On Giving Things Names, Branding, and the Like

Linda and I have named quite a few things, from cafés to people. Linda named Kavarna after having seen a picture of a coffeehouse in Prague. Kavarna is, simply, the word for coffeehouse in Czech; we must seem pretty simplistic to native Czech speakers! It would be like traveling to the Ukraine and finding a shoe store called “Shoe Store.” That’s undoubtedly a thing that exists someplace. The name has served us well for many years and will hopefully last longer than us, or at least our ownership. The name was perfect. It lives in a shade of dark sepia tone, and it’s blank enough for people to project what they want onto it. Plus, graphically, it just looks great with its repeated triangle-shaped letters. It doesn’t surprise me that others have coincidentally opened Kavarnas. There’s one in Atlanta and another in Mexico.

Liberty Café, circa 2015

We also named Parisi’s Delicatessen, the Locktender’s House, and Liberty Café (which was called Hot Broth & Coffee for about a month). Parisi’s was a tribute to the Italian side of my family. The Locktender’s House was kind of a no-brainer, since we operated out of a century old locktender’s house—all we did was capitalize the letters! And Liberty Café came from the realization that a café called Liberty Café had inhabited the same storefront in 1931. It felt polite to restore it somehow, especially in conjunction with the restoration of Green Bay’s Northland Hotel across the street. It was like we were involved in resetting the street corner. Sadly, the Northland took about 3 years longer to open than had been projected. Hot Broth & Coffee was more of a working title than a name, but I loved that one too.

With the exception of Liberty, none of these existed past our operation of them. We sold Liberty Café a year after we opened it. So for awhile it existed apart from us. And seeing its social media postings and the like felt like a disembodied experience. The fellow who bought from us was forced to close it after about two years. Right now, it sits on the corner of Adams and Pine, waiting for someone to pick it back up. Will they continue to run it as Liberty Café? I hope so, but they may have their own plans.

Steve and Kim at a B Local Rally, May 2014

More than five years ago, I started a citizen group to fight a proposed Walmart by pulling a few people around our dining room table. “B Local” suggested itself as a name because it represented our values and sounded a bus route. Several years after people had forgotten about our fight with Walmart, one of our employee’s boyfriends showed up wearing one of the t-shirts. He had no idea what the shirt was for when he bought it at a thrift store, he just thought the ‘brand’ was cool. It looked great in newspaper headlines! Again, part of the reason it was a successful name was that it also allowed people to project their own values onto it. Everyone’s for ‘local,’ that’s kind of a given. We were trying to rally a lot of different people to the cause and having a name that didn’t carry a lot of semiotic weight helped. After all, it was merely a route from point A to point B! At its height, more than 1000 people—some of whom agreed on nothing else—were ‘members’ of B Local. However, after the Walmart fight was successfully concluded, it deflated for lack of purpose. I’d like to think that it lives on and that it could be resurrected if ever needed.

UntitledTown Book and Author Festival is probably my favorite brand that I’ve created, because it elegantly combines what the festival’s about and what it’s not about in a single name—though you might have to be from Green Bay to get the full emotional weight of it. The Green Bay Packers are our community’s center of gravity and have been as long as anyone can remember. You can leave your job at Titletown Insurance in a car that you bought at Titletown Used Cars and drive to Titletown Brewery for lunch. UntitledTown is about getting to know our community apart from its Packers-centric identity through the acts of writing and reading. Plus it sounds cool. It was a name that people immediately understood and wanted to know more about. I’m absolutely certain that we wouldn’t have succeeded as well as we did if we’d been called “Green Bay Book and Author Festival.”

This brings me to the reason I’m thinking about names today. Several weeks ago Linda and I established a new company, Moss & Lichen LLC, to cover our future business ventures, whatever they end up being. So how did we get there? I thought I’d make a record of it here, in case I forget more than anything else. We wanted a name that’s rooted in our geography, so I was flipping through the index of a book about the Great Lakes. Margaret Atwood was listed there. Since Margaret’s amazing (and the person I would choose to lead me through the seven circles of hell) I flipped to her page, and read her poem, “Reindeer moss on granite.” Its evocation of adaptation, simplicity, and power spoke to us, and immediately we came up with Moss & Lichen; because that’d be one hell of an accounting firm. I guess this blogpost is really burying the lede. That’s right, we started a new company.

So, to the extent that we’ve learned anything as namers of things, here’s what we can tell you:

  1. The meanings of names should be a little elusive. The more things that people can project on to your brand, the more people will develop a relationship with it. However, don’t stray from core values.
  2. Pay attention to the culture, the environment, metaphor, and overlapping meanings. The value of the “.com” pushed things towards nonsense words once all of the obvious blank.coms had been snatched up. Frankly it’s embarrassing when you live in a country in which one of the most important companies is called, “Google.” Let’s put an end to that.
  3. History, including personal history is important.

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