain written consent from the party in question.

8. Your name cannot misrepresent what your company does

Avoid misdescriptive names. Your proposed corporate name cannot mislead about:

  • the nature of your business and what it does
  • the products your company makes or the services it delivers
  • what your employees do
  • where your products or services originate

For example, you should not call your corporation “Sam’s Fresh Vegetables Inc.” if you are going to sell canned veggies. You cannot use the word “organic” if your products are not certified.

9. Your business name must end with one of seven mandatory legal terms

The name of your business corporation has to have one of the following legal terms, either in French or English:

  • Incorporated
  • Limited
  • Corporation
  • Corp.
  • S.A.R.F.
  • Inc.
  • Ltd.

“If you have decided to incorporate federally, go to our website and make sure you understand all the criteria,” says Martin Lacelle. “Do your due diligence and take the extra hour to read and research.” 

Step 3. Create a great name

Full dot-com availability

It’s recommended that you own the domain name associated with your product, your brand, or company name, and that it be a dot-com name, ideally without hyphens or special characters.

Finding the right domain name is one of the first decisions you can make to ensure that your customers can find you online.

Selecting a fully available dot-com name will have a great impact on the effectiveness of your marketing communications. Stick with the domains that are either available for registration or that you can afford to buy.

Naming criteria

“In addition to full dot-com availability, pick a name that works hard for you,” says Karl T. Ulrich, CIBC Professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “So that once your consumers see it, they will immediately know what your product does and what its benefit proposition is.”

There are several naming criteria that need to be taken into account. Besides being legally and practically available to use, a great name must:

  • bring out the attributes of your products or services
  • offer up positive associations with your business
  • be easy to spell and not lead clients to other websites
  • be easy to pronounce for your target market
  • be relatively short, making it easy for your customers to remember and type (a long name can also work if it’s easy to remember)
  • be easy to remember and catchy and resonate with your target audience

Step 4. Go through the naming process

“To create a set of candidate names, you need to first articulate the mission of the name,” says Ulrich. “What is the product, service, or company about? What attributes do you want it to have?”

Create building blocks

Ulrich recommends you then create the building blocks for your names. These are words or part of words. They can be words found in a dictionary, proper nouns or root words that carry relevant meaning.

Once you’ve generated several blocks, start playing around with them. You can use some words directly or combine them. You can also alter the words by adding a character, a numeral, a spelling modification, a prefix or a suffix.

The purpose of the exercise is to create a set of complete words, with some that mean something and others that are made up.

You are unlikely to find a dictionary word with dot-com availability. The solution then is to create a compound name from several blocks, using both real and made-up words.

This graphic shows an example of this exercise for the naming of a new bike seat.

Analyze the names

Ulrich recommends a three-step process for conducting your name analysis:

Gather nominations

Ask your internal team or other stakeholders to submit their 20 favourite names among those you have created.

Put together a spreadsheet of potential names

List all your names using a set of evaluation criteria for each name on a 1-5 scale. They can include, for instance, word length, availability, quality of brand associations, unambiguous spelling, ease of pronunciation, popularity with the team.

The purpose is to end up with a short list of six to 10 fully dot-com available names.

Test out the names with your audience

Use a simple online survey tool involving 50 respondents. Randomize the name order, introduce the product, and let the target users rank the final list of candidates from “hate it” to “love it” on a five-point scale.

Ulrich also suggests giving the respondents an opportunity to free-associate with the names, as well as offer comments.

Tip: You can also ask respondents to write out the names they remember. “This will give you a good idea of the associations people have with the name, of recall and of whether there are spelling ambiguities,” explains Ulrich.

Once you’ve gone through the process of naming, you say ‘Of course, that’s the name of our company, it could not be anything else.’

Based on the survey, you will be able to identify one or two clear winners.

Once you’re done, do not wait too long to make the final decision. Think about the best names, talk it over and then just choose one.

Step 5. Incorporate online

Now that your future corporate name is selected, you’ll want to incorporate your business federally. There are two ways of going about it. You can either:

  • proceed directly to incorporating with Corporations Canada,or
  • have your name preapproved before you go through the process of incorporation.

Preapproval is not compulsory, but you may want to consider it before purchasing a domain name or paying the incorporation fee. Corporate name preapproval is free of charge.

Tip: Lacelle recommends entrepreneurs get in touch with experts to ask questions. “Send us an email or give us a call. We may advise you to seek some legal advice, if required. It is worth investing the time and the money to make sure that you set up your corporation in the best possible way.”

Once you are fully ready, go to the Online Filing Centre and click on “Incorporate.”

Your proposed name will become your legal corporate name as soon as you receive the certificate of incorporation issued by Corporations Canada.

Next step

Access our free and low-cost website creation tools for your business and start to expand your reach, build credibility, and increase brand and product awareness.

Podcast

What is the difference between a corporate name, trade name, brand name and domain name?

Martin Lacelle from Corporations Canada and lawyer James Plotkin clarify the differences between and importance of legal, trade, brand and domain names.