What's in a name?

23 February 2024

Names are important for individuals but, superficial though it may sound, astute naming can also be highly material for products and services

There are lots of things that help you get along in this world - looks, height, a moneyed background, good teeth.

But one which is often underestimated is a distinctive name.

Let’s take a few examples:

  • would Tiger Woods have had the career he has had (until things went off the rails) had he not been called Tiger?
  • how much of Usain Bolt’s success is down to the fact that he is called Bolt? It is so perfect for a sprinter: Bolt of lightning, Bolt from the blue;
  • all speeding motorists are still Stirling Moss to the constabulary, even though Stirling never won a Formula 1 world championship;
  • would Taylor Swift have been the global phenomenon that she is had she been called Alice Swift or Jane Swift?
  • Donald Trump has surely benefitted from the upbeat noisiness of Trump.

Names are important for individuals but, superficial though it may sound, astute naming can also be highly material for products and businesses.

Here then are a few reflections on the art of naming and the interaction between name and brand:

  1. Savvy parents can offer their children commercial opportunities with smart naming. Take the Viennese couple, Mr and Mrs Wagner, who named their twin daughters Mona and Lisa. The twins are now based in Liverpool and perform as the MonaLisa Twins. They are particularly known for their very jolly covers of Beatles songs - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5a_UdJ2Nd0.
  2. Performers, or others aiming for more individuality, can add lift to their names by deploying a middle initial. Notable examples here are Richard E Grant and Samuel L Jackson - those middle initials somehow add caché. The latter’s most celebrated outing was probably as Jules in Pulp Fiction. Most of his scenes are pretty violent so here is my favourite clip from the movie, the Dance Scene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSLMN6g_Od4.
  3. The name which individuals deploy for themselves, in business or on stage or in the professions, has to fit with their image of themselves and the image which they want others to have of them. This is particularly in point for those with a name which is capable of shortening or otherwise adapting. Thus, Olivia has a very different feel from Liv, Charlie has a chummier tone than Charles and Andy has a bounce not found in Andrew.
  4. Names can be a trap for the unwary when deployed across national boundaries. The English boy’s name Lawrence, for example, is very similar to the French girl’s name Laurence. And Toyota realised that its MR2 model would be a hard sell in France, where it became the MR.
  5. Nicknames, although amusing, can cause confusion (other than in the cricket world where, according to a book I have just read on Bazball, everybody just adds a “y”, as in “Stokesy”, to every name).

    So, years ago when I was working on a deal with a super-clever US tax lawyer whose name I kept forgetting, I started calling him Dr Hfuhruhurr - the Steve Martin character from The Man with two Brains. A few months after the deal completed my tax partner rang up and said “What is Dr Hfuhruhurr’s real name? I need to call him”. I too had forgotten and had to resort to the US Firm’s website.

  6. An exotic-sounding name can make a relatively humble product much more attractive. A good example is the Nissan Qashqai. Would this family SUV have sold 1.1million units in Europe between 2015 and 2019 had it not sounded like a Japanese warrior?
  7. Businesses looking to feel more crisp and international can shorten their names to be just initials. Thus the distinctly Midlands sounding Dibb Lupton Alsop changed its name to DLA in the mid-nineties and has since, via mergers, become DLA Piper. Ernst & Young changed to EY in 2013 to bring consistency to its global branding and “demonstrate clearly and boldly who we are and reflect the goal we have recently set ourselves to be the number one brand in our profession”. GlaxoSmithKline was renamed GSK ahead of the demerger of Haleon in 2022.

    One can understand the business sense of this move to initials but we must surely mourn some loss of personality. Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds sounds more evocative, if less catchy, than GKN and I remember back in the 1970s being drawn to the firm called Norton Rose Bottrell & Roche and rather sad when Bottrell and Roche were retired from the name in 1988.

  8. As a general rule, founders of businesses should resist the temptation to put their name on the door (physician heal thyself!) if they have an ambition to institutionalise and preserve an option to sell or list. Too much identification with an individual or individuals who, by definition, are not forever can cut against long-term value. Here again, initials can work (as in PJT Partners, a financial adviser) or a neutral name ideally beginning with A (as in Ardea Partners, another financial adviser).
  9. Businesses need, moreover, to be strategic in choosing a name and ensure that it conveys the intended message. As the Harvard Business Review points out, “Tesla” is a name which, thanks to the inventor Nikola Tesla, does a good job at suggesting both electricity and technical prowess.

    Business names also need to be flexible enough to accommodate brand changes in the future (although, to my surprise, Carphone Warehouse seem to have weathered this storm) and be memorable and different. Apple is the archetype here, being engagingly out of the norm for a computer manufacturer and a jumping off point for cool branding ideas.

  10. The name of a business is, of course, closely linked to its brand. Periodic well-researched checks on the health of the business’s brand are important. What, for example, are the first three words which come into the head of differing sets of key stakeholders when asked what they think about the business and are the prevalent descriptors a fair reflection of the essence of the business? If not, what do we do?

    A name change might help (think Royal Mail Group to International Distribution Services or, mystifyingly, Twitter to X) but other approaches may be more appropriate. Rio Tinto, for example, suffered very significant brand damage after the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock caves in 2020 and this led to a change in Chief Executive, an increased focus on culture and on the articulation of purpose.

  11. Boards need to take care that the brand of the business does not become too closely associated with the name and personal brand of the CEO. This was one of the brutal lessons last year for the Board of OpenAI, who discovered in chaotic circumstances that the Sam Altman was unsackable. And the Red Bull racing team is facing a similar challenge with Christian Horner.

    That said, it can often be valuable for a business to have a visionary and charismatic CEO. But careful succession planning is critical. This means that:

    • Successful CEOs should have the humility not to hog the limelight, be active players in the identification of their potential successors and not overstay their welcome; and
    • Boards should be judiciously paranoid about senior succession planning and active in nurturing potential internal CEO successors.

    Richard Harpin, in a recent piece for The Sunday Times, pointed to years of research by Jim Collins which showed that the best performing companies were those that had established systems for training, retaining and promoting insiders as:

“Continuity of quality leadership preserves the core values and purpose of the institution whilst stimulating progress for the future”.

So, we must conclude that there is indeed a lot in a name. And whilst one hesitates to disagree with the Bard of Stratford, it does seem that times have changed since Juliet uttered the immortal words:

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

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title.”

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

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