Products, Companies, People: What’s In a Name?

Our own name is one of the first things we hear regularly. It produces a specific effect on us, usually positive. It can be overused in sales tactics to build rapport, which sometimes pushes it over the edge into annoying territory. “So, Anne, what I’m trying to say is we have a best-in-class solution. Anne, I really think you’d like it. Would you be open to a call next week, Anne?”

We identify with our name, sometimes losing sight of the fact that we are not what we’re called, and that our name is a construction that was given to us. It’s not just us as individuals who get caught up in self-perception blind spots; others’ perceptions of us can also be impacted by our name. Articles like this one posit name-related impacts in how we’re treated at work, how teachers perceive us, and many other things.

Have you found yourself saying (or heard others say), “Hi, I’m [name], I work at [company name] doing [job name]”? There are 3 items in that sentence that many people take for granted. Personal names, company names, and product names or job roles seem to be written in stone when we first encounter them, but in fact they are all malleable human constructions.

When we call to mind our company name, we likely experience a flood of associations, images, and emotions related to our perceptions. Our experience creates associations between the sound of the name, the visual of the logo, and our mental constructs. Unless we ourselves have started a company or built a brand, it’s easy to forget that a person or group intentionally decided on the name and logo. Because they (likely) did a good job, it seems to us that this name and symbol have existed since the beginning of time. Branding is an exercise that follows a specific, repeatable process. Like anything else, it appears mysterious until we participate in it and see for ourselves.

Job and product names are part of the branding of a company just as much as the colors and logo. Job names may be built to portray a certain image. Level of professionalism, company culture, and more may be implicit in the way roles are named. This can also go overboard and veer into the ridiculous. “Rock star 10x engineer needed who inhales C# and exhales production-ready software same-day.” On the other side of the coin, it may produce job names and descriptions so boring and corporatized that they either put the applicant to sleep or make them laugh. “This role involves supervision of the widget factory, creating team synergy, and leveraging your skills to build a robust future-proof organization.”

There might have been an earnest intention behind these types of descriptions, but their effect can be disingenuous and off-putting. Corporate-speak isn’t doing anyone any favors (linked article is a detailed and worthwhile takedown).

Product names share many of the same characteristics as company names, which is to say created by humans, intended to fulfill branding principles, and, if done well, seem like they’ve always been around. Can you imagine a world without Air Jordans? Without Honda Accords? Without Diet Coke? These are silly and potentially materialistic-seeming examples, but they give an idea of how deeply embedded these terms can become.

What happens, then, when we encounter changes to these names? This looks different depending on which aspect we’re discussing, but the principles are remarkably similar.

For personal names? Marriage, divorce, or intentionally choosing a new first name for any variety of reasons.

For companies? Mergers or rebranding campaigns.

For job roles? Promotions, demotions, or role name changes.

For product names? Updates, reissues, renaming, etc. (Rabid fans will experience this at the same level as some of the personal name changes above since they identify with the products so much!)

All of these can throw our sense of identity into disarray if we strongly cling to ourselves as these names. (Incidentally, this year, I will have gone through a divorce, resultant name change, company change, new role title, company acquisition, and I perform work with a product whose nomenclature and branding frequently changes, so I feel pretty invested in these topics and in my experience of myself as an evolving, impermanent entity.)

If we can’t identify outside of these terms, we may feel personally threatened when changes come our way. It may feel like waking up to a green sky with Coke in a blue can. “It’s just not right!” We mistake what’s right with what we’re used to.

The NY Times recently ran a wonderful post on life transitions. The important thing to note is that transitions are a process, not an event. That means that we can shift our focus from our immediate surroundings to where we’re going. We are a vector, not just a point in space. That means the important thing is which direction we’re headed.

If we know where we’re going, we can glide over the bumps along the way, since we can see their place as temporary frustrations along a path to a better future. If we don’t have the confidence that the direction we’re heading will result in a better future, there are almost always changes and tweaks to be made that can give us a glimmer of hope. It can be something as simple as creating an experience to look forward to, even if it’s as simple as a nap, a picnic, or a good book. It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated; we can create things to look forward to for ourselves as we define our path and refine our course. This is especially important as the world at large experiences major events such as COVID and political upheaval which may reside outside our immediate control. We create more positive momentum when we take care of ourselves and focus on the contributions we can make rather than the global events and news stories that may throw us into an overwhelmed state of pessimism.

People create brands, worlds, and systems, and you are a person. By virtue of that fact, you have that capacity. What meaning will you build? What beauty will you create? It doesn’t have to be the Sistine Chapel. It can be anything you feel drawn to. Even if you find yourself seemingly at the mercy of outside circumstances (such as involvement in a merger, rebranding, or personal change), you can frame a story – a true one – where you emerge as a better version of your past self. The result of adversity is often creativity and meaning-making. This can be a profound and necessary exercise that results in more authentic, earnest, and compassionate people. Come join us on the journey.

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