Skip to content
4 min

What’s in a name—Giving meaning to your story

by Minjung Shepherd May 26, 2022

Centuries ago, one half of a doomed couple pondered the irrelevance of names. Granted, Juliet was complaining about the fact that her parents were refusing to let her date the man she loved, and her “rose” example was appropriate for the argument. But her lamentation eventually flowed into a case study around the very real power that a name carries.

She asserts to the night sky: “It is only your name that is the enemy” and acknowledges that simply by bearing the Montague name, her beloved is off-limits.

Names matter to the market

Family feuds aside, at One North, we also recognize the critical role that names play. When it comes to building the foundation of a client’s story, a name is often the first brick laid. Whether it’s for a product, campaign or an entire brand, it often serves as the introduction of a story that needs to be told and can carry the weight of reflecting:

  • Who you are
  • Why you exist
  • What you do
  • How you do it

More traditional brand experts would have you believe that to successfully check all the boxes above, you need a name that’s familiar, easily pronounceable, memorable, clear, concrete and that carries positive (if any) connotations.

However, well-known, remarkable outliers like Nike, Verizon, Xerox and Häagen-Dazs have proven that these conventions do not exclusively comprise an equation for success. It’s a gamble on German Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler’s position that words—even those that are made up—can illustrate concepts and ideas that transcend standard definitions, as well as a “linguistic Heisenburg principle” that suggests that:

“As soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it.”

—Adam Alter, Associate Professor of Marketing, NYU*

If the product, campaign or brand experience is right and rich enough with meaning and distinction to herald an identity, this gamble pays dividends by commanding attention, establishing affinity, nurturing loyalty and building community.

Names matter to the named

When it comes to communicating identity, names are not only important in the realms of brand and marketing, but also from a personal perspective. Our own names—often assigned to us by someone else—begin our journeys and go on to be the first step in developing relationships with others. They provide information about us to the rest of the world—whether it’s historical, familial (hopefully with no feuds attached) or cultural—and are inextricable from who we are.

“Every name has meaning, but for many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, names tell their story, too.”

—Procter and Gamble

Recently, Procter and Gamble rolled out a campaign about names in honor of Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. The campaign, while having little to do directly with their products, establishes a brand narrative of open-mindedness, inclusion and community care, which in turn speaks volumes on their commitment to “Lead with Love.”

Their campaign video, aptly titled “The Name,” highlights the importance and meaning that can be associated with our names, and shines a light on how, with the right people in your corner, “Belonging Starts with a Name.”

Names are never the enemy

For many Asian Americans, the distinctiveness of our given names has led us to feel othered in various environments at one point or another. Seemingly small acts such as misunderstandings, mispronunciations or misspellings can have a hugely negative impact. Says fellow One Northerner Myohan Oh:

“When someone refuses to make the effort to learn the proper pronunciation, or altogether disregards your name, in effect, they strip you of that power and your identity, valuing you as less.”

—Myohan Oh, Senior Designer, One North

Internalization of this devalued identity can look like hasty concessions to a nickname or oversimplification, a choice to go by a Westernized name or, in my case, an outright ambivalence and refusal to acknowledge, let alone communicate, my full given name since second grade.

For what it’s worth, One North is my first employer to display my full name in internal and external communications and platforms. Sure, it’s a technology convention for our parent company, and, sure, I commonly go by Min anyway. The point is, my fear of being othered just doesn’t exist here. In fact, I distinctly remember meeting colleagues for the first time who would ask, unbidden, for guidance on pronunciation, and every now and again, a new client will use it because, well, it’s my name. These seem like such small things, so you’ll have to believe me when I tell you the feeling is big. And if I could tell that second grader that we’d get to this point someday, it would have made all the difference in the world.

So—what’s in a name, you ask? Simply put, a name is a story. And whether you’re choosing or using one, it can hold the promise of distinction and identity, of history and narrative, of meaning and incredible power.


*As quoted in “The Power of Names” by Adam Atler in The New Yorker:

Photo Credit: Annie Spratt | Unsplash

Minjung Shepherd
Manager, Content Strategy

Min is One North’s Manager of Content Strategy. She joined One North to lead and grow the Content Strategy team by way of elevating our strategists’ skillsets, as well as further promoting our capabilities. When not providing general or project oversight, she pushes her team to realize the value and art in the work they produce.