“We joked one day that this would be where Frasier Crane would live,” he says. Boom. They had it: the Frasier.
The process of naming a condo building in nearby McLean was similar. Its developer, JBG Smith, called on Grafik to craft a moniker that felt “high end” and “elegant.” They wanted the name to conjure how it would feel to walk through the front entrance into luxury.
Grafik landed on the Signet, like the engraved ring. But they also considered a homophone of that word — cygnet, which is a young swan — “because there was a lot of talk about graceful animals,” says Swetnam. Ultimately, they opted for the jewelry rather than the bird because the spelling seemed more intuitive. “You have to think that through,” he says.
In real estate, names are serious business. Developers pay marketing and branding firms anywhere from $5,000 for just a name alone, to more than $50,000 for a complete branding package to sell a new building or community. At best, a good name differentiates a property from other offerings and generates excitement about what it might feel like to live there. At worst, a name can immediately date a new development or offend the surrounding neighborhood and potential residents.
A great name “has the highest return on investment of anything you will do to market any place because it’s used over and over and over,” says Dave Miles, president of Milesbrand, which does marketing for real estate developers and home builders. But naming is also “one of the most difficult things we do.”
It has to be memorable but broadly appealing. Distinctive, yet easy to say and spell. You need to ensure that Googling the name will bring people directly to your website. And names are inherently subjective, so an entire team could work day and night on a series of options only for the client to shoot each one down for no reason other than they just don’t like them.
And just as there are naming trends for restaurants (en vogue right now: two-word monikers connected by a plus sign), so, too, have particular conventions fallen in and out of favor in real estate.
“There are so many communities named Something Ranch or Something Farm. We don’t need any more of those,” Miles says. While he understands why a place might adopt the name of a physical attribute like a nearby river, “we’ve tried not to do that because that really is so generic.”
On the flip side, you may have noticed a lot of “Districts” popping up as of late. Take, for instance, the “Reservoir District,” the new name for a swath of D.C. land that’s been under development — and mired in court fights — for years.
The land is home to the McMillan Reservoir, but in certain corners of the city, just the word “McMillan” raises blood pressures. So, when construction began, it was crucial to call it something else. Reservoir District “all of a sudden starts to convey a very different sense of what the future brings,” says Bob Youngentob, executive chairman of EYA, one of the project’s developers.
Rebranding a previously uninhabited area like the McMillan site is one thing. Trying to rename an entire neighborhood — particularly one whose residents feel like they’re getting pushed out — is an entirely different undertaking.
When an apartment community called SOBO Place was announced in South Boston (a.k.a. Southie) in 2016, irate residents unleashed their vitriol — where else? — online. In Washington, the lampooning came swiftly a few years ago when a developer marketed buildings on a slice of the historic U Street Corridor as being located in “North End Shaw.” And in New York, protesters descended on the office of a real estate agency trying to market part of Harlem as “SoHa.”
Developers are smart to tread carefully around a place’s history, which is why consultants like Megan Anderson often get pulled into the process. Anderson is the manager of exhibits and interpretive planning at History Associates Incorporated. Developers hire her to amass information from land records, deeds, century-old fire insurance maps and old newspapers, in part because they hope something from an area’s past will generate meaningful name ideas. “In deeds and things like that, we can find old family names and that can be really exciting, especially if it’s a more rural property,” she says.
But doing your homework can also thwart a public relations disaster. Lance Hayden, vice president of creative at the Brand Guild, says as a rule of thumb, he is extremely wary about naming a project after “somebody who had a ton of land in the 1700s.”
He recalls one developer who was intrigued by Notley Young, a wealthy landowner whose property along the Potomac River is now the site of the National Mall. Hayden’s client was considering a number of Young’s children and grandchildren’s names for the new building. But it didn’t take much digging for the Brand Guild team to discover that Notley’s land was a tobacco plantation, worked by more than 200 enslaved people. The developer wisely moved on.
Names, after all, can cause very real pain. Maxine Bryant, director for the Center of Africana Studies at Georgia Southern University, wrote an opinion piece for the Savannah Morning News earlier this year calling for residential areas to remove the word “plantation” from their names.
When she was buying a house two years ago in Savannah, “there were several homes that I really liked in gated communities that were named ‘plantation’ — I wouldn’t even visit them,” she says in an interview. “As a Black person, I cannot live in a community called plantation. … Using that name to describe a community could very well be intentional to keep some people out.”
While the connotations of “plantation” are obvious, most words are more debatable, which makes the process of naming complicated. Hayden recalls a time he worked with a developer on a series of buildings named after musical terms. For the fourth one, his team offered the word “Canon.” But the client balked, thinking it conjured images of war and violence rather than a compositional technique.
“We’re putting forth names that we think appeal to the building’s audience, to other people in the region,” says Hayden, but “oftentimes, it just comes down to whether or not the developer likes the name.”
Still, there are some tricks that branding folks have devised to give their favorite names the best chance. When presenting options to a client, Miles likes to share his personal pick third: “Show them something maybe a little more expected, show them something a little scary, and then show them something that’s at the top of the list.”
It’s an effective strategy, he says: “I’ve been known to sway the room.”