Why Humanizing Your Brand With a First Name Will Resonate With Customers

Makes your company more personable, approachable and trustworthy

Alexa, Erica and more are fueling a new branding trend.
Photo Illustration: Yuliya Kim; Sources: Getty Images

Driving a Henry, eating a Milton bar or shopping at Rowland. These are experiences customers might be having were Ford, Hershey and Macy’s named today, rather than 100-plus years ago.

Jake Hancock

Increasingly prevalent in recent years, first-name brands help give companies and their products more authentic, human identities. If not already, the customer of the future may soon find herself asking Alexa to place a pizza order with Dom or for Erica to schedule her monthly loan payment to Marcus. Oscar, Casper, Lucy, Otto, Lola, Dave, Clara, Lily, TED. The presumed strategy these young brands all share: introduce yourself to customers on a first name basis, and you’ll immediately be viewed as a more personable, approachable and trustworthy partner.

At Lippincott, we attribute this trend to the broader, more fundamental shift underway. Through the power of data, corporations are engaging each customer in radically more personal ways.

For the value exchange to work, customers must trust a company enough to share that personal data, and brands are increasingly realizing that authenticity is key to building that trust. Selecting a human brand name is a potent shortcut, appealing to human familiarity as a heuristic for personal relationships. As put by the founder of the overdraft-dodging financial app, Dave, “We named the company Dave because we wanted people to think of the app as a friend they can turn to when they’re in a financial bind.”

Any brand considering this approach must consider the imminent future where customers interact with as many first-name brands as they have first-name friends.

While these names are powerful assets, humanizing the brands they define for the long term, they are also foundations on which deeper connection must be built though story and experience, culture and sustained innovation. This raises the key question facing the Toms, Dick’s and Harry’s of the world: What must a brand do to live up to the human authenticity of a human name?

Like a human, have a personal history

Marcus was introduced by Goldman Sachs as their foray into personal lending, a new consumer market for the company, where simplicity and personalized customer support are keys to success. Marcus also touts the 147 years of financial expertise the firm puts behind the product. That’s how long ago its namesake Marcus Goldman founded the company, and a return to his name makes the brand not only more personal, but also more authentic to its heritage. “Inspired by Marcus Goldman, we put our customers at the center of everything we do.” This brand focus can be felt through to every communication where the M: identity delivers messages straight from the expert source, backed with advocacy for each customer. Recently, Marcus announced it had reached $1 billion in lending and is on pace to double that by year’s end.

Like a human, be friendly

Oscar has proven a breath of fresh air in a category notorious for its complexity, opaque policies and impersonal communications. The health insurance company was named for the great-grandfather of co-founder Josh Kushner, who was inspired by an EOB (Explanation of Benefits) so complicated, he designed a business to “create the health care experience we want for ourselves and our loved ones.” Oscar’s new enhanced doctor profiles connect members to physicians on a more intimate level, providing photos, personal bios and a “Compatibility” section that makes each interaction more approachable. From the simplicity of plans to accessibility of service to the tone of voice and visual language used throughout every dimension of the experience, down to the URL, hioscar.com, Oscar might be the first insurance company you’d want to befriend.

Like a human, respect the unique differences of others

Each of Warby Parker’s frames bears a human name like Harper, Eliot or Otis, often drawing from literary characters like the Kerouac-inspired company name itself. These idiosyncratic names help to reflect the brand’s broader appreciation for the individuality of every customer. This carries through to their home trial feature that empathizes with the need to live with glasses a bit before buying, and the online quiz that suggests tailored recommendations with a human tone. A brand that forms truly personal connections is the opposite of one-size-fits-all.

Like a human, learn

Drawing from the human name within the word America, Bank of America is prepping the launch of a new smart assistant, Erica, planned to roll out through its mobile app later this year. The vision for Erica is far more than a bot who serves rote functions, but a personal advocate who learns from customers’ habits, gets to know their goals and helps them from a place of deeper understanding. By sensing a customer’s recurring payments, Erica can proactively send voice reminders to help them avoid fees. By learning about the important priorities in customers’ lives, Erica’s “dynamic insights” will aim to deliver more hyper-relevant financial guidance. While we might not anticipate that a big bank could understand us and guide us on an individual level, a personal connection with Erica helps to challenge that assumption.

As with many other naming trends, the first-name convention emerges from the broader context in which we interact with brands. The rise of the internet brought eTrade and iPhone. The .com real-estate grab: misspellings (Flickr and Digg) and trendy suffixes (Bitly, Napster). And as bots and AI continue to proliferate, human names are likely to reach their own saturation point.

Any brand considering this approach must consider the imminent future where customers interact with as many first-name brands as they have first-name friends. At what point does our circle of brand acquaintances become too many names to remember? Which human traits, good or bad, may be attributed to a human name? What do the cultural or gender associations of the name’s roots evoke for your customers?

The naming convention has a clear limit. But the opportunity to continue pushing experiences to a more approachable and authentic place is boundless.  The question marketers must ask themselves is: How can we help customers feel comfortable interacting with us on a first-name basis?

Jake Hancock is a senior associate in Lippincott’s naming practice.