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Naming Significance

Been thinking about names again.

Partly because of Lexicon Branding, a Sausalito, CA firm specialized in naming research for brands.

As it so happens, my master’s thesis was on proper names. I mainly focused on anthroponyms (personal names) and toponyms (place names), but the connection is obvious between Lexicon’s work and what I have done in the past.

In the past, I have mostly worked in a semiotic framework. The discipline of semiotics has lost some of its mainstream prominence but semiotic approaches are in fact quite common in social sciences, humanities, and marketing. My own training in semiotics has helped me integrate language sciences and music studies with symbolic anthropology and ethnographic approaches. Calling myself a “semiotician” might not seem like an excellent strategy to get a good job. But my training in semiotics can be quite useful in many contexts.

Within semiotics, I have mostly focused on names and on music. My master’s thesis was on proper names used in Malian praise-songs and my Ph.D. dissertation has involved both names and music in those same praise-singing performance contexts. As it so happens, there are clear connections (in my mind) between proper names and some musical patterns used in those praise-songs. The significance of both types of signs goes beyond some simplified explanations of meaning.

From a semiotic perspective, names are simply fascinating. As verbal signs, they are deeply significant. Not just meaningful by virtue of an arbitrary (or partially motivated) connection with an object. But significant through a more complex process of semiosis. More than other verbal signs, names can evoke a complex reality on their own. They resonate in a specific context. And they are salient across language boundaries.

In the Bamanan-speaking performance contexts I’ve observed, proper names have special significance.  For instance, those who are praised are those who have made a name for themselves. Simply calling out someone’s last name is equivalent to praising that person. Mentioning a place name in a praise-singing performance is a way to refer to events which have taken place at that location, often requiring listeners to possess some priviledged information about those events. Naming someone is a way to make that person social. Someone’s first name can have a deep impact on their character. Given the social structure, it’s often important to live up to one’s name and maintain a good name for the family as a whole.

What’s more, names (and musical patterns) are more motivated than the typical linguistic sign. As such, names can more easily participate in sound symbolism than other words. In this, names can resemble onomatopoeia and ideophones (which happen to be more frequent in African languages than in other linguistic contexts). In fact, some names share with sound symbolism the presence of non-typical morphophonological features for the language in which they are used. For instance, some English-speakers try to pronounce my first name as it is in French (/alεksãdr/), which implies a sequence of sounds which isn’t typical in English. Of course, I tend to go by “Alex” and a lot of people use the English version of my name (and spell it “Alexander”). But the point remains that even my first name can have some features reminiscent of sound symbolism, when used in a different language.

Lots more that I’ve discussed in both my master’s thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation. Going back to this fascination for names is a way for me to tie some loose ends.

Quite stimulating.

What does it all have to do with brand names? Quite a lot, actually, and it’s easy to realize. As some experts in social marketing tend to say, personal names often act like personal brands. “Branding yourself” is a market-driven approach to making a name for yourself. In Mali, people talk about the “publicity” aspect of the performance events I have been studying. In different parts of Africa (and in Brazil), people literally pay for the priviledge of being mentioned in song, because these mentions can be quite advantageous as “personal branding and marketing.”

One thing which attracts me to Lexicon specifically is the emphasis on cross-cultural communication. For very obvious reasons, Lexicon needs to make sure that the brand names it designs can have appropriate effects in a wide variety of linguistic and cultural contexts. We can all think of cases in which brand names had negative connotations in a language other than the one in which they were designed. But Lexicon’s approach seems to go much further. Beyond preventing the branding faux-pas which can have very detrimental effects on the product’s adoption, Lexicon works on the deeper integration of names in diverse cultural contexts.

Since I chersih human diversity, I’m deeply moved by examples of cultural awareness. In any context.

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