What's in a name?
For organizations, thoughtful names can signal deeper meaning
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tells Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In the play, Juliet is unintimidated by Romeo’s family and last name and does not believe a name is significant. However, for organizations, thoughtful names can, and frequently do, signal more meaning.
Each year our Family Business Legacy and Wealth conference is attended by representatives of a number of family offices, trusts and foundations. While at the conference, I always enjoy asking the origin of these organizations’ names, and more often than not, the name is based on a place. It could be a town, a neighborhood or a street where the family currently lives. It could be the community where the business was founded. It could reflect the location of a place, such as a vacation home, where the family made memories or a landmark, region or country from where the family emigrated.
These places are generally close to a family’s heart. While family firms aren’t alone in gravitating toward location-based naming conventions — private equity groups love naming their funds after streets and towns — for many families the name holds a special meaning. The name they choose can anchor and reinforce the mythology of the original operating business or the founder’s journey. It thus communicates where the family comes from. And in doing so, it can signal, to both internal and external stakeholders, what the family values and thus who they are.
Moreover, a name of the family office, trust or foundation based on the original location or community where the business was founded or an ancestorial homeland can communicate a sense of belonging to the entire family. This can be especially important in families with many branches and larger numbers of shareholders. The name itself reminds them of a shared beginning and implies unity through common origin.
As we migrate to more remote work and increasingly a digital world, and years from now possibly a Metaverse, much has been written about the potential decline in importance of physical places. As people split their time among multiple locations, even answering simple questions becomes more complicated. While answering the question “Where is your permanent residence?” is easy, answering the question “Where is your home?” becomes more difficult. However, both now and in the future, a sense of physical place may be more important in grounding groups of people who, although related, may have disparate goals and beliefs.
While Juliet is right that her love for Romeo would not change if his last name were different, names of organizations can provide more meaning. And in many cases, organizations’ names reflecting the origin mythology or shared special places can serve to bind families together and signal their values.