In with the new

Samuel Pollen
9 February 2018

When I was a teenager, like every teenager, I wanted a nickname. I didn’t mind much what that nickname was. For a long time, I tried to get people to call me ‘Mule’ (as in, ‘Sa-mule’), for reasons that now escape me.

It didn’t work. That’s the thing with nicknames: they only stick if someone else bestows them upon you. This is a law of the universe, as certain as gravity. Toast will always fall butter-side-down, dogs will always chew your most expensive pair of shoes, and a nickname you give yourself will never, ever stick.

Unless you’re a musician, you stop trying to give yourself new names when you reach adulthood. For better or worse, you stick with what you’ve got, with one notable exception. Even today, 59% of British women plan to take their husband’s surname.

Well, my wife is one of the 41%. When we got married in December, we chose to create a new name for our family. For one reason, the weight of female oppression over centuries weighed heavily on our shoulders. For another, we are both writers, and it felt like a good creative opportunity.

So I am now Samuel Pollen, rather than Samuel Palin. Hello.

 

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The process of renaming myself got me thinking about names, and how and when and why we change them.

Brand names, like human names, are sticky. We don’t like it when they change. For example: offer anyone over the age of 40 a Starburst, and they will say, ‘You mean an Opal Fruit!’, as if you are trying to trick them. Offer me some Curiously Cinnamon, and I will throw the box at you.

This is what some people call ‘brand equity’ – the intrinsic value of familiarity. It matters – and, when we ignore it, we risk pissing people off.

Brand names exist in an odd cultural space. We are fond of them. In a small way, they make us feel safe. Brands were created in the first place to make products memorable and distinctive, so we could buy with confidence. But somewhere along the way, they outgrew that role, and took on a life of their own.

Given all this, you may be wondering whether changing a name is ever a good idea. The answer is yes – but you need good reason. That could be because your existing name is terrible (Google is a much, much better name than BackRub), or problematic (no sports team should be called the Redskins in 2018), or simply outdated (how is Carphone Warehouse still a thing?).

There are positive reasons, too. A new name can underscore a fundamental change you’ve made – to your business, product or recipe. It’s a line in the sand. But that’s the thing: a new name should reflect a real change, one that matters to your staff, your clients, your customers, and not just you. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything. People won’t buy it, in every sense of the word.

My new name, for what it’s worth, reflects my heritage (Manchester, and a family who kept bees), as well as my wife’s name (Potts). In this particular case, we’re the only stakeholders who matter. And to us, it means a lot.

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