There is profound power in names. Countless websites explore their meanings and associated mythologies worldwide. In fact, the folklore concept of the Law of Names suggests that to know something’s true and complete name is to gain control over that thing.
When most of us enter the world, however, we’re given a name by someone else. There’s a psychology to names and their impact on our development, so as we grow up, we may assume a different name. It’s not only a reflection of who we feel ourselves to be, but a way to take back our power.
Often that change is a choice born of our own will. Sometimes, it’s a choice born out of necessity.
THE INEQUITY OF IDENTITY
I had hit a wall. I was a young professional looking for a job and could not gain traction with anyone. My friend, Alexandra, suggested I try doing what she did: going by “Alex,” she saw a significant uptick in interest from prospective employers.
Nixing the idea of changing my given name to its more masculine spelling, I chose to use a nickname instead. When I left “Erin” behind and became “Mack,” the response was unexpectedly tremendous. Not in an affirming way, but in an appalling demonstration of how much names have the power to hold us back or propel us forward.
At the time there were not as many studies (or at least, not as much public focus) on the fact that names carry associations and assumptions about the gender, age, national origin, ethnicity, or even education of the unseen person on the other end of an application. We might think we’ve evolved beyond those biases, but we’d be wrong.
The rise of gender-neutral names (think Hunter, Jordan, Riley, etc.) made gender bias more difficult at the outset, but it hasn’t eliminated the pay gap, the lag in female leaders, or the realities of life brought to the fore with the pandemic-induced she-cession. The majority of women also change their surnames when they marry, meaning they may give up the professional equity they’ve built in their former name.
And there are numerous studies here in the U.S. and abroad that show a definite bias against names that some might deem “ethnic.” In short, before they are even introduced, people are “othered” with all the inherent prejudices and denial of opportunity that holds, because BIPOC and AAPI individuals also go on to suffer pay gaps and lack of leadership roles.
Changing your name is not an option for everyone. Nor is it a long-term solution for face-to-face inequity. So, how can you own who you are and still break through the barriers to stand out in this Instagram-ideal-driven, us versus them, over-stimulated world in which we live?
THE BASICS OF BUILDING YOUR BRAND
I think it’s important first to make a distinction when it comes to names and branding. There is your name—that is, what people call you. Then there is the concept of making a name for yourself. That is, building something beyond the label.
Top brands do this—take on a life of their own—to tremendous effect. The name Nike evokes images of a fitness lifestyle, not the Greek goddess of victory on which it was based. Luxury fashion house Gucci has existed for over a century but none of the Gucci family has been involved with the company since the 1990s. Professional athletes, performing artists, actors, and influencers sell their names because of the effect that association with their persona has on a product’s sales.
It’s a proven path that somehow hasn’t proved popular in the professional world. Despite assertions that it’s “selfish” or “showboating” to promote yourself as an individual, the plain truth is that it’s just smart business. So, how do you become someone whose name stands for something?
You work at it.
• Be strategic. Start by asking (and answering) some key questions. What do you want to be known for? Who do you want to be known by? What is your vision of success six, 12, or 24 months from now?
• Grow your network. Critical for anyone, but especially for members of marginalized populations who continue to be underrepresented as professional brands. Join groups that bring together subsets of female, BIPOC, AAPI, and LGBTQ+ professionals in your field. Everyone knows someone, so this is not about segregating, it’s about gathering survival tools so you can then reach a wider audience.
• Invest in your success. A one-man show isn’t sustainable in building a corporate brand, so don’t expect to do it all by yourself. Assemble a team to support you in content production and gaining visibility through speaking engagements and media relations. It’s time and money well spent, especially as it frees you from the tactical to focus on being creative.
Between traditional media and social channels, the current marketplace is awash with personalities and stories, but too few people to tell them. Whether it’s elevating (or cementing) your status in your current role, building a foundation for future roles, or preparing to join the record-breaking numbers of new entrepreneurs, it’s ultimately up to you to market and pitch your own experience and talents as much as you would any other product or service.
That puts the onus on you to not only craft your story, but also to be brave enough to share it through thoughtful, useful content and real, engaging conversations. The power in shaping who you are and how you are known lies in your hands.
What’s in a name? You.
Mack McKelvey is founder and CEO of SalientMG, a strategic marketing firm specializing in solutions for growth-stage tech companies.