My son Adolf

Why is there a company called “Mercedes” and not one called “Gertrude”? Why “Bird’s Eye” and not “Frog’s Nose,” and why “Caterpillar” and not “Maggot”? Why do we use names—why not just use numbers? The reason is that all names have associated images, either cultural, linguistic or personal. Names are the handles for our psychological baggage. The complexity of names and their associations is such that a new profession has arisen to name companies, products or services. I was recently involved in helping name a new company myself. I also have a new baby boy. These two events are not as they first seem, unrelated.

If you ever attend a presentation on the process of naming a new company, product or service, you will conclude that it is a very complex—read expensive—business. On the other hand, because most of us have at some time named a boat, pet, or toy we assume that naming a child is a simple process. The near concurrence of the two events has allowed me to compare them and conclude that the naming of a company need not be complex, and that the naming of a son is anything but simple. In truth, they are essentially the same thing. If you have ever given something a name, you already have an implicit understanding of the requirements of a commercial naming programme. After all, you already know why I didn’t really call my son Adolf.

There are minor differences between the two processes—the use of a formal procedure, for starters. A formal procedure has a series of steps, and formal steps need to be called something—they, in turn, need names. As a result, the commercial naming process appears to be complex because it involves things like Strategic Analysis, Positioning Statements, Free Association, and so on. The similarities will become clear if we use the formal commercial procedure to name a child. Step one: Strategic Analysis. That is, the definition of objectives and the criteria by which candidate names will subsequently be judged.

Having now completed the naming programme for my son, I understand and can now write down the “strategic riteria” I used, but I don’t think that would have been possible during the process. We all–as amateur naming consultants—hold a fuzzy model of our criteria in our heads. We use the criteria to make decisions, but because we don’t have to present them to the Board of a client company, we are never forced to commit them to paper. This is the principal difference between a family and a commercial naming programme.

The next stage of my programme was–to quote from a presentation on naming—“to generate a large number and wide range of alternatives through work sessions, individual free association, and by access to reference material”—that is, talking to my wife, day dreaming on the train and getting some books of names from the library. Why are such a large number of names needed? Why not dream up a few over lunch and spend the consultant’s fee on a decent bottle of wine? The answer is that there are millions of commercially used names, and that they are legally protected. It is very difficult to find a name which is neither in use nor protected–and this is particularly difficult if one name is to be used world-wide.

I may name a child after someone who exists, like Bobby Charlton, Linford Christie or Des O’Conner. This is not permitted in the commercial world, however—I am not even allowed to allude to an existing name. I couldn’t start an airline and call it British Airways, nor could I make soft drinks and call myself Pepsi Cola. I would be spending my entire time in court defending my choice of name. Names can take many forms. They can be acronyms: IBM, BP, or NBC. They can take the form of existing words or phrases: Shell, Apple, or Eagle. They can be names constructed from other words: Spud-U-Like, Kwik Save, or Dunroamin. And they can derive from the names of specific people or families: Ferrari, Cadbury, Guinness—or, in the case of my son, Ellis (this being my middle name and the name of my late grandfather). Of course, there are also many fine names which can no longer be considered appropriate because of the nature of the item they are famous for—among them Bloomer, Crapper, and Durex.

As part of the process, all the candidate names are grouped according to their roots, or for the imagery they communicate. The image associations of the names are here compared to the image the new company wants to project.

Even small parts of a word can conjure up associations which help shape people’s perceptions; alt implies height, pri implies first, geo-world and so on. If a Mr. Smith started a holiday company and wanted to communicate market leadership, then he might consider Altius, Prima, or Maxima Holidays. If he wanted to be seen as fun and different, he may toy with Happihols, Fun in the Sun, or Funkifull Holidays, and if he offered holidays of a more adventurous nature, Discovery, Free Spirit, or Quest would all be valid choices. Any of these names would immediately give the consumer a good idea of the holiday on offer. The same could not be said of “Smith Holidays.”

