Petal, Fifi, Moxie, Speck and... Duncan?

By: Simon Wicks

Date: 22 April 2009

A few weeks ago, the media gleefully revealed that Jamie and Jools Oliver had named their new daughter Petal Blossom Rainbow. When we stopped snorting, my BHP colleagues and I reflected that the Olivers are just conforming to a celebrity tradition of giving their offspring ‘distinctive’ names. The Fluffy Bunny Wabbit variety is a relatively recent phenomenon, probably inspired by the late Paula Yates, mother of Peaches, Fifi Trixibelle and Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. But it’s been almost 40 years since David Bowie boldly called his son Zowie Bowie and Frank Zappa sired the oddly-named Moon Unit. Yet even these two zanies seem quite restrained beside the magician Penn Jillette, father of the fabulous Moxie Crimefighter, the actress Shannyn Sossamon, doting mother of Audio Science, and singer John Mellencamp, proud progenitor of the unfortunate Speck Wildhorse. WHAT WERE THESE PEOPLE THINKING? It would be easy to poke fun, to go on about how the other kids in class will be sniggering behind their hands during registration, and how potential employers will assume their job application is a joke. But the truth is that their names are no real handicap at all, because these children automatically belong to an exclusive club where a bonkers name is more or less a membership requirement. They’re not really going to be applying for jobs at Sainsbury’s, are they? My point is that the suitability of a name is dependent on context – and it’s the same with business. Some time ago we interviewed Neena Trehan, the owner of Spa Fabulous, which leaves you in no doubt what to expect. Spa Fabulous just works. So, for quite different reasons, does IBM. I’ve no idea what IBM stands for, but I do know that big business loves an important-sounding abbreviation - so IBM works for me. In fact, I suspect that if IBM were to rebrand itself as IT Fabulous it would collapse overnight, leaving thousands of executives called Jim, Garry and Tom to console themselves with a relaxing massage at Neena’s as they wonder where it all went wrong. As far as I can see, a business name has to do five things:

  • Appeal to your target customer
  • Inspire confidence in your offer
  • Differentiate you from competitors
  • Give an idea of what you do
  • Preserve you from ridicule.

It doesn’t have to be attention-seeking, but it does need to be self-aware. J Brown & Son Locksmith is fine, suggesting craft and continuity – exactly what security-conscious customers are looking for. J Brown & Son Fashion, however, makes me think of neglected seaside towns where old people go to sit on graffiti-strewn benches and stare mournfully at the sea. Naming a business - like naming a child, I guess - is a bit of an art. It’s not so much that you have to get it dead right as you must not get it wrong. And context matters, a lot. Zowie Bowie understands this. As an adult pursuing a serious career in the film industry, he’s rejected the proxy glamour of Zowie Bowie in favour of something rather more prosaic: nowadays he’s plain old Duncan Jones. I wonder if Petal Blossom Rainbow Oliver will ever wish for such an ordinary monicker in years to come?