Child branding: some suggestions

Pretend for a minute that you were given the following design problem: develop a moniker, a brand, a descriptor for a one-of-a-kind product. A product that you will cherish your whole life, one that you wish will achieve notoriety, obtain huge profits, and will far surpass your every expectation. A product of your own biology – your child.

Consider now my brand name, Kristinn Richard Rzepkowski. The product of an American-born mother, and an American-born father. Granted my mother and father were not gifted in the field of user-centered design. In fact the professions of these “branding experts” shouldn’t surprise anyone. My mother is a teacher turned domestic engineer – one who instills creativity and encourages youth to broaden their horizons. My father is an electrical engineer turned corporate VP – a field known for inventing the next best thing to sliced bread, only to brand it with an acronym, or better yet a part number.

Thus on a snowy, frigid day in Caledonia, N.Y., my parents came up with Kristinn Richard Rzepkowski. Interesting, and different to suit my Mom’s fancy while containing a sufficient number of consonants for my Dad’s liking.

So, let’s think first about “Rzepkowski”. My dad had lived with the name for 20 years prior to naming me, and my mom foolishly married into it. My parents actually keep at home a list of every uniquely misspelled mailing label they’ve ever received. That list now exceeds 110! They had empirical usability test data right there in front of them when they decided to continue on with the Rzepkowski name.

They have plenty of subjective data as well. My mom spells Rzepkowski, “R-Z as in Zebra, E as in Edward, P as in Peter, K-O-W-S-K-I”. Add up the productivity loss over a lifetime in having to use those additional sentences just to spell the last name, and you might be able to retire two years early.

How about “Kristinn?” My dad was an exchange student in Iceland, and he and my mother decided that I ought to be named after his “exchange brother.” His name “Kristinn” had a nice ring with Rzepkowski and was very “unique.” OK so they had one thing right, the trend has been for the last 20 years to name children something other than Tom, Steve, or Bill. Just check out www.babynames.com. But Kristinn is the opposite extreme. We’re talking about a name that equates to the female sex in the United States. Of course my parents’ explanation when, in first grade, I had a girl named “Kristin” in my class, was that my name has two n’s. Very reassuring. This explanation has been less useful to me later in life when, for instance, I try to get my credit card balance over the phone and the person at the other end doesn’t believe I’m the card holder. My answer is “But it has 2 n’s”, and the person says, “Let me go talk to my supervisor.”

My saving grace has always been that I can shorten my first name to Kris, or can answer to nicknames involving my last name, like Zippy, or Zeb. In reality though, my curse is always the first encounter. In college I would sit in a classroom with 30 other individuals listening to the alphabetical listing intently. “Martin, Nielson, RogersuhhErrrzepKristin(as the teacher peruses all of the female faces in the room)Kristina Errzepski”. Now usually I don’t let it get to that point, I simply cut them off at “uhh”. It saves the unintroduced the embarrassment of the inadvertent gender-bend. It saves me the explanation time necessary to justify my nomenclature, and provide a pronunciation chart.

It seems like I need not go further with the tortuous stories revolving around my name. Everyone has his or her stories. Just ask any guy named Loren, or Shirley, or Aaron. Ask any girl named Sydney, or Darrell, or Bailey. Think about all those families that have been in the United States for five or six generations but still have last names with five or six consonants strung together in an incorrigible row. My goal is to eliminate these stories through a baby centered design process and good quality usability testing.

Step 1 Planning

Simply identify the sex of the child to which you will be attaching the nomenclature. Don’t EVER let the idea cross your mind that a cross-gender name might be cute, or “interesting”.

Step 2 Conceptual Design

Dream up as many ways that you can to torment your child by the name that you give it, and write them down on a piece of paper. Then go over to all your friends’ houses and ask them to do the same. Then publish the same challenge on the Internet and offer a $100 reward for the best one. After this is all done, take these names and paste them to your bathroom walls. This will be a daily reminder of the names that your child could potentially be called if you screw up your job.

Step 3 Physical Design

Do some paper prototyping. Much like sketching the first outlines of a fine sculpture, or figuring out the logical flow of a computer interface, baby naming should be begun with a paper and pencil. Have a child sit down and write out the name. If they can’t spell it with their understanding of the English language, chances are that the teller at the DMV, or the local postmaster can’t spell it either. Have the child pronounce the name too. If little Johnny breaks out into tears after the phonics exercise required to explain the name, throw it out. Once you find a few names that pass these strenuous tests, move on to usability testing.

Step 4 Usability Testing

Sign up for a few credit cards under the name that you are proposing for your child. This will cause the telemarketer flood to begin calling and asking for Rhiannon Denise, or McCambryn Bretlyn, or Brennan Matthew. If you get grunts on the other end of the phone when you pick up, you know you should dump the name. A more interactive and fun way to get the necessary results is to yell the name out in the bus station, or the supermarket, or at a football game. If heads turn around to the call, then it is a good thing. The name is common enough to be understood as a human name and furthermore, might even be attached to someone. Second, verify that the people that turn are of the same sex as said child. This is sure proof that the name is gender appropriate.

With all that I’ve said, I’m glad not to be Bill Smith, or Sally Jones. Kristinn Richard Rzepkowski gives me something to hang my hat on, something to talk about. Being American still isn’t hip after 225 years. I’m still half Polish, and my future offspring will still be Rzepkowski. I’ll let my great-great-grandkids reminisce about the days when consonants reigned free, and girls and boys had names that couldn’t be told apart.

Kris Rzepkowski received a BFA in communication design from SUNY Buffalo and is a marketing executive in Georgia. He grew up in Rochester, but often visited Dunkirk since both sets of his grandparents as well as other relatives lived here.

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