Photo credit: Tiny Bean Photography, Pittsburgh

Politics, Religion and… Baby Names

The Serious Business of Baby Branding

I have two wonderful children. Jay Thaddeus, and Ian Fire. I feel comfortable telling you that now. However, as our little bundles of joy were in utero, you wouldn’t have heard a peep. My wife and I vowed to make this our best kept secret. In my mind, the most divisive topics our world has ever seen revolve around politics, religion, and… baby names. As a result, I would like to share with you the one and only piece of parental advice I feel strongly enough to share with every expecting parent I meet.

Don’t tell anyone your baby’s name until after they’re born.

We’ve all had, or witnessed, those visceral reactions to hearing what a baby-to-be might be named. One that conjures up memories of a playground bully or the obnoxious distant relative that can’t seem to get his life together. Maybe it just “doesn’t sound right” to us when we hear it or we’d “never name our baby something like that.” Maybe we’ve seen others scrunching up their noses and through pursed lips say “oh, that’s nice” or the seemingly benign, but deepest dig of all, “Really?” Regardless, one thing is for certain, it’s hard not to have an emotional reaction to a name.

To put it simply, names are easily tainted. And we just can’t help ourselves. It amazes me how the arrangement of letters and sounds we choose to represent another human can lead to such strong emotional reactions. One wayward consonant and people just can’t seem to hide their dislike. Being married to a former teacher, I’ve also seen firsthand how deeply rooted the dislike of a name can go over something as simple as a spitball.

As humans, it’s in our nature to take what little bits of information we have to create as complete a picture about the subject as we can. Consciousness coupled with speech further created a need for us as a species to identify one human from another verbally. And names help us do that. Throughout history, names have conveyed power, wealth, lineage. To this day, names can convey the personality of the child, the personality of the parents, the child’s upbringing, and can aid in the child’s future success among other things. So the stakes are quite high.

When we name a child we’re essentially creating a brand that represents us as parents, represents the qualities we hope to impart upon our child and, by proxy, is representative of our family and friends. They’re kind of like unwitting brand evangelists. We are, in essence, creating a brand affiliation for our loved ones without their consent. But they have their own vision of what this baby might be like, based on you, the family’s values, their hopes and dreams for the child and a host of other factors, many of them subconscious. In other words, there are expectations. Not only that, we’re creating this brand affiliation without the benefit of customer reviews and celebrity endorsements. This little baby hasn’t arrived yet. It’s a blank slate with nothing to go on, so we default to what we know.

Here’s a test: Take the name “Liam” (the most popular boy’s name for 2014) and tell me about what you think a “baby Liam” might be like. Stream of consciousness. Create a caricature of Liam in your head. Advance apologies to all of the Liam’s out there, but for comparison’s sake, my stream of conscious is as follows (once I get past the Liam Neeson connection; he’s such a badass): upper middle class, dark brown hair, maybe irish, maybe a little rebellious as a kid, confident. His parents are probably a little “helicoptery,” and concerned with keeping up with the Joneses while trying to be “unique” and kitschy at the same time. They all have the newest iPhones and probably watch Dancing With the Stars or American Idol. Maybe both. Liam will probably grow up to be a casting director.

I can’t tell you why, but that’s what I get. How did it compare to what you thought of? Maybe you love the name, maybe you hate it. The greater point here is that I know the Liams of the world by no means fit these exact criteria, but without having that firsthand experience with this hypothetical “baby Liam” I can’t help but base judgment on whatever life experiences are conjured up when I hear that arrangement of letters and sounds. Combine that with the fact that there are no two identical sets of life experiences. We are bringing our own unique frames into everything, and we’ve created a situation ripe for disagreement. It’s why I loved the name Hunter, while my wife gave it the “nose scrunch,” and why Finn just didn’t do it for me while my wife was in love with it. It’s the reason my wife and I went page by page through a book of over 10,000 baby names and ended up with eight on a Post-It note. Two of which were “maybes.”

Those unique frames, learned or otherwise, are why “Nike,” “Coach,” “Southwest,” and “Apple” mean so much more than just a combination of letters and sounds. It’s taking our existing frames coupled with experience to create a feeling or emotional response. And that, I think, is where the advantage of having experience works against a parent who spills the beans too early. The lack of tangibility are why some people are so willing to express their negative opinion of a baby’s name. Despite the bump, your baby is still unseen. It’s an idea without a set of frames assigned to it, good, bad or otherwise. It’s easier to criticize and critique an idea than it is to criticize or critique a person.

By waiting until the child is born, and a physical entity, you’ve introduced a new frame in which to draw conclusions based on the name. To describe my own son, we often resort to “He’s just being Jay” because he truly is his own unique person, with his own set of behaviors and that unique frame now exists only for him in my mind. He doesn’t act like a Liam, or a Tim. He’s just Jay. One can assume that when Frank Zappa’s Aunt Shirley came to meet little Moon Unit or Dweezil, she may have been taken aback, but the sight of that little human being, most likely, helped create a new frame to attach those names as opposed to some inaccurate existing frame.

Now more than ever, choosing your Baby’s brand is a serious endeavor. There are only so many Twitter handles out there. Some may go unfazed by the criticism and nose scrunches associated with revealing a baby’s names while in utero. But for those more daunted by criticism, waiting gives you the best chance to avoid some of the negativity a lot of people experience around a time that’s meant to be magical and precious for any expectant parents.

Our oldest son Jay (who was almost two at the time) insisted on calling our baby-to-be “Baby Fire” while my wife was pregnant. It caught on and throughout my wife’s pregnancy, our families would ask, “How’s Baby Fire doing?” Although it seemed like a fitting name, we just dismissed it thinking “Fire” was too “out there” for anyone to be on board. But on the way to the hospital during the wee hours of the morning on July 4th, my wife and I decided that “Fire” as a middle name seemed appropriate. It will forever link our sons since it was Jay’s idea, and it captures the memories and emotions we felt throughout the pregnancy. There’s the July 4th fireworks tie-in as well. And let’s face it “Fire” as a middle name is only one step away from “Danger” as the coolest name ever. It was that moment when we distanced ourselves from what others might think that we went with what we truly felt was a good name for our son.

Our families love Ian’s name. He went on to be called “Baby Fire” months after he was born. (And to this day by some stubborn uncles.) When we introduce him, people always say how cool of a story it is. It’s certainly a conversation starter. Now, I couldn’t imagine, and I don’t think anyone else could either, having our little “Firecracker” named anything else.

It won’t always be easy to hold back that name you’re so excited about, but be patient and wait. The Ian Fires, Moon Units, and Liams of the world are counting on you.

Tim Bradley is a Manager at Olson Zaltman where he uncovers the subconscious drivers and emotional context behind human thought and behavior.