What’s in a name?

In this guest post, Moensie Rossier wonders about the power of names for brands and marketers.

Brands have been having a bit of fun with names lately, not to mention a fair bit of success. Interbrand just named a headhunting firm Cloak & Dagger. And ‘Share a Coke’ showed how much power there is in a name.

The Coke campaign effectively short-circuited the usual mechanics of communication. It undoubtedly stroked people’s egos. But, I believe, its success stems from the fact that it directly and automatically affected people’s behaviour, rather than doing so indirectly by shaping attitudes.

It used a type of behavioural economics, which is a rather fancy name for a simple theory. When our names are called out, we’re hard wired to respond. It’s a simple nudge, a Pavlovian response. And, with the alacrity of hungry dogs, we fought the other Kates and Adrians and Matts down to the last bottle – and cried for more in social media.

We sense the potency in names.

Qualitative researchers address respondents by name to engender trust and encourage participation because there is no word more dear to us, or more likely to wake us up. When naming a baby – or brand – people painstakingly deliberate about what the name denotes, infers, implies, sounds like, whether it’s friendly, serious, classy, but not arrogant, distinctive, but not too weird, reflective of family history, or not, ambitious, hopeful, or successful-sounding, easy to pronounce, befitting the subject, unlikely to make them a laughing stock, etc.

What it boils down to is the desire for a name to be memorable and meaningful. New brands, the business of SEO and SEM, our egos and legacies depend on it!

Yet, for many people, names are notoriously hard to recall. Meeting you for the first time, there’s a 95% chance that I won’t remember your name and, for added comedic value at my expense, I’m not too hot with faces either. Compounding my embarrassment, people usually remember my name because it requires a fair bit of effort. So I smile at everyone and stick to pronouns, or safe bets like “mate”.

Some research suggests that people’s names are harder to recall than their jobs, hobbies or home towns. Names are, semantically speaking, a bit rubbish because they’ve become dissociated from their meanings – those very jobs, hobbies and home towns that were once relevant, identifying things about a person. A name used to tell you what they did, for example, “Cook,” or where they came from, “Pontefract” perhaps. A name might have evoked a person’s ancestry, “Johnston” being the son of John.

Today, there are more names than ever and little to remember them by. There’s even a name for the memory loss associated with names: clinical trials company CPS Research calls it “Busy Lifestyle Syndrome.” The more stimuli we encounter, the more likely we are to forget things; in fact the more we need to be selective about what we do and don’t commit to memory. And, with the added help of digital devices as memory aids and directories, there’s no need to remember a lot of the things that we used to.

With all these obstacles, how do we hit upon a memorable name? There’s a clue in nicknames, which, in the way that surnames used to do, often reflect a personal trait or behaviour, making them automatically more meaningful and memorable. The same goes for our virtual names and wi-fi network names. We choose multiple online identities based on our personality and passions, for example, “fashionista” or “suspicious dancing” or “your creepy neighbour”. Avatars are relatively anonymous, allowing us to express ourselves unselfconsciously. So, they’re often more candid, irreverent or extreme than given names.

Names have become less formal, more playful, more flexible. In a digital world, we wear them lightly and adopt new personae at will, each reflecting a different aspect of our life story. Coke has been riding this cultural wave. By taking on the names of its customers, giving them a sense of importance and belonging, Coke became the archetypal Everyman. Yet far from losing its identity, the success of the campaign was testament to the strength of Coke’s identity.

An extract from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline goes:
“What’s your name,’ Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?’
‘Cats don’t have names,’ it said.
‘No?’ said Coraline.
‘No,’ said the cat. ‘Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Moensie Rossier is planning director at GPY&R Sydney


  1. Lee Stephens
    7 Feb 12
    2:57 pm

  2. I love Moensie Rossier

  3. Paul
    7 Feb 12
    3:18 pm

  4. Awesome piece Moensie, as always on the money.

  5. Doug
    7 Feb 12
    5:19 pm

  6. totally agree with you about the importance of names, Mary!

  7. Negative names
    7 Feb 12
    7:34 pm

  8. Vodafail

  9. batwoman
    8 Feb 12
    10:25 am

  10. didn’t Dale Carnegie say this about 50 years ago?

  11. Pete
    8 Feb 12
    11:09 am

  12. nice article. i thought along similar lines last year and how the whole process of naming something has become an overly complicated but how the importance of getting it right has never been stronger


  13. Communication Services Inc.
    8 Feb 12
    12:50 pm

  14. eventhough purchasing is an act of commerce, i’m not sure that a consumer buying a coke because they like the sound of their own name qualifies as an example of behavioural economics at work

  15. Zeffd
    9 Feb 12
    10:11 am

  16. I’m with Lee on this one

  17. Steve de Niese
    9 Feb 12
    12:11 pm

  18. Great article, Moensie.. although now I feel like I need to change my first name to be more cool and memorable

  19. Reevesy
    14 Feb 12
    2:13 pm

  20. Interesting stuff – thanks,

    I just have a small comment re this part though; ” In a digital world, we wear them lightly and adopt new personae at will, each reflecting a different aspect of our life story”

    I think this is less true in some ways than it was a few years ago. Facebook has meant that there is an increased focus on our true identity. Google+ does the same thing encouraging us to be ourselves (a googled version of ourselves). This does not mean you don’t represent different parts of your world to different people. But it does tend to mean its one name or identity to do so.

    Expressing oneself digitally via a single consolidated name leads us to a closer attachment to that name and easier access to our online history / curated view of the world.

    Why – because of the same reasons Coke was successful. We like to see our name in lights, to see (and allow others to see) our digital footprint. This feeds our inherent need for recognition and to be acknowledged as individuals.