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Naming a Brand After Yourself 2.0

Naming a Brand After Yourself 2.0

Hey, everybody. Emily here!

I wrote the original version of this blog post back in 2015, about two years after launching the Emily McDowell brand. As I write this update, it’s 2021, and we’ve just changed our name to Em & Friends. If you’re trying to decide whether to name your business after yourself, I’m hoping this information can help you make that call.

The Brand Formerly Known as Emily McDowell has undergone various small shifts to its name over the years, in an effort to fix the problem I unintentionally created when I decided to give the brand my full name. (More on that below.) Here’s the timeline, for some context:

2012: I launch as “Emily McDowell” on Etsy.

2015: We become Emily McDowell Studio.

2018: Emily McDowell Studio becomes Emily McDowell & Friends.

2020: Emily McDowell & Friends becomes Em & Friends.

This is not a best practice. I think it's actually what some might call a “worst practice.” So: here's an opportunity to learn from my mistakes!

When I started selling art prints and cards featuring my writing and illustrations in 2012, I tried (but not that hard) to think of a good name for the brand. When I didn’t come up with anything I loved (immediately), I decided to just go with my own name. “Hey,” I thought, “it worked for Jonathan Adler and Diane von Furstenburg!”

I am here to tell you this: I gave myself bad advice. Nine years into this venture, with the benefit of our old pal hindsight, I now know a lot more about when naming a business after yourself makes sense, and when it might make more sense not to.

If your business is one person (you), providing a service that only you perform -- whether that service is illustration or personal training -- naming your business after yourself generally tends to work fine. The same is true if you’re an author, fine artist, or musician; in these cases, it might actually work better to use your own name, because you and your work are the thing you're selling. You may end up with several products (i.e., books you’ve written), but the one and only thing they all have in common is you, the creator.

However, if the primary focus of your business is manufacturing products to sell, and you plan to create a brand, I recommend going with a name that’s not your own. Here are some reasons why, in no particular order of importance:

1. As you grow, “me” becomes “we.” (I realized as soon as I hired my first employee that it sounded weird to have her answer the phone “Hello, Emily McDowell!” because that wasn’t her name.) As of 2021, between us and our sister brand Knock Knock, we’re a team of 27 people, all of whom are critical to our operations. Having “Emily McDowell” as our name has meant that a lot of customers expect that I’ll be the one personally answering their emails or shipping their orders. This was true in 2013, but it hasn’t been the case since.

2. Your name’s probably not that memorable. If you look at our web analytics, way too many people find us by googling “Emily who makes cards.” That is not ideal. Every time I’ve answered the question “What’s the name of your brand?” for the last eight years, I’ve been aware of how tough it is for a customer to remember “Emily McDowell.” (If your name is one word and that word is Prince, this one doesn’t apply to you. Carry on.) 

3. Your name is limiting. When you’re starting out, you don’t know where your company will go, or what you’ll love doing most, or what the best business model will turn out to be, so it’s a good idea to pick a name that allows you to keep your options open.

As early as 2015, I found myself wanting to bring on other artists and writers to help create our products, with me functioning as creative director. This was one reason we shifted the name from Emily McDowell to Emily McDowell Studio in 2015, and the main reason we shifted it again, to Emily McDowell & Friends, in 2018.

Having the brand be your own name limits you if you end up creating a collection with another artist or writer. For example, “Elizabeth Gilbert for Emily McDowell” is confusing. “Elizabeth Gilbert for Emily McDowell & Friends” is clearer, but it’s way longer than it should be.
Another issue: as I've been working with freelance or in-house artists and writers to create our products over the last couple of years, it’s always felt uncomfortable to me to have my full name on work that someone else actually wrote or illustrated, even when crediting them (which we do). Your mileage may vary on this one, and there's no right or wrong answer, but this has been my personal feeling.

4. When your brand is your name, people expect you to BE that brand 24/7. As the brand grows, this gets tiring, as you interact with an increasing number of people who don’t know you. 
In my case, sometimes I’m funny and say interesting things and otherwise embody the spirit of our products, but sometimes I’m introverted and kind of boring and forget people’s names not because I’m an asshole, but because I have a crappy memory. (And if THAT was a brand, nobody would buy it.) I’ve also changed a lot as a human being and grown older since 2012, because that’s how time works, but the brand is the brand (and people like it the way it is), so it doesn’t age with me.
Of course, strangers will always have assumptions about who you are and what you’re like as a person based on your work, no matter what your company is called, but if it’s your NAME, it’s an added, strange layer of pressure to “live up to the brand” at events, trade shows, etc.

5. Social media gets tricky. If someone who isn’t Emily McDowell is tweeting or posting as Emily McDowell (the brand), it can feel disingenuous.
I’ve struggled with delegating the brand’s social media, even though it’s been necessary to do so for my workload and life, and to create a brand voice that lives on beyond me personally. Because our handle is my name, and I was the original human being behind our brand’s social media, our audience assumes and expects to be interacting with me personally. But as we grew, there was no way I could keep up with managing all the engagement on our social accounts.

6. If you ever want to sell your company and go do something else, your name goes with the company and belongs to the people who bought it. If those people start making incredibly hideous products with your name all over them, you can’t do anything about it. Except change your OWN name.

Ultimately, you get to call your company whatever you want, which is one of the benefits of starting your own thing. If you’re feeling wedded to your own name, more power to you! But for me, this has been a tricky thing to navigate.

Obviously, once you’ve established a brand and built recognition for it, changing its name is tricky. Your customers, social audience, SEO, hashtags, etc. already know you as one thing, so it's risky to become another thing. This is actually the main reason we kept my full name on the brand until now, trying to work around its limitations with the “Studio” and “& Friends” iterations instead of changing it: we were concerned that we’d lose the equity that we’d worked so hard to build, and that our sales would suffer too much as a result.

However, at this point, the limitations of the “Emily McDowell” name have come to outweigh those concerns. Becoming “Em & Friends” is an important step in reflecting who we are now and where we’re going as a company, and we decided it was time to take a deep breath and make what we know is the best strategic move.

Transitioning to our new Em & Friends name after so long is a little scary, but the main things I’m feeling are relief and excitement. The shift feels like a weight off my shoulders, and an opportunity to grow creatively, bringing in other voices and perspectives beyond my own, while continuing to make the kinds of things our customers know and love. I can’t wait to show you guys who, and what, we have in store!