When baby names go bad

July 20, 2015
“My parents named me Atticus.”
Margherita Devine
Manager, Naming and Writing

If you read the news and even vaguely remember middle school, you’ve probably been following the uproar about Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. In the book, Atticus Finch, beloved supporter of progress and justice, is depicted as an old-school racist. 

While it’s unsettling to see this hero in a monstrous light, as a namer I’m much more interested in an unexpected consequence. Over the years, fans of To Kill a Mockbird have named their children Atticus. Now the meaning of that name has changed in ways they never could have anticipated.

Atticus _and _Tom _Robinson _in _court

Names morph, picking up connotations over time. Usually, that’s not a bug; it’s a feature: mutability is a power. It’s what allows brands to build meaning into new names, what turned the iPad from the butt of many jokes into a must-have status symbol. However,  a name can pick up negative connotations—not just from horrifying associations like Isis, but from lesser, benignly irritating associations. All Hermiones are now associated with Harry Potter, and Roxannes have to listen to strangers singing “put on the red light.”

The simple truth is that while some parents strive to name their kids something “different,” you can’t future-proof a rare or unusual baby name. As names accrue meaning over time, it’s impossible to predict what will become problematic. There is safety in numbers. Little boys named Josef aren’t linked with Josef Stalin, but name your child Adolf and the associations are unmistakable. In branding, the same forces apply: a distinctive name helps you stand out; familiar, safe names help you blend in. Union Bank is the financial services equivalent of naming your child Jennifer. Perhaps the strategies of corporate naming can also be applied to all the Atticuses out there. 

So. Your parents picked a name that’s turned bad. What should you do?  

Own your story

“I didn’t put a lot of thought into her name,” said no parent ever. The best names are ones that have a true purpose at their core. The antidote to scorn is knowing your reasons and doubling down on them. Instead of shying away from your name, talk about what it means to you.

Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird IS fair, just and compassionate. How he appears in Go Set a Watchman doesn’t change that. You could say that you were named for the first Atticus, not the second, and that you will honor the original. Or you could say that you were named for a correspondent of Cicero’s. 


Another option is to tweak your story. Think of the transition from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC. Might have seemed strange at first, but it’s now accepted by all. Similarly, as BP developed a new vision, it evolved the meaning of its acronym from British Petroleum to Beyond petroleum. 

In the case of Atticus, you could just go by your middle name or initials. This strategy has its risks, though: it can seem insincere and defensive. Someone is bound to ask what the A. stands for. But over time the new name will start to seem normal to everyone around you. 

Stay different

Names are powerful, but we underestimate our own ability to compartmentalize. Many brands exist with identical or similar names in related spaces—but no one ever bit into a bar of Dove soap thinking it was chocolate. We can build different meaning into similar names.  

Every Atticus is an individual. Friends, family and colleagues will see you, Atticus, as a specific person, not an incarnation of the character. You’ll determine your own identity, which will be more powerful than anything on the page. 

Remember that haters are gonna hate (and then forget)

No name will ever be immune from threat. Tomorrow, someone could write a popular song, book, or script with your name in it; a criminal with your name could be in the news. Then the hubbub dies down and we’re onto the next story. Longevity is a powerful force and pretty soon you’ll be back to being Atticus on your own terms again.  

Note that I haven’t included changing your name as an option. While technically possible, I wouldn’t recommend it. We tell our clients to change a name only when the benefits outweigh the loss of equity in the old name. In this case, people know you as Atticus, it’s bound up with your identity, and the confusion caused by a name change wouldnt be worth the trouble.  

My name is Margherita Wisdom Devine. I’ve heard it all. So take it from someone who says “Like the pizza, not the drink” every time I spell my name—you can ride out this storm.

Category: Naming & verbal branding
Lois Jacobs speaks to Reuters about how FIFA can regain trust.
Lois Jacobs
Chief Executive Officer

Sepp Blatter has told delegates at a football congress in Zurich that FIFA's reputation “couldn't be dragged through mud.'’ But the organisation's reputation has clearly taken a hit. Ciara Lee asks Lois Jacobs how FIFA can restore trust.

Watch the full interview on Reuters.com

Category: Brand strategy & positioning
Did you know that baby boomers are expected to pass down over $30 trillion to their children, or whomever may be lucky enough to be named in their wills?
Allen Adamson
Chairman, North America,
based in Landor New York

Neither did I. That’s a lot of money. Hard-earned money. And, according to one of the panel moderators at the recent LinkedIn FinanceConnect conference where I picked up this information, it’s the biggest wealth transfer in the history of, well, wealth transfer. There will be an 80 percent change in the customer base of financial services companies in the next 10 to 15 years. That’s a lot of customers.

