Whatever reason you may think you have for changing your company’s name—and there are a few good reasons—just remember, you’ve invested a lot in getting your existing name established in the minds of customers, vendors, friends and everyone who has followed you on social media. Changing your company name is an expensive hassle and even the best name changes are filled with possible potholes of unintended consequences. But if you must (and sometimes, you really, really must), here are some issues and resources to consider.
Are you sure you want to do this?
When our son was about two years old, my wife and I decided to start calling him by his middle name as we felt it reflected his personality more than his first name. While changing a child’s name can be like introducing a nickname (especially if it’s a name already on his birth certificate), there have been a few hold-outs who, after 22 years, still choose to call him by the name they first associated with him.
Just like changing our son’s name (or using a name we had in reserve), the process of changing a business name can be simple for most people (customers, vendors, etc.) to understand and accept. But others will refuse to go along.
There are many legitimate reasons to change a company or product name. Sometimes, it’s an unfortunate twist of fate—for example, your name may suddenly become associated with a terrorist group. Or, a company that has your name and a business partner’s name in its title may need to drop your partner’s name because she discovered you weren’t the dream business partner she envisioned and has decided to open up a shop across the street.
Advice: Don’t change your name unless there is a clear benefit from the change. If you can justify the hassle and expense, here are several things you will need to consider before changing to a new name.
1. Your Digital Assets
Fifteen years ago, you likely would have never considered an Internet domain name when starting the naming process. But today, the most likely thing you’ll do first when considering a name change will be a domain name “who is” search.
Need to know how to register a domain name (a web address)?
See: SmallBusiness.com’s How to Register a Domain Name.
But be forewarned: You know that perfect domain name you want for your new business name? It’s not available. And even if you get one of the new crop of Top Level Domain names (TLDs), you’ll still discover people will type in “.com.” (Check with your web developer or hosting service for ways to keep your old domain name alive and forwarded to your new address.)
2. Make a web make-over a part of a name change.
No matter why you change your name, you will need to make sure Google knows about it. You’ll want to update your website to include places where your previous name is included (for example, in the “history” section of an About page or, for a time, using the term “formerly ACME Inc.”) Be sure and update information for Google and Apple using their services, Google My Business and Apple Maps Connect. Important: Work with your website provider to redirect your old web address to your new web address.
3. Make a long, long list of everything that carries your previous name and then re-create them all with your new name.
I once worked for a marketing company that had a large chain of restaurants as a client. After more than a year of research and testing, the client determined (successfully, it turned out) that adding the words “and chicken” to their name would dramatically increase their revenues. While the investment paid off, the chain spent millions on signage, uniforms, printed materials and a long, long list of things that said “and chicken.”
4. A re-branding campaign
You can’t just put the new name out there. You’ve got to make a big deal of it so that your customers will know that new a name goes with the company they’ve grown to love. Use the name change as a hook for all types of promotions, celebrations and publicity efforts. Have a great story to tell (something other than “my partner’s a creep”). Tell that story with advertising, events, public relations, mailings and anything else you can use to let the world know you’re the same great business, just with a different name.
5. And then, there’s all that legal stuff
Trademark infringement can carry a high cost for your business. Before you pick a name, use the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s trademark search tool to see if a similar name, or variations of it, is trademarked.
Notify your secretary of state
All business types, except sole proprietors, should first notify their Secretary of State to change names in their articles of incorporation. (See the State Resources Hub on the SmallBusiness.com WIKI to find your Secretary of State’s website.) States will have online forms for this and usually charge a small fee. During this process, you’ll find out whether your new name is already in use in your state by another corporation or partnership. You can do this via online state databases of registered business names and fictitious names.
File a new “Doing Business As” name
If you previously filed a “Doing Business As” name, or DBA, with your local government, you’ll need to repeat this process with your new name.
Revise business licenses and permits
Check with your state, county or city to determine the process involved in updating or obtaining new business licenses and permits. (Note: Fee likely required.)
Notify the IRS. Depending on your type of business, follow the process below:
- Sole Proprietors: Send a signed letter notifying the IRS of the business name change to the same address where you file your return.
- Partnerships: Notify the IRS on your current year partnership income tax return (Form 1065). If you’ve already filed your return for the current tax year, you’ll need to write to the IRS at the filing address.
- Corporations: Notify the IRS on your current year corporation income tax return (Form 1120). If you have already filed, write to the IRS notifying them of the name change at your regular filing address.
- LLCs: If you are a single-member LLC, follow the same process as sole proprietors. For multi-member LLCs, follow the partnership process.
About Employer Identification Numbers (EIN)
Generally, sole proprietors, corporations and partnerships don’t need a new Employer Identification Number (EIN) if they change their business name. However, there are certain situations where these entities may need to obtain a new EIN, like if a partnership incorporates or one partner takes over as a sole proprietor. Likewise, if a sole proprietor incorporates or takes on a partnership, a new EIN is needed.
Update Business Documents, Contracts and Agreements
In addition to updating your marketing material, developing a plan to notify customers and building your new brand, you should also revisit and update business loan paperwork, lease documents, bank accounts, etc., that will all need to reflect your name change.
(Photo: Adapted from a photo by Eric Parker via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)