Your name is your brand.

I learned that lesson repeatedly during my four decades on the news staffs of three different newspapers.  As a news reporter or editor, if you mess up somebody’s name, you may nullify a lot of hard work and severely damage the credibility of a story. After all, if you can’t get a name right, what else did you mess up?

Deep in Thought

Putting a lot of thought into the names we choose.

Just because you know somebody doesn’t necessarily mean you know the spelling of that person’s name. You hang out with a guy named Brian now and again and you don’t think much about how it is spelled. You may have never seen it in print so you are somewhat embarrassed, after mentioning him in a complimentary news article, that he spells it “Bryan.” Meanwhile, you’ve hurt Bryan’s feelings. Bryan says that once he saw his misspelled name, none of the rest of what was written meant anything. It was as if it hadn’t been about him at all.

I served a year in Vietnam and one of my closer friends in our rural compound called me “West.” After a number of months of being called this, I casually set him straight. I was actually Wes. Turns out he thought my last name was West. This, too, was puzzling because the name tag on my fatigues clearly said “Skillings.” Although we had spent numerous hours in each other’s company, he never noticed that. He had it in his mind that my last name was West. If he still thinks about me at all— all these years later— I know I remain West in his memory.

There are those who believe the power of one’s name is among the greatest powers there is. Churches, as well as fraternal organizations, call out the names of members as a means of empowerment, and it all starts with the rite of baptism. Your name belongs to you and there is a spiritual hold there. You could be John— one of a dozen Johns within your circle of acquaintances— but your name is still your brand. A nickname may emerge to set you apart and provide the empowerment. Your surname is critical to tracking your ancestry, of course, which puts women at a disadvantage when taking on the names of their spouses.

Not everyone believes there is any inherent power in a name. Shakespeare has Romeo ask, “What’s in a name?” and his answer is not much. You could call a rose sauerkraut and it would still smell as sweet, according to the Bard.

There are some really weird names out there and even more ridiculous spellings of them. I’m not about to give any examples, of course, because people take their names personally— even lame ones. Besides, what’s lame to you may not be lame to me. My grandmother used to call me “Wesley Bishop.” She called me that often growing up, and always with great affection. When I was a young adult, and she was, well, getting a bit senile, she would call me Wesley Bishop, and then she’d say, as if stricken with guilt, “Oh I shouldn’t call you that. Wesley Bishop was an old drunk.”

And, no, my middle name is not Bishop, and my first name came from my grandfather’s middle name. His first and middle names were John Wesley, the same as the founder of the Methodist Church. I carried part of her husband’s identity and her religious faith, but my name reminded my grandmother of the town drunk from her childhood.

She loved me and I’m sure she was fond of my name, so was it really about the name or the person? New parents often choose the names of their children because they like the sound of them, but they are often influenced by knowing someone of that name with fondness. Others reach back for names of family members past or present, as was the case in my naming.

Names are crucial for entertainers, whether they are recording artists or stage and screen actors. John Roger Stevens became a legend in his own mind when the young singer-songwriter renamed himself John Legend. Thomas C. Mapother IV became Tom Cruise, one of the most recognizable names in our movie-crazy culture.

Names are more important than ever in the corporate world. There are consultants, known as namers, who get paid handsomely for naming products and corporate entities. It is supposedly a science, and is part of the branding process in Corporate America. It is why Kentucky Fried Chicken, losing sales with all the bad nutritional flak several decades back when anything fried was a ticket for a heart attack, righted its course by changing its name. A branding expert came in and said you can still sell fried chicken by the buckets, along with mashed potatoes sopped in gravy, by just changing your name.

The new moniker, of course, was KFC.

So Many Names; So Few Choices

It was almost that simple, along with a new marketing campaign. A half a million new businesses are born each year in the United States, according to an article I read a few years back, and the number is probably even greater now. The multitude of new products marketed annually range from smartphone apps to the latest Starbucks drink creation. They all need a name.

Unlike naming a baby, duplicates are unacceptable. Each has to be original and catchy. Some seem quite the opposite, but names are worth their weight in gold. It cost USAir almost $40 million to elongate its name to US Airways and go through a rebranding process.

Taking its cue from KFC, Weight Watchers changed its corporate name to WW, and insisted that the two letters didn’t really stand for anything, least of all Weight Watchers. There was a well-known “W” on the board of directors and a major shareholder, Oprah Winfrey— a long frustrated dieter who has since learned that you don’t need diet and exercise to slim down when you can shoot up Ozempic or another Type 2 diabetes drug. I’m not sure if that was a great branding change, but I’m pretty sure that a corporate name change in 1996 from a company called BackRub to what seemed to be a nonsensical name (actually a mathematical concept) created a brand —Google —known worldwide. We’re all googling even when the search engine of choice isn’t Google.

Because technology rules nearly a quarter of a way into the 21st Century, some of our most successful brands include Apple, Microsoft and Intel. McDonald’s, IBM and Disney are among the old-timers on the list of the most successful brands. So what is more important in the making of a successful brand— the name or the product? Mostly the product, I’d say, but the brand name may be the oomph that launches sales into the stratosphere.

Finally, we have the Ford Motor Company, which earned a unique place in marketing history. It was when the concept of branding was in its infancy. Engineers, employees, consultants and even a poet known for crafting unique words and phrases came up with hundreds of names for the new car line, eventually settling for the first name of the owner’s son, Edsel. Of course, it turned out to be one of the greatest marketing disasters in history— and not just because of its name.

Nevertheless, Edsel is a name that is remembered— for all the wrong reasons. The same can be said of Lee Harvey, John Wilkes and, of course, Adolf.