So what are financial services companies doing to gear up for all these millennials with money? Will smaller feisty firms, reliant on algorithms and robo-advisers, replace the traditional category participants for whom real, live financial advisers play a critical role? Will the digital disruptors provide a better customer experience for a generation comfortable with asking Siri which stock to buy? It was this notion of man (and woman) versus machine that framed a very interesting debate at the above-mentioned conference: What is the future of money management and client care as firms recalibrate business models to harness digital technology and the power of big data? Given that the prize for coming up with the right answer is a nice share of that $30 trillion, I’d say it’s a critical debate. For what it’s worth, here are my two cents on the subject.

First and foremost, there is no question that technology adds great business value, from reducing costs to optimizing processes. Having said this, however, I would like to give you my bottom line on the debate of man versus machine when it comes to wealth management, past, present and future: Money is emotional. Until it can gauge human sentiments, software, no matter how sophisticated, won’t be able to replace human advice.

The financial services firms that figure out how to use technology to enrich human skills rather than compete with them will be the firms that provide the best customer experience. In other words, success will be reliant on the ability to be agile, to find the right balance of technology and human touch. Some target segments may want more tech and more self-directed options, others more handholding. This is not an either-or scenario. It requires the ability to be  agile and come up with solutions that can be tailored to a rapidly evolving situation. 

Among the panelists who supported this point of view was Mandell Crawley, global CMO of Morgan Stanley. “We fundamentally believe that your financial health is much like your physical health. We look to see how we can leverage technology in a way that enables our advisors to provide better advice for our clients. How we can use it to help them engage in a more efficient way. We have a piece of technology, for example, that is effectively an algorithmically based platform that sits inside an advisor’s desktop. Think Netflix. Think Amazon. Based on the portfolio construction of the client, based on individual needs, our advisers can take a prescriptive approach to helping them achieve optimal outcomes.”

Founder and CEO of Motif Investing, Hardeep Walia, concurred that human-to-human interaction is a critical dimension of very emotional decisions. Software can solve a lot of problems, but still can’t take on some of the personal challenges involved in managing money. His very personal anecdote illustrates this point. “My wife and I are very different,” he said, “which creates a big problem with investing. She grew up spray painting people who wore fur coats. I’m a bit more right of center. When we sit down with an advisor, and they do their suitability assessments—to find which investments are right for us—we can see beyond the risk models and portfolio allocations. I grew up in oil country so, give me an investment in shale oil, I love it. My wife would have a heart attack if you put our investments in shale oil. [Like us,] millennials are very engaged, highly educated, and want to be involved.”

Technological innovation raises the bar. It enables involvement, transparency, and democratization. It presents reviews, analysis, and a wide spectrum of offerings and options for every subject imaginable. But, while algorithms and models can optimize a lot of things, the one thing they can’t do as well as humans is understand the psyche of the consumer. To understand this takes more than facts and figures. 

My opinion is that people should be part of the wealth management business no matter how much technology a given brand embraces. And, most critical, that it’s agility, the ability to achieve the right balance of big data and personal input, customer by customer, that will drive competitive advantage. 

My lesson for financial services brands, actually for all brands, is that delivering the best customer experience is something that technology can enable and make better. But it will always require people who are well trained, compassionate, and empowered to solve the toughest problems, money being key among them. Different customers want different levels of high tech versus high touch engagement. Technology will enhance the experience. The  brands that win will be the brands that know how to use it to get closer to the customer.  With $30 trillion at stake, I’d figure out how to get really close.


Category: Customer experience
The lesson from an amusing naming faux pas
Elyse Kazarinoff
Creative Director, Verbal Branding,
based in Landor New York

Last Sunday’s Mad Men episode once again highlighted the importance of selecting the right descriptor to use with a brand name. In a scene with Joan, Dennis (from McCann Erickson) calls one of her clients “Butler Shoes.” And that's not the first time this mistake has happened. Looking back on past episodes, almost everyone calls them Butler Shoes...except Butler. Time and again, someone from the ad team will call out the mistake, as Joan did in this week's episode: “It's Butler Footwear.”


Photo courtesy of AMC

As a naming and verbal identity expert, I know that Butler is fighting and losing an uphill battle by forcing the world to refer to their competency as “footwear.”

If a brand wants its audiences to use its name correctly, the business descriptor should be an industry standard term or a real-world word. Although my guess is that someone at Butler probably decided that “shoes” would be limiting, “footwear” sounds stilted. It’s a word that’s not part of the common lexicon. Therefore, few people will use it, no matter how many times you correct them.

