What's in a Name?

We’ve all been there: that city whose name seems to be trying way too hard.  One of my favorite examples from around these parts (and there are a lot to choose from in North Carolina) is the town of Apex.  Oh, the irony.  Outside of geometry class, the word “apex” generally evokes ideas of sheer majesty.  But this Apex is a small, sleepy little thing just outside of Raleigh whose main claim to greatness seems to revolve around the railway station that was built up there around the turn of the last century. Poor Apex.  My guess is that it wouldn’t be treated with such scorn by people like me if its name weren’t quite so...overzealous.  It’s really a very nice place.

(By the way, Apex was originally named as such because it represented the highest point on the Chatham Railroad, running between Richmond, Virginia, and Jacksonville, Florida.  The problem with that name is that today, most of us are far more likely to associate the term “apex” with its strictly non-math definition: the culmination of something.  And realistically, how many towns can hope to represent the culmination of anything?  Talk about setting yourself up for disappointment.  Great cities are great because they have become so on their own terms -- not because they were given aspirational names.)

But my point here is not so much that silly names are silly.  That wouldn’t be very helpful.  It’s that when we’re choosing a name for something that will be around for a long time, we should be careful.

Sounds simple enough.  But too often, that aspect of naming is the victim of neglect.

One helpful guideline?  No names that are excessively larger than life (unless, of course, irony is your intention).  The same can be said whether we’re naming a child, a town, a company, or pretty much anything else.

So, let that kid be who he is.  Don’t name him Marcus Aurelius because you’re a Roman history buff.  (Hint: You’ll be setting him up for many an elementary school day of stolen lunch money.)

And let that town be what it is.  While the residents of Little Heaven, Delaware, probably do enjoy their view out onto the Bay, that name is a textbook case of biting off more than you can chew.  In stark contrast, the city of New York could just as well have any other name and smell as sweet (metaphorically, of course).

So, in other words, substance is what matters.  As a company grows into its shoes, its name becomes second nature.  The name is the company.  Inserting a fancy title from the get-go is not likely to highlight the company’s real talents.  More often than not, the most creative and successful ideas are ones that don’t try to play to clichéd stereotypes.  They dig a little deeper into who the company is and what it means to people.

Admittedly, this is all a romanticized view of how the world should work.  In ideal terms, names should not matter; character should.  But just look at what happened to Gap recently when it attempted to change the look of its logo.  In short, there was such a massive outcry against the change that Gap returned to its old look.  The original name-logo pairing had become so intrinsic to the brand that they became an icon for the whole company.  Good luck getting away from that one, Gap -- not that you would want to.