What’s in a name?

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I think it’s safe to say that most historians do not have backgrounds in marketing and branding, and it’s unlikely that many of us took business classes during graduate school. Those of us who take the consultant’s path, however, soon discover the value of marketing expertise. Names and logos convey significant messages to potential clients and can be important business assets or liabilities–whether you intend them to be or not. So if you’re striking out on your own, it’s a good idea to put some time into choosing a name and logo that convey what you want them to convey. I did not give any thought to my business’s name or look when I started out, and I wish I had.

When I was in the startup phase several years ago, I focused my energy on building a client base, creating a clear and replicable process, and completing projects. When it came to naming my business, I simply traveled the path of least resistance: my last name first, then a name that explained what I did. It turns out that the name to which I defaulted was remarkably similar to one of my competitors. It didn’t take long before someone at a conference mentioned (in hushed tones) that my business name – Stevens Historical Research Associates (SHRA) – sounded a lot like that other history consulting firm out there, HRA. I didn’t think much about it first, and it took me a few years to realize that this similarity was undesirable. Regardless of the real story, some might think that I had chosen the common name intentionally. But by then, the name had stuck.

I’ve been “SHRA” since about 2005, and before I knew it I actually employed real “associates” and had a well-established set of clients. About six months ago, we made some changes to our business model that reflected our staff’s wide range of skills and the type of clients we have the expertise to serve. To implement some of these changes, we realized that a new logo (the original was “designed” by an online print shop) and a revamped website were in order. We hired a single vendor to do both. Several rounds of logo design later, however, we came to the conclusion that website design and logo design require different skills and talents, so we shopped for a new logo designer.

Without any knowledge of the history of the name “SHRA” or its competition, the new logo designer strongly recommended a name change at our very first meeting. The time seemed ripe and I immediately said yes. But being intentional about a name is a challenging endeavor. In order to leave “SHRA,” I needed a name with professionalism and formality that also captured the work the firm does. It wasn’t something I could do on my own, but it also wasn’t something the marketing firm I hired could help me with. The creative director they brought in for the task came back with a list that included these truly unbelievable nuggets: Anal Retentive, Those Meddling Kids, Ferret, Record Player.

It’s time to launch the new website, and I can’t let the lack of a name or the logo stand in the way. We’ve cut ties with the marketing firm, so for the very near term, SHRA will remain SHRA, and our website will launch with a temporary logo and a name that will/may be changed soon, too.

The entire exercise has been yet another example of something I wish I’d known when I started out. Picking a name and an image to convey your work is more important than you might think. When you begin your consulting career, you may assume, as I did, that your business will remain local and solo and that the name will not mean much. But even if you do stay small, the name you choose may be with you longer than you know and will convey messages to your potential clients. So don’t wait to think about it, do it now!

Jennifer Stevens, PhD, is principal, SHRA/Stevens Historical Research Associates.

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