A look at baby names give important insight into what business names really are and how they work.

Choosing a name for a child is probably the most pressure-filled naming decision of all.  Many parents pore over baby naming books, lists of characters in Shakespeare, Greek mythology, looking for a name filled with meaning, a strongly positive association for their child as they make their way through life.

One thing that parents should know:  while names are words, they are special kinds of words.  We are the beneficiaries of a long debate on word meaning in the philosophical literature spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, influenced by the seminal work of German philosopher Gottlob Frege on meaning and reference.  The result:  names are different.  In fact many languages overtly distinguish names from other words in the grammatical machinery itself, for things like agreement, case marking and gender classifications.

Unlike run-of-the-mill words, personal names don’t carry a prepackaged word meaning around with them.  Names ‘mean’ the person they refer to.  If you name your son Aidan, no one will know that the name is supposed to impart an association of ‘fire’ to his personality, people will know ‘Aidan’ as that kid with the freckles who is always tripping over his shoelaces.  The meaning of ‘Aidan’ will be the child that the name refers to, plus all of the experiences you’ve had with the child to date.

The same applies to product and business naming.  The name of Apple Computer Corporation does not carry the meaning of a fruit and never did.

When it first appeared on the scene, the name ‘Apple’ provided a striking contrast to the technical sound names in the industry, invoking an emotional connection to the individual consumer in line with Apple’s vision of making computers an everyday device in the home.  The meaning of ‘Apple’ at that point was, in essence, simply a company that was ‘different’.

Now the meaning of ‘Apple’ is the company plus your experience with all of its products, stores, services, advertising, media presence etc.  In other words, the meaning of ‘Apple’ is the company and the brand.  And just like companies, every person is his or her own brand.  This reference/meaning relationship between name and brand holds true for every company, product, and person.

The lesson:  when trying to come up with a name, don’t focus simply on word meaning itself.  In fact this can lead to serious pitfalls as I’ve mentioned in other posts.   Instead, consider your name as an important container for the brand meaning and message with strategic work to do.  Meaning is only one aspect of naming – to be treated very carefully – alongside many others such as positioning, strategy, target, sound, structure, sayability, functionality and innovativeness.