A name is how we are known, addressed, or referred to in life. I seem to have some unparalleled experience when it comes to names. In fact, I was born with a different name than what I grew up with, have had my name changed, altered and misspelled, have been labeled with a nickname, and have given my name to others. I’ve also named several businesses, animals, and children, and been called a few names in the process. As a result, I tend to be very sensitive when it comes to the precious brand that each of us possesses through our name.
I was born Jerry Lee Bannister by a mother I never knew. The adoption agency called me “Mickey,” maybe because of my big ears. Correspondence to my prospective parents stated “your Mickey is quite a boy,” but my parents fortunately put a stop to that. My legal name for life then became Michael Lee Johnston, however my friends called me, “Smiley.”
When I got in the business world, I began to emphasize that my last name was “Johnston with a T,” since it was often mistaken as simply Johnson. Fortunately, very few misspelled the name “Mike,” whereas “Michael” could get some vowels reversed on occasion. For many years, I let these misspellings go unchallenged, but soon realized the importance of protecting my brand. This became particularly significant in the age of e-mail, since misspelling meant non-delivery. I am very specific with the “T,” and my wife has become equally emphatic.
Wives are typically quite familiar with name changes, since this hassle many times accompanies the marriage licensing process. Some women maintain their maiden names, while others use hyphenated versions. My wife, for example, changed her legal name to Johnston, but maintains her maiden name for business purposes. It gets a bit confusing at times, but she established brand recognition for her maiden name in business long before she met me, although she also used a hyphenated version in her previous marriage. Name changes through marriages are a sign of the times.
I suppose I could have been Mickey Bannister-Johnston, Jerry Lee Johnston, Michael Bannister, or Mike Johnston, instead the nickname “Smiley” eventually prevailed over all other options. I did have a wide smile and a big mouth growing up, so it was probably an appropriate label to give me. It started at a week-long camp that I attended in Junior High School. I didn’t like the name, “Smiley,” and couldn’t wait for camp to end so I could get my identity back. However, it caught on and spread through the school like wild fire. I fought it all through high school. It wasn’t that it was a bad name; it just wasn’t my name.
I definitely had an identity crisis throughout High School, and hated to use the phone where you always needed to identify yourself. If I said it was “Mike” or “Michael,” they didn’t know who was calling, and I refused to call myself “Smiley.” This was particularly problematic when it came time for a prom date. We would all gather at a classmate’s house and try to muster confidence to make that critical call, with the guidance and support of close friends. I hid in the corners, or pretended to make calls, and would finally have to make the “ask” face-to-face at school. I honestly think this aversion to the phone eventually affected my ability to make cold-calls in business, and my reluctance to participate in group call-outs. I learned to hate the phone! With today’s technology, we finally have Caller ID, so I no longer have to fumble through an explanation on who is calling.
“Smiley” no longer exists, and “Jerry Bannister” is my second Facebook identity. I used my birth name in an attempt to make connections with the Bannister family name. This came about as part of my efforts to learn the identity and whereabouts of my birth mother. I had to rely on the help of a few close friends to get me started with this page, but now I have hundreds of Bannister, Banister, Bannistor, and even Bannester friends on Facebook. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a connection with my birthmother, Edna Faye Bannister, presumably of Rome, Georgia. (See post #104: Dual Identity). I do, however, wish Jerry Bannister a happy birthday every year on Facebook. I hardly ever forget since it’s the same day as mine!
Giving another a name is a privilege and happens only rarely in life. It usually starts with a pet. For example, I was able to name my dog “Smiley,” hoping that it would become his brand rather than mine. I also helped in the naming of Tinker and Tally, our two schnauzers. (See post #133: Puppy Love). I have yet to name a cat, and the names I came up with for a white mouse, a chameleon, some fish, and a few turtles have escaped me. I’m sure they were clever! I also helped name my son, Adam. He was named after the actor Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright in the T.V. series, Bonanza. I also gave my son Adam his middle-name of Michael. This happened, as I recall, on the way to the hospital. We had pretty much decided on the name Lee, since it also was the middle name of both my father and I. Apparently, ego got in the way, so he’s Adam Michael Johnston, my favorite namesake.
I still find it touching to go to the veterinarian, with the dogs and our cat, and see the name Johnston come up for each of them – Tinker, Tally, and Frankie Johnston. Since my family tree starts with my adoption into the Johnston family, my pets, my son, my wife, and my granddaughter are the only living Johnston ornaments on the tree. Roxie, a schnauzer that we lost to a speeding motorist, was also a member of our exclusive Johnston household, and is buried in our hearts. All the other Johnston cousins out there have their own tree that includes my adopted parents and grandparents that gave me the privilege of the name.
Long ago, I had the opportunity to name a business, “Hall of Ivy.” It was a plant shop that grew to five locations with the slogan, “bringing the outdoors in.” I had a radio jingle prepared, a logo, and hired an advertising agency. I didn’t have much to do with the actual business, but I did some occasional “Plant Parties.” This involved taking a truckload of house plants to a private home, and hopefully returning with only few remaining. It was similar to a Tupperware party in those days, where the host invited guests and received bonus plants for helping to sell them to their friends and family.
I made a common marketing mistake on the name, “Hall of Ivy.” It was originally just a hallway of plants in a mini-mall, but “grew” well beyond that. The business eventually also evolved into selling fresh flowers and arrangements, so the name no longer represented what was sold or it’s size. I didn’t have that foresight when selecting the original name. Several big companies have also made similar marketing mistakes. One of my favorite examples is the insurance giant, “Massachusetts Mutual.” Their original sales territory was strictly the state boundary of Massachusetts, but when legislation eventually allowed them to expand nationwide, their name would no longer represent their customer base. “Nationwide Insurance” has a similar challenge in the international marketplace. In what I consider to be an ingenious marketing move, “Massachusetts Mutual” simply shortened their name to “Mass Mutual,” representing the masses rather than just the state. It was an easy fix to a short-sighted decision on the original name.
Very few of us grow up to be known by just one name. Beyoncé, Sting. Adele, Prince, Elvis, Cher, God, Santa, and Madonna are the primary examples, not necessarily in that order. “Smiley” might have grown to that level if I had not fought it! Most of us have at least a first and last name, that were initially the decision of a parent. Some of those parents were also a bit short-sighted when they named their children. For example, the Baals should not have named their son, Harry. Also, a name like Candy Kane, was maybe cute for young girl, but what about as an adult woman? I struggled with finding a name for our son that kids couldn’t “make fun of.” For example, naming a child who has big ears, “Mickey” – who would do that? I thought I was safe with the name Adam, but the kids ended up saying Ad-dumb. Sometimes you just can’t win!
Ask any numerologist “What’s in a name?” and they will give you some additional food for thought. The baby books will tell you which are the most popular, but many of us are driven to find something unique. There’s a reason why Adolph is no longer popular. There’s also a list of the 100 most unfortunate names in human history, if you need help? Just remember, even a “creative” twist in the spelling of a popular name, just to be different, can lead to years of frustration in communication – miss-spelled e-mails, driver’s license errors, graduation diplomas, business awards, etc. Poor Meaghan, for example, is plagued with constantly correcting everyone’s spelling. What’s with that name, anyway!
If you are given the honor of coming up with a name, please put some thought into it. What’s in a Name? Everything.