Ad and marketing creatives

Meet the New Eponyms

This month, the mortgage company Nationstar, which was founded in Denver in 1994, will complete a two-year-long rebranding process. Not surprisingly, the new brand has a new name. What is surprising is the name itself, which represents a dramatic change from the bland corporate compound "Nationstar" and a leap into a new naming mainstream.

The new name doesn't describe the company's service. It isn't an acronym or an abstract noun or a fruit or a borrowing from another language. Instead, it's an eponym: a name derived from a proper noun – in this case, the entirely fictional Mr. Cooper.

The illustration on Mr. Cooper's website isn't identified as the fictional Mr. Cooper, but it could be.

Fictional eponyms are a new frontier for brand naming, and the territory is quickly becoming well populated. Mr. Cooper stands out for the formality of its "Mr." honorific; other brands that have followed this trend are on a first-name – or even a nickname – basis. A partial list includes Amazon's "intelligent personal assistant," Alexa; the new "intelligent health insurance" company Oscar; the hospitality-industry app Alice; the "intelligent oven" June; the mattress brand Eve, whose name also suggests "evening"; a personal-finance app, Penny; and another new personal-finance app, Dave, that claims to help you "outsmart overdrafts." Dave's logo depicts a cuddly bear in turtleneck and glasses.

Smarter than the average bear?

Of course, real personal names – usually surnames – have been brand names for centuries. From Lloyd's of London, the global insurance company that began as Edward Lloyd's coffee house in the late 1600s, to the Maytag Washing Machine Co. (founded 1893); from Anheuser-Busch (1852) to Birds Eye (founded by Clarence Birdseye in 1923); from Abbott (1888) to Eli Lilly (1873), founders' surnames have frequently been synonymous with brands. The surname-brand is standard in fashion (think Dior and Chanel), and survives in many car-company names, from Ford and Chevrolet to Porsche, Honda, and Peugeot.

Founders' (or their relatives') first names began appearing as the names of major brands in the mid-20th century. The Mary Kay cosmetics company, founded in 1963 by Mary Kay Ash, was a pioneer of this naming style. The first restaurant in the Wendy's fast-food chain– named for founder Dave Thomas's daughter Melinda Lou "Wendy" Thomas – opened in 1969. Ben & Jerry's ice cream (founded in 1978 by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield) and Sam's Club (founded in 1983 and named for Walmart founder Sam Walton) continued the new tradition. Even after Ben & Jerry's was sold to the global conglomerate Unilever in 2000, the founders' names remained as a marker of trust and connection.

Wendy’s logo as redrawn in 2013.

That's the power of a personal name: It brings to a brand's identity an association with something individual and human. First names in particular are friendly, informal, even intimate. The first-name brand isn't your boss – it's your buddy. It certainly is not a faceless mega-corporation with a synthetic name like "Nationstar."

In announcing Mr. Cooper, the company made that intention clear. A corporate press release said the name was selected from among thousands of candidates "to personify the next generation of home loan servicing and lending for the company": It "represents a more personal relationship customers can have with their home loan provider."

But can you really have a personal relationship with a fictional persona? Dave and June and the rest of the crowd are counting on it, but the assumption strikes me as disingenuous. The new eponyms are less suggestive of living, breathing humans than of characters in a play or –even more to the point – mascots.

We often think of mascots as representing sports teams or events: the San Francisco Giants'; Lou Seal; "Olly" and "Syd" from the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney. But a mascot can be any person or thing that is supposed to bring luck. The word came into English in 1881 from French mascotte, a talisman or sorcerer's charm; an 1880 French play, La Mascotte, popularized the word, which may have its origins in Latin masca, or "mask." (It's worth noting here that personal and person also come from a root – in this case, Greek – meaning "mask.")

That's what I see when I look at the new eponyms, and especially the first-name brands: mascots for teams that want to recruit us as fans, and masks for technology that might otherwise make us a little uneasy. What makes these first-name eponyms distinctive is that although they're personal, they aren't quite familiar. For one thing, the names share a decidedly retro quality.

Take Morty, a "smart home mortgage" app. Yes, "Morty" suggests a nickname for "mortgage," but it's also a nickname for Morton, a name whose popularity peaked in the U.S. around 1915. Oscar, the health insurance brand, bears a name that was trendy about 130 years ago. (It's enjoying a modest revival, trivial compared to the Oscar-besotted 1880s.) June was hot in the 1920s, Penny peaked in the 1950s, and Dave – a nickname for David – has been on a steep descent since the 1960s. (All data courtesy of Baby Name Wizard's very addictive NameVoyager. For more on the new brand eponyms, see my 2016 post, "Let's Get Personal.")

The exceptions are three names of "intelligent personal assistants" from big corporations: Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, and Amazon's Alexa. Siri, an unusual name in English, is said to have been inspired by a Norwegian name meaning "beautiful victory." Cortana was originally a female character in the video game Halo; in addition to being a character name, a cortana is a type of sword.

Unlike the other names, Alexa – which Amazon says was derived from Alexandria, home to the fabulous library of antiquity – is a currently popular baby name: It's been among the top 1,000 names in the U.S. since the 1970s, and was ranked #63 in 2014. In fact, it's so widespread, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, that the Amazon device is "making life miserable" for real-life humans called Alexa, Alex, and Alexandra, the sound of whose names can trigger a voice-activated machine response:

In the Sussmans' household in Levittown, N.Y., the confusion cuts both ways. Last week, when human Alexa's father, Dean, asked her to grab some water from the kitchen, Amazon's Alexa wanted to help, too. "Amazon's choice for water is Fiji Natural Artesian Water, pack of 24. It's $27.27, including tax. Would you like to buy it?"

Let this anecdote serve as a cautionary tale for future namers of gadgets and "smart" devices who are tempted to put their creations on a first-name basis. And here's one more: In Stanley Kubrick's classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a sentient computer is regarded as a fellow crew member by the astronauts aboard the Discovery One spacecraft. It speaks in a calm voice, is capable of lip-reading, controls the spacecraft's systems – and kills one of the astronauts.

The computer doesn’t have a robotic name like Univac or C3PO. It has a human name: HAL.

Click here to read more articles from Candlepower.

Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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