Why We Name: The Power of Taming to Drive Deep Connections with a Brand

Humans have a deep-seated need to name and be named, and researchers have long acknowledged that there is great power in naming things. We name to identify, symbolize, refer, describe, simplify, organize and, most importantly, to tame. When you tame something, you do so to bring it closer. Through the act of taming, we make ties and emotional bonds with people and things.

Vintage bowling shirt with embroidered name "Duane"

Long before the written alphabet was invented, and as far back as oral history exists, humans have felt compelled to name—things, people, weather patterns even. It’s a practice that transcends cultures and religions, geographies and time periods, from primitive tribes to the present day.

The ancient Egyptians believed that what their god Ptah named was created, and the ancient Greeks and Romans gave names to destructive forces of nature. Naming is a significant narrative in Hebrew and Christian religious history as well, as reflected in the Book of Genesis: “God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.”

Secular literature also affirms the importance of naming to humans, from Anne of Green Gables’¹  penchant for renaming everything to the classic Grimm brothers’ fairytale “Rumpelstiltskin,”²  in which the miller’s daughter can only avoid giving her first-born to Rumpelstiltskin by guessing the dwarf’s name.

Why we name

Everybody names. It’s our right as reproducers, owners, friends and family to assign names: to our children, to our grandparents (Mimi and Papa or Nonna and Gumpa, etc.), to our siblings (Junior or, perhaps, butthead), romantic partners (Honeybear or Pookie), to products and technology even (Apple’s Siri).

Researchers have long acknowledged that there is “great power in naming things,” as psychologist Suzanne Degges-White wrote in Psychology Today in 2016.  Naming a possession not only indicates affection but also triggers further bonding with that object—consider the fact that people who raise animals for food rarely name their animals. The act of naming cements psychological ownership—the feeling that something is yours.

“Names give objects emotional life,” Laura Wattenberg, an expert in baby name trends, wrote in Slate. “You say, ‘the iPhone’ and ‘my iPhone’ but not ‘the Siri’. It—she—is simply Siri. The name makes the act of conversing with a metal slab feel natural. And that emotional connection seems to invite a powerful kind of consumer loyalty.”

In a world full of words, we name to:

  • Identify
  • Symbolize
  • Describe
  • Refer
  • Simplify
  • Organize
  • Tame

Let’s take a moment to consider the last of that list: taming. The other words are functional aspects, whereas taming is internal. When you tame something, you do so to bring it closer. And it is this emotional center that I believe drives our desire to name and be named and the deep connections that we have with brands.

When we get right to it, that is the power of branding. A flag is merely colors and shapes, but we associate it with very personal emotions. To bring something close, to connect with it in an emotional way, is to tame it. All of the other words are building blocks that facilitate taming.

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world …”

A name is more than a word

Numerous studies point to the power of a person’s name: One study found that immigrants to Sweden who changed their names to Swedish-sounding or neutral names earned more than immigrants who retained their names. Numerous other studies have found that an unusual name—say, Berrien instead of Dan—has a negative psychological effect on its bearer. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a new, sleep-deprived parent.

Names and words: They occupy the same space and at times, they collide. A name can influence the meaning of a word. Put another way, your experience with a brand name may influence how you feel about a particular word. But more often, the reverse is true.

The challenge in naming a brand or product begins because a name is more than a word. Words have meaning, but names have meaning as well—a lot of it. A name elicits distinct associations, feelings, personal commitments and even barriers. And context is key. The word “apple” automatically summons an image—one that differs widely depending on whether you’re preparing to buy an iPhone or reaching into a fruit bowl.

Consider the case of the word “carter.” These days, we may think of Carter as a proper name. We recognize Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, or former president Jimmy Carter. The word, however, has its origins in Gaelic or Celtic time; it also refers to someone whose job is to transport goods by cart or wagon. We hardly use the term in this way today, but for some, perhaps in certain lines of work, it may still hold meaning.

“Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” – Dale Carnegie

As language has evolved, the carter may have eventually gone by the name of Carter, because that’s what he did. Immigrants bound for Ellis Island or other U.S. ports accepting immigrants purchased a spot on a ship, and a clerk wrote the passenger’s name in the ship’s manifest, sometimes without verifying the spelling, according to an article published in Smithsonian magazine. The clerks also asked other questions designed to uncover whether a man could perform manual labor. Thus, the ship records (which were referenced by immigration officials at Ellis Island) for a man who delivered goods with a cart often included the word, or name, Carter. Thus, the evolution of the carter to Carter, the proper name with a capital C, began.

A name is more than a word. It can mean many things and take on many roles. We all bring our own associations—for good or ill. We name to identify, symbolize, refer, describe, simplify, organize and, most importantly, to tame. Through the act of naming, we make ties and emotional bonds with people and things. A fox, after all, is just a fox until you tame him. As the fox told the prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince: “… If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”

¹ Montgomery, L. M., & Parry, C. (1998). Anne of Green Gables. New York: Bantam Books.
² Schneider, C., Grimm, W., & Grimm, J. (2016). Rumpelstiltskin. Auckland: Wendy Pye Publishing.
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