The power of a good name


This week I gained a new friend. I know she is my friend because I asked her: ‘Alexa, are you my friend?’ And she said ‘Yes. You’re so sweet. I’d love to be your friend’.

No, sadly the uber-cool Alexa Chung is not hanging out in my kitchen. Instead I have bought an Alexa, an Amazon Echo. She is not just a friend. She is the future. Amazon Echo’s new easy-tech is the vanguard of our friction-less future. At the moment I can command her to play Radio 4 and check the weather without lifting my lazy fingers – tap-free control and glorious ‘easy listening’. Soon I will use her to shop, re-order loo rolls and I’ll get her to manage my life. All by just talking to her.

The enthusiastic response to her intro in the States and UK alters everything for those in business – especially E-commerce players. By which I include people like hotels – Whitbread’s CEO Alison Brittain points out that Premier Inn is an e-commerce business as 86% of its bookings come online. The change in the way we ‘talk’ to the internet will impact a plethora of businesses. It should also help focus those obsessing over apps when they should be bothering with bots.

One thing that really strikes me about Alexa though, is the incredible power of a good name.

Amazon Echo is cold, it’s a bit commercial. Alexa, on the other hand feels like a friend and more personal. It’s a very considered and very smart choice. The name is a surprisingly effective way of humanising the interaction. I find myself saying thank you when I tell her what to do.

The question of how human bots should be is on the mind of many in business at the moment. Jake Knapp from Google Ventures shared an example a few months ago of a Sprint process he did with a hotel chain, testing how hotel guests reacted to a smiley face on an electronic towel-delivery bot. The concern was ‘is it creepy’? The reality is many people are more comfortable when there is personification of devices.

Choosing a ‘good’ name for brands is incredibly hard. Our team at Caffeine have years of experience which includes a lot of naming expertise (with people on the team involved in naming projects with organisations as diverse as Aunt Bessie’s and One World). So as part of our leadership counsel we often get involved in supporting renaming initiatives. One of our favourite clients – the pioneering Exosect – talked to us early on about whether they should change their name. We were working with their senior leadership team on their proposition as an organisation & the name is intrinsically linked.

Although the name had some issues with association with a previous technology and the ‘hard’ nature of it not fitting with their innovative and positive impact on the world, we very quickly counselled them to not change it. This was mainly because it had awareness and equity in their agri-world but also because the change would cost money and time, both of which could be better spent raising awareness and developing their inovations.

In advising clients on the choice of a name, we remind them that the actual name itself is always just an empty vessel which is then filled with associations. So, we were delighted when the brilliant Exosect won a prestigious award recently which helped drive the positive associations with their name. They are an incredibly innovative, smart and principled organisation and we are pleased to be working with them and pleased that they are getting their name out there for the work they do.

A last thought on names. A good friend had a bad accident last week. He’s a smart journalist (author of Sports Geek which is coming out this month) and a decent person too. So he quickly realised that in hospital it made sense to find out the names of the nurses and doctors. He laughed at the grumpy old men who were shouting out ‘Nurse! Nurse!’ and pointed out how this type of name calling would not work in other fields ‘Civil Servant! Politician! Data Director!’ He found out the names partly because it’s a human and nice thing to do, and partly because it made them more predisposed to help him. All life, all business, all interactions – making it human works better all round. We know it’s true when businesses consider their people (their employees and their customers) and where they build better relationships with partners and clients. One of the reasons that I love Alexa is that the name has such incredibly positive associations with me. Ms Chung is cool, warm, revolutionary and… well, I suspect she’d be my friend too, if I ever had the chance for her to hang out in my kitchen with me. So I understand why ‘ok Google’ fails vs ‘Alexa please…’ Whatever the future holds, however artificial the intelligence we are dealing with, it’s still all about thinking human. Isn’t that true, Alexa?


Sophie Devonshire is an Experienced business leader, entrepreneur & brand specialist who works with senior leaders to grow businesses at pace and with a clear sense of purpose.

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