What’s in a Name?


I had some feedback from a reader this week, who feels very strongly that ‘Something for the Weekend’ is not a good name for my virtual column.  Extrapolating statistically, it’s a safe bet that if one person is prepared to tell me this, then about 80% of subscribers feel the same. But I realise, as have many businesses, that choosing a new name is something of a minefield.


Interesting, isn’t it, that what we choose to name someone or something can send such strong signals? Shakespeare wrote:

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet…”


…but in fact he understood very well that names have a power all of their own.  A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but I bet we wouldn’t buy as many if it was called a thrudmucket.  And the character to whose name the lines refer – Romeo – is another case in point.  Shakespeare was no fool: he knew that if he’d called the character Derek, he would never have bequeathed a new adjective to history (Just try imagining a dedicated suitor and saying “he’s a real Derek” and you’ll see what I mean).   Fitness for purpose, it seems, applies to names as much as anything: if you want to make it as a pop star, you’d be better off called Jet Flame than Quentin Whatmuff – just ask Reginald Dwight.


The psychologist Wolfang Kohler gave a range of people the two imaginary names ‘maluma’ and ‘tuckatee’ along with two random line drawings – one curvy, one full of angles.  Without fail, the curvy one was identified as a ‘maluma’, the spiky one as a ‘tuckatee’.  We react subliminally, and consistently, to the ‘feel’ of a name.  So someone who throughout his life has heard himself called Cecil rather than Micky, will be more like a ‘Cecil’ than a ‘Micky’.


When it comes to brand names, the whole thing just gets plain silly.  In the old days, when you wanted to think up a name for something, you simply stuck together two Greek or Latin words and got ‘telescope’ or ‘submarine’.  These days, any name involving translation is a dodgy area – as you will know if you’ve ever spent a hundred million launching a product whose name turns out to mean ‘gonads’ in Malayo-Polynesian. 


The knee jerk response to this wave of linguistic faux-pas is to take a kind of Esperanto approach – hence Diageo, Expedia, Accenture, Consignia and the rest.  The theory goes that if your name doesn’t mean anything at all, then your chances of finding that it means ‘Your Mother Strokes Geese’ in certain Latin-American countries is vastly reduced. 


Interestingly though, marketing experts will tell you that many of these names ultimately fail because they are grounded in nothing, so we have no picture in our mind about what these people might actually do.  This may be why we’re now enduring the opposite swing of the pendulum, and a plethora of companies called Egg or Marbles or Bit of Stick (alright, I made that last one up, but give it time).  This is all very well, but these names are ultimately just as meaningless.  Doesn’t it make you pine for the good old days of The Bifurcated and Tubular Rivet Company, or the Master Boot and Shoe Makers’ Provident and Benevolent Institution?


Mind you, transparency in names is not completely dead.  I was recently doing some work with an HR department in an international bank.  Before we could begin, my client told me the most pressing task was to think of a name for their new team. 


“You’re a creative individual, Phil,” she said, “We know you’ll come up with something.  We’ve been trying for a week and we’ve got nowhere.”


“OK,” I began, attempting to look creative, “What would you like this name to tell people?”


“Well, we want people to know that we operate as a team, and that our main concern is people development.”


I thought for 2 seconds.  “Why don’t you call yourselves the People Development Team?” I ventured.


A look of amazement and wonder came across her face.  “Wow, that’s brilliant! I knew we’d get value out of using you!” (Unfortunately I had to do a little more before they’d accept my invoice, but it was a good start).


Well, Confucius did say: “The way out is through the open door.  Why is it that no one will use it?”  So, back to this column.  I suspect that its new name is blindingly obvious, but short of engaging a firm of brand consultants I can’t see it.  So, I’m afraid, it’s over to you.  What should this email series be called in future?  You’ve got two weeks – otherwise I’ll call it Phil’s Bit of Stick.  Maybe that’s not such a bad idea…


Copyright Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved