Branding Step One: Choosing the Right Name

We settled on the name Shiba Ramen long before we were remotely serious about starting a company, back when this project was just some obscure weekend fantasy, bandied about in between billing hours at the firm and changing diapers at home (fyi, the only thing that's changed in the intervening 9 months is that today we actually work on the business in between billing hours and changing diapers).  Shiba Ramen was intuitive to us, and we never seriously considered a different name.  Let me explain why.

  Muses .  Our shibas, Momo (white) and Toro (red)

Muses.  Our shibas, Momo (white) and Toro (red)

A name is significant.  If you're a business, you make a conscious choice when you select your name.  You hope it helps customers identify and connect with you.  You want it to be easily spoken, and easily remembered.  And you want it to say something about you, to be part of your narrative.  Shiba Ramen is both functional and personal, and that's why we chose it.  We think it works for our business at the same time it says something about us.  

Distinction Is Critical

The first point is that the word "Shiba" is distinctive, just as a business's name needs to be to set it apart from its competitors, or even from general background noise.  It is an arbitrary word in that it has nothing to do with ramen, noodles, or even food.  Not many other companies or products (if any) use this word, at least here in the U.S. 

There's also an important legal reason to have a distinctive name, if you want intellectual property protection for your brand.  Federal trademark law is based on protecting distinctiveness.  The law gives the most protection to brand names that are "arbitrary" or "fanciful"--i.e., names that don't suggest or describe the nature of the product, either because they are entirely made-up words or because they are common words that don't hint at anything about the underlying product.  

Think about names like Xerox, Apple, Starbucks, and as the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office notes, Old Crow Whiskey (a good friend of mine in college, as it happens).  Names like this are "inherently distinctive" so that the government will grant a trademark without much red tape.  If you choose a name that describes your product (lets make up an example--"Noodles Ramen"), you have to prove to the government that customers out in the marketplace actually associate that name with you.  That's a real practical difference:  by using Shiba Ramen, I can apply (and have) for my trademark now and expect to get it, but if I picked Noodles Ramen, I'd probably have to be in business for quite a while and develop a serious reputation before the government would be willing to put its weight behind my alleged economic interest and give me a trademark.  

So Are Authenticity and Accessibility 

"Shiba" is short--five letters, two syllables--and easy to remember in English.  That's important, and it ties into the second reason we chose our name.  Shiba is a Japanese word.  We wanted to use a Japanese word to emphasize that our product is authentically Japanese, that it's the real thing, done the right way.  Also to reflect Hiroko's Japanese heritage, which is important to us and to our family.  

  Hamamatsu Ramen?   Naming our business after Hiroko's hometown (for example) just wouldn't have the same impact.

Hamamatsu Ramen?  Naming our business after Hiroko's hometown (for example) just wouldn't have the same impact.

But if we're intent on a Japanese name, it has to be something that is easily remembered and passed along by westerners.  If a name is too foreign, I think it's just harder to remember.  We have a harder time internalizing sounds that don't follow a familiar pattern.  Shiba is a word that I think people can get.  One reason for this I think is that "Sheba" with an "e" is a word we're already familiar with in the West, probably because of the biblical Queen of Sheba.  More than one person has mistakenly spelled our company's name with an "e".  The point is that Shiba (we think) strikes the appropriate balance between authenticity and public accessibility.    

  Wrong Shiba.   But maybe the Queen of Sheba makes our name easier to remember.   The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba,   Circle of Juan de la Corte  (Belgian), early 17th Century

Wrong Shiba.  But maybe the Queen of Sheba makes our name easier to remember.  The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Circle of Juan de la Corte (Belgian), early 17th Century

Crazy About Those Dogs

The third reason for our name is personal, and explains why it was so easy for us to commit to calling ourselves Shiba Ramen.  The literal translation of "shiba" is "brushwood," but shrubs are beside the point.  It's the shiba inu ("inu" is Japanese for "dog") that we care about.  The shiba inu is the iconic Japanese fox-like dog with pointed ears and a curly tail.  We are dedicated and enthusiastic owners of two of these unique and amazing dogs, Toro and Momo.  Crazy about these dogs, to be honest.  Like really nuts.  I'll write more about them later. 

Shibas are universally associated with Japan; they're a cultural icon of sorts.  And they've become really popular in the U.S. over the past decade or so (fueled, perhaps, by the shiba "puppy cam" that was viral on the Internet a few years ago).  So the shiba--this very Japanese image--is slowly entering the American cultural vernacular, just as the word is starting to enter our language.  Our name comes with built-in imagery, and the imagery in turn acts as a hook to help people remember our name.    

  Dogchildren.   Toro and Momo in 2013

Dogchildren.  Toro and Momo in 2013

Now you understand why we are Shiba Ramen.  Ramen Chemistry would have been a good alternative, for a lot of the reasons I've explained (we are former chemists, after all), but we think that name fits better with the theme of this blog. 

Next time, I'll explain how we went about creating our Shiba Ramen logo.