Slate on how branding names and baby names converged. Are our consumer products becoming our babies, and our babies becoming branded items?
We’ve started naming our kids like products—and our products like kids. Parents approach baby naming a lot like product branding. Whereas in the past, names were typically chosen with an eye toward personal significance (a baby was named after a grandparent, say), today’s parents increasingly focus on the public image projected by the name.
Now, as companies introduce technologies that function like people—Siri being the most extreme example to date—they suddenly find themselves with the same kinds of naming challenges as today’s parents-to-be. They have to consider the complex web of cultural meanings that each name carries. They have to ask, as parents do, “What kind of person are we creating, and what name represents that?”
It’s no coincidence, then, that brand names and baby names have begun to converge, as in the case of the Sienna minivan and baby Siennas. Both corporate parents and real parents are trying to launch their offspring with the best possible positioning.
The idea of a talking machine with a human-sounding name isn’t new, of course, but Siri’s predecessors were mostly fictional. Think of the arch KITT, the silicon brain of a Pontiac Trans Am in the TV series Knight Rider; Joshua, the troubled NORAD computer in the film War Games; and most famously, the eerily calm HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey. These were mere characters, but they also reflected a universal human impulse: When we talk to something, or when it talks to us, we want to call it by a name. Have you noticed how many drivers give names to their GPS devices?
Using a human-style name reflects our relationship with the thing being named, and shapes it, too. Indoor pets, for instance, tend to be given more human names than outdoor animals. Assigning a name to a car or other possession is both a sign of growing affection and a spur to further bonding. Around my house, I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to throw out any object that my kids have named. Names give objects emotional life. You say, “the iPhone” and “my iPhone,” but not “the Siri.” It—she—is simply Siri. The name makes the act of conversing with a metal slab feel natural. And that emotional connection seems to invite a powerful kind of consumer loyalty.