Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Brand-name babies

There's a baby -- and an ad -- born every minute. And sometimes, they're one in the same.

In recent years, an increasing number of Americans have been breaking away from tradition and naming their children -- and even renaming themselves -- after companies and products. In 2005, for example, more than 500 boys and girls were named Armani after the fashion-and-beauty brand Giorgio Armani, the U.S. Social Security Administration says. More than 260 girls took on the Chanel moniker, and 305 infants were named Alizé, after the cognac-based spirit.

"It's just a side effect of most parents looking for different names for their kids, including brand names," said Cleveland Evans, a professor of psychology at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb., who researches U.S. Social Security data and baby names.

The trend is becoming so prevalent that a few advertisers, desperate to reach consumers who've grown weary of traditional marketing, are even paying parents to hang their product name on their newborns.

"It could be an emerging trend or a momentary stunt," said John Barker, a New York marketing expert. Paying to name a baby, he said, "takes the phenomenon to an entirely different level."

In March, for instance, a 6-pound newborn was named ChamberMaster Mead after the ChamberMaster software company paid his dad $375 for the boy to carry the company's name for two weeks. Then, he was renamed Horizon after the Horizon Industries consulting firm bought the infant's naming rights for the following two weeks for the same price. Finally, he got his permanent moniker: John Douglass Mead.

Chris Mead, vice president of member relations at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives in Alexandria, Va., said he auctioned his son's name to drum up excitement for the group's annual convention.

"I think it's amazing that you can collect money for things you were going to do anyway," said Mead, who says the money went toward scholarships so underprivileged members could go to the convention.

How'd you get that name?

While names such as Jack and Jill are old faves that have been used countless times, in the past 20 years or so, more parents have veered toward unique names such as Cash, Heaven, Diamond, Passion and Unique itself.

Recently, well-known stars have jumped into the name game, giving the trend new legs. For instance, actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt last month named their newborn daughter Shiloh, while actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes call their new baby Suri.

That naming trend often reflects parents' affinity for products that are seen as prestigious and popular during a given year. For instance, the name Armani for a girl made the U.S. government's list of the top 1,000 names last year after falling off in 2004 and increased for boys, while Lexus for a girl dropped off completely in 2005 after making the list over the last 13 years.

Meanwhile, names such as Timberland, Polo, Evian and Ikea pop up periodically over the years, but don't make the U.S. government's top-names list.

Last year, Timothy and Nadea Lhamon, a Buckley couple, named their third child Espn as a tribute to the ESPN sports cable network because they're both avid sports fans who coach their children's softball and baseball teams.

Young Espn -- pronounced "Espin" -- will celebrate his first birthday on June 29.

Although the Lhamons say they didn't name their child Espn for money and they haven't received any from ESPN, they did contact his namesake to let the network know about him.

A Newaygo baby boy named Espen Blondeel, who was born in 2000, received lots of publicity, was featured on the network's 25th anniversary special and had his first birthday party sponsored by the network at ESPN Zone in Chicago.

"It's been great. It's a great conversation piece, and it fits him perfectly," said Nadea Lhamon, whose other children are named Ember and Addisin. "People think it's a cool name. I haven't met one person who's said that was really dumb to name him that."

Names you don't know

Getting into the name game is particularly appealing to some advertisers who see dollar signs in having their company name be the topic of conversation.

Doug Hennum, president of ChamberMaster, said about 40 customers representing $600,000 in potential business contacted the firm after they'd heard about ChamberMaster Mead. For just $375, that's priceless publicity for the company, which generates $2 million in annual sales revenue.

"I would've paid double for that" kind of exposure, he said., the Internet casino known for its wacky advertising campaigns, agrees.

Last year, a Knoxville, Tenn., resident named Terri Ilagan got the idea to auction her name on online auctioneer eBay. After getting several responses, she found a taker: paid her more than $15,000 to legally change her name to

Since then, the company has paid at least three mothers more than $15,000 apiece to name their newborns The company said the mothers agree that the children will keep the names.

The company adds the babies' naming rights to its collection of unusual eBay auction items and advertising, including the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich it bought for $28,000 on eBay. The company also has been known to pay from $50 to $25,000 for tattooing its logo -- permanent and temporary -- on people's backs, pregnant bellies, foreheads and cleavage.

"This is a new step in edgy marketing," CEO Richard Rowe says about brand names as baby names.