Informally, we all carry out the same grouping of names according to the imagery they evoke. It’s clear that Ben, Bill, and Bert convey different impressions to Henry, Harry, and Horace, or Quentin, Tristran, and Perrigrine. The choice among these naming routes is one of “strategic positioning.” The choice of Perrigrine gives a clue to the parents’ nationality, ethnic origin, and social class–or maybe just their social aspirations.

There must also be consideration of whether to appear in the mainstream with John, David, or Stephen, or as a niche player in the game of life with Egbert, Cuthbert, or Tarquin.

Niche names can have considerable impact, as one brand of U.S. cigarettes demonstrates. The American smoker of today has the status of a biblical leper: derided, despised, and criticised from all sides. Response to this can be passive and conformist, or resentful and combative. There is one cigarette brand specifically designed for the latter: Death Cigarettes. At first glance, this choice of name seems a one way street to commercial oblivion. But the brand appeals to people who fully comprehend consequences of their habit and resent the pressure to change. Faced with a choice of hundreds of brands, and with no overpowering reason to choose any of them, consumers select the only brand with attitude. The logic is sound: the name might alienate 99 percent of the population, but could appeal to 100 percent of disaffected smokers. Naming your cigarettes Death is like launching the Vauxhall Crash or calling your son Sue or “Sod-of f.” I examined my positioning and decided against a niche approach.

The next stage of the naming programme is the “Suitability Screening”—a search for potential embarrassments. Car naming has provided fertile ground for such gaffes: in South America the Pajero, a Mitsubishi jeep, means homosexual. Nova, the Opel car, means “no go” in Spanish, and in Germany the “mist” in Rolls Royce’s Silver Mist means excrement. These are not problems normally faced in the naming of a son, but there are others. The images of a name’s previous holders have a considerable bearing on its suitability. Winston and Roosevelt have been popular, while Judas, Ghengis, and Adolf are rather less common. There are also combinations and abbreviations to avoid: If your family name is Sutcliffe, for example, you would be advised to avoid the name Peter. The principle is no different in the commercial world: Delta Airlines would be unlikely to call a loyalty programme Frequent Traveller—that would be D.A.F.T.

Having drawn up a short list of potentially appropriate names, an “Availability Check” is performed. In our case, this revolved around people we know well. It’s just not done to give your child the same name as the child of your best friend or neighbour–that would be a clear conflict in the competitive set. In the commercial world, availability checks can be done by specialist companies with databases of names currently in use worldwide.

Approaching the end of our naming programme, we went into “Qualitative Research” mode. In the commercial world, this usually consists of a series of small groups controlled by a researcher, in which the name and its imagery are discussed and opinions sought. The members of these groups are often those at whom the name is targeted: thus, for a brand of washing powder, the likely participants are housewives. Our research was a similar and equally delicately stage-managed exercise, masquerading under the names “coffee morning” or “a swift half,” depending on the researcher. The results were collated and analysed over a series of breakfast meetings.

By now the list of names had been reduced to two, with Mother Nature given the final decision: boy or girl. After final selection, commercial programmes—where the chairman’s wife sometimes plays the role of Mother Nature—are usually completed with a launch. That’s a bit like an announcement, really—only there’s more to drink. Fortunately, the launch rituals associated with childbirth share this fascination for alcohol.

After many weeks’ work, our answer was Charles Ellis Wood. Well, Charles is actually the legal name–his “communicative name” is Charlie. Which raises a further issue–not every name known by consumers is the real name of the company. Shell is actually The Royal Dutch Shell Company Ltd, IBM is International Business Machines Inc. The model Twiggy wasn’t christened Twiggy either, but it seemed to stick…

The naming of a son and of a company are neither massively complex nor inanely simple. They both involve a challenging mix of logic, rigour, and inspiration. In essence, the methodology and criteria are the same. The main difference is that in our case the recipient–Charlie–had no say in the matter, and that I had to buy my own champagne. That’s the game of the name.

This article was first published in Design Week (1999)

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