What’s in a name?

Sketch by Matt.

When setting up a charity, business or social enterprise, one of the most important decisions to make is coming up with the name. Furthermore, if you have already been established but your name is out-dated or doesn’t represent your service, when and how should it be changed?

There are a number of influencing factors during the process of name creation. Let’s start with the psychology of words.

“Plod” and “roam” sound as unhurried as the speeds that they aim to represent, whereas the words “jagged” and “spiky” do well in describing their texture without the need of images.

There has been a lot of research carried out in this area. One theory is Gestalt Psychology – a school of thought that looks at the human mind and behaviour as a whole. In the 1920’s German Gestalt psychologist, Wolfgang Köhler, believed words conveyed symbolic ideas beyond their meaning. To test the idea more carefully, he asked a group of individuals to decide which of the two shapes below was a maluma and which was a takete.

If you’re like the vast majority of Köhler’s respondents, you’re compelled by the idea that malumas are soft and rounded (like the shape on the left), whereas taketes are sharp and jagged (like that on the right). As Köhler showed, words carry hidden messages that may play at least some role in shaping thought.

Beyond their meaning, words also differ according to how easy they are to pronounce. It is understood that people generally prefer not to think more than necessary, and they tend to prefer objects, people, products, and words that are simple to pronounce and understand.

Another area of attention when creating a name is their meanings within other languages. If your organisation has international aspirations this is incredibly important and cannot be overlooked. What does the name mean in Spanish, French, or even Japanese for example and are there any glaring mistakes. The organisation’s name may need to be communicated across a number of other languages, so research needs to be carried out regarding other connotations. This could take a lot of time and there will be an expense, but I’m sure you can understand the issues if this process isn’t realised.

The New Yorker has previously interviewed Lexicon’s founder, David Plecek, regarding this matter. The Californian based naming agency screens names for embarrassing associations. They also offer input on the unconscious resonance of particular sounds. In the mid-nineties, Lexicon funded a linguistic study whose results suggested that the sound of the letter “b” was one of the most “reliable” in any language – “whether you were in Poland or Paris or New York” said Placek.

As well as the creative elements in choosing a name, there are also the complying issues as well. You need to be unique – the Charity Commission or Company House may ask you to change it if it could be misleading to the public to have two organisations with similar names. Misleading names need to be avoided, offensive words (of course) will be rejected and permission must be checked if it’s somebody’s name or subject to intellectual property rights.


Changing a name is a huge decision for an organisation, possibly bigger than the original name creation in the first place. Getting it right can secure its long-term future and boost awareness and reputation. Getting it wrong can be an expensive disaster and too often the decision is made without the proper care or research.

But why would you need a name change?

The language that your organisation uses could be out of date or the sector so saturated that you need a way of standing out and being recognisable. The strategic benefits of a name change over a decade can also far out-weigh the hassle of the next year or two. If it aligns your organisation more towards your values and mission it could be a positive step in the long run. Many names are stale and bland; a new name could help communicate a warmer and more personal approach.

Take charities for example, one of the biggest disadvantages of a change in a name is that the supporters will see their donations being used on a non-service related project. Charities’ spending is under the microscope more than ever at present, so although the rebrand could be a positive in the long run, the change will need to be fully researched and communicated to its audiences with a lot of thought.

Other issues to consider is that is it the name that’s at fault, or the organisations’ brand that needs addressing? If your company or charity is coming across with a bad image or perception, this is what will need to be changed, not solely the name. And at the end of the day, it may not work, and organisations could loose what little brand recognition they have.

A name isn’t everything, it is just part of the branding process. Often a name is the final stage. Would Amazon be just as successful if it was called River? Possibly. The most important branding decision is more about brand strategy, the service you want to provide and the values and messages that you communicate to your audiences. However, if done right, a good name could very quickly help your organisation with the above.

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