As a diehard Mad Men fan, I’ve been amused by this naming faux pas being repeated throughout the series. Although it’s not a big part of the plot, it’s a good lesson for brands across every category about the importance of selecting the right descriptor for their businesses.


Category: Naming & verbal branding
The fourth post in a five-part series that identifies and details the five fundamentals of great package design.
Mary Zalla
Global President, Consumer Brands and Managing Director,
based in Landor Cincinnati

Effective packaging is a crucial part of the marketing mix for CPG brands, and it is only becoming more of one. Your package is one of the most fundamental aspects of your brand, second only to the product and product experience itself. So, if package design is so important, then it must be important to leverage the best design for your brand. But where do you start? As with all things, you start with the fundamentals.

My first three posts focused on the importance of insight, perception, and ideas. All great design is insight based—great designers seek to know and understand for whom they are designing, and powerful insights drive great work. As for perception, it is crucially important for designers to constantly expand the way they see things, to look for new opportunities within existing landscapes, and to challenge themselves not to fall into habitual thinking patterns. And of course ideas are foundational, with great ideas being powerful accelerants of great design.

The fourth fundamental of great design focuses on the pivotal role of story.

Story: Fundamental to the human condition

Stories play a fundamental role in almost every aspect of human life. We use stories to record history and events, to share information, to teach, to remember, to entertain, to warn, and on and on. Every human civilization has used story in one way or another. Author Ursula K. Le Guin said: “The story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

Story: Challenge perceptions

Stories are so important because they are often the vehicles through which we share ideas. Stories help people learn, absorb, and retain information. Importantly, stories also have the power to persuade people to adopt a different point of view and inspire them to take action.

Consider the work done by AIS London for Harrison’s Fund, an organization that raises money to help fight Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disease for which there is not only no cure, but no treatment. AIS told a powerful story using only six words: “I wish my son had cancer.” This incredibly short story perfectly and poignantly challenge a parent’s belief that a cancer diagnosis is the worst thing that can happen to their child. The copy goes on to inspire readers to take action to try and make a difference.


Design that tells a new story

Stories are especially powerful in design for many reasons, one being that stories serve as the link between our ideas and design. Design is disciplined innovation, so by its very definition, design always seeks to be original. While designers value originality, and while original ideas can drive a distinctive position in the marketplace, it is also true that we are often designing for very familiar products and categories. So the challenge is often how to use design to drive reconsideration of something very familiar or re-ignite interest by telling a new story about something consumers think they already know. 

Consumers have come to know wines through characteristics such as type of grape, vintage, or region. Brancott Estates’ claim to fame is that all its grapes are from very specific “chosen rows.” The brand’s story claims the best fruit comes from rows planted north to south in order to capture the best light. Landor told that tale with a 3D label with die cut and embossed vines that cast a shadow as the light changes. The label tells an entire story in one simple yet communicative piece of design.


Facts and stories 

So often in business settings we trade in facts. We behave rationally (we think). We are data-backed, statistically rich, and highly credible. We think this is effective because we are usually talking to other intelligent, rational, credible business people. But in many cases, we aren’t as persuasive or as compelling as we might like. And it’s not because our facts are bad. It’s because as Roger Schank, artificial intelligence theorist, cognitive psychologist, and former Northwestern professor said: “Human beings are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories”.

Perhaps that is the reason we often hear politicians cite percentages and statistics very quickly, but then spend time telling anecdotal stories that put contextual flesh on the bare facts. People respond to stories. Many stories are internalized and remembered, and can be recalled again and again, while even some of the smartest among us lose exact fact and figures. It’s the human condition. Why fight it? Use story to your advantage.

We took this to heart when creating the new packaging for Oscar Mayer’s Butcher Thick Cut Bacon. As you can see, the category was in lock step from both a graphical and structural standpoint.

Oscar _003

We could have created a design that followed these conventions and instead used the facts about the unique product to gain traction with consumers. But rather than a claim about this bacon being 17 percent thicker than the competition, or two times fresher than ordinary bacon, we let the design tell the story. Using the back panel as the front, a paper substrate, and precision-crafted type, we transported consumers to the experience of a traditional, credentialed, and fresh butcher shop. Rather than assault them with facts and figures about the product, we created a design that told them a story about where the best meats originate.


Stories are powerful. Whether you use them to help sell your design solution to your clients, inform your design, or tell a story through the graphic system, stories are an effective tool in any designer’s arsenal. Story—pass one on today.


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Category: Packaging design
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