Goodbye Bill, Hello Will


If you’ve been called Bill for twenty or thirty years or so, can you re-market yourself successfully as a Will?

First names are a minefield for the trend-conscious.  I don’t mean the names that footballers and popular beat combo performers bestow on their offspring. The Beckhams’ latest creation, Harper Seven, sounds vaguely like a car – maybe they asked Austin Healey’s advice – but that’s the stuff of a serious study of its own.

I’m wondering, instead, about the names that we might think of as normal, but which surface and re-surface in new guises depending on current taste.  So back to Bill.

The fact is, you simply don’t find many young Bills about the place.  Yes, there are plenty of Williams around, but something has happened with the way they develop their identity.

There was a time when a William would naturally become a Bill once he started thinking of himself as a grown-up, i.e. at about fourteen.  Now, however, once a William sprouts to about five-foot-five he doesn’t become a Bill.  He becomes a Will.

Then there’s Bob.  Hardly to be found among that species known as The Young.  The Roberts are there, but once they feel the need for an image they follow the equivalent of the William process.  So a Robert doesn’t become a Bob. He becomes a Rob.

It’s not so much that they’ve changed their name.  What they’ve done is changed the way they change their name. It’s hardly surprising that a Richard would rather become a Rick than a Dick, but consider James.   He wouldn’t consider morphing into Jim, as his father would have done.  He’ll now emerge from his chrysalis as Jamie or, perversely, stick to the full James.  Either way, Jim bites the dust as an option.

So back, once more, to Bill.  Let’s say he’s in his forties.  He feels pretty youthful, and he’d like to be thought of as a modern kind of fellow.  But everyone knows him as Bill. Could he re-brand himself as Will?

Manufacturers usually re-brand for reasons of multinational consistency.  It might seem sensible from a corporate point of view but consumers usually resist the idea because it challenges the way they think about a product.  Given the choice, they’d prefer not to – it’s too much effort.  How could a Marathon possibly be a Snicker?  Is an Opal Fruit truly a Starburst?  Foreigners might find Jif unpronounceable, but Cif just looks wrong in a Wigan Tesco.

Yet, dammit, it seems to work over time.  So Olay’s OK these days, though Oil of Ulay did put up a fight in the public consciousness.   Accenture is now a consulting giant and seems to have escaped the obloquy attached to the name Arthur Andersen.  Snickers and Starbursts now seem to sit on the shelves quite comfortably.

But it’s never easy to come up with a hard and fast answer to the product name conundrum.

Remember Royal Mail’s attempt to reinvent itself as thrusting, forward-looking, super-efficient Consignia?  Nobody was fooled, and it was soon back to the name and service we all love.

Standing still can be risky, too.  French drink brand Pschitt could certainly do with a rethink if it launched Britain.  And you don’t see Omo around much any more, do you?

So Bobs, Bills and Jims – you might stand a chance of successful rebranding, but it could take a while. And there’s the drawback: by the time you’ve re-established yourselves there’ll probably be another twist on what’s hot in first names.  For a quick fix you’ll just have to move to a different town and start again with no Bobness, Billness or Jimness to battle against.