By BUILDER Magazine Staff. What's in a name? A lot. Names carry meaning and conjure images and opinions--both good and bad. They're especially important in new-home communities where builders are creating something from nothing, and the right name can set a winning tone. But when all names start to sound the same, what does it take to give a community a positive, memorable label that actually means something?

It's rumored that years ago marketers used to refer to a "naming" wheel labeled with proper nouns and typical landmark names--like glen, grove, mews, commons, manor, run, crossing, woods, view, oaks. They gave it a couple of spins and matched up the words to determine neighborhood names. The wheel is long gone, as are the overdone, pretentious "Dynasty"-style names of the '80s. Since then, the trend has swung back to simpler names like Seaside and Mayfair, which are familiar and convey a sense of character and permanence.

"You have to ask yourself, 'How it will age, how will people relate to it, and what will they call it for years to come?'" says Claudia Roxburgh, president of the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Roxburgh Agency. It's best to steer clear of anything too cutesy and thematic, even in a family-oriented, first-time buyer product. For instance, a few years back there was a California community called Cakewalk, complete with model names like Double Fudge. It seemed to make a mockery of the largest purchase of a lifetime--it won't hold up well over time.

"My first consideration is always the history," Roxburgh says. "The land may have a past significance that identifies it." If it's not obvious, she recommends researching the site thoroughly using books, the Internet, the local chamber of commerce, and the local historical society.

Although some names have local appeal, it may not be the way to go, particularly when marketing to out-of-town buyers. For example, naming a community Horr's Island is risky. This community in South Florida was named for Captain John F. Horr who is credited with discovering the site. Luckily, the lush tropical landscape complete with wildlife and waterfront homesites sold itself, but a lesser tract with that kind of name might not have been as attractive. (The island was eventually sold, and the new owners opted to change the name to Key Marco.)

Photo: John Hansel

On a similar note, The Estates at Hardscrabble seems like an unlikely selling tool. Mixing "Estates" with a word associated with poverty is almost laughable if you didn't know that it's built on the site of a well-known plantation of the same name in Durham County, N.C. What builder Fortis Homes did drop was the word plantation from their section of the master plan. While some may have thought it added a touch of southern charm, Fortis thought it would be offensive to black buyers. "Why risk alienating an entire market segment," says sales manager Jesse Odom. If there is no historical significance to work with, create a connection to the community concept. The Seal Beach, Calif.-based Olson Co. brands its in-town niche of pedestrian-oriented communities by calling them each "Walk"--Heritage Walk, Marina Walk, City Walk. For a large-volume builder this type of approach saves money and enhances the brand.

Many traditional neighborhood developments try to promote new urbanist land plans and evoke a feeling of nostalgia by including "Village" in the name, although it's a bit hackneyed at this point. In fact, the word is so overused, Roxburgh offered a cash bonus to anyone on her staff who could come up with a suitable substitute for the worn-out word. "And we're still looking," she notes. "After all, there are only so many words in the English language."

Highlight the topography if it plays a significant role in the site. But if you are going to refer to the geography, make sure that there are actually hills, plains, or a babbling brook on the site. Even if there's not much to work with, something as simple as a historic tree could be a starting point. "I have never come across a piece of property that didn't have at least one unique feature," Roxburgh says.

At least the brochure for Horr's Island in southern Florida features a picture of Captain John F. Horr and explains the historical significance of the name and site. The name also has to be appropriate for the market, the region, and the architecture. Consider the implications of putting a Mediterranean sounding name on a project in Denver. "Just because you heard it on vacation, doesn't mean it will work back home," says Colleen Edwards, president of Edwards and McCaslin in Danville, Calif. Remember, you are not the buyer, so don't come up with a name that only you and your marketing team can pronounce. "A French-named project may not appeal to an Asian audience," Edwards adds. Also, keep it brief. Shorter names are easier to remember and to pronounce. "And better to work with in the sales office impact graphic, ads, and entry monument," notes Kathleen Courtney, director of sales and marketing for William Lyon Homes' San Diego division.

There are very few new names in the home building industry, so Edwards suggests looking to other sectors for a fresh approach and an update on consumer trends. "I always check out Macy's silver pattern and crystal names," she says, "Retail operations spend a lot more time on research."

Finally, avoid names that could invoke negative connotations or are too close to words that do. Marketers for Davidson Communities in San Diego were working on a new project called Talisman, which means a charm or mascot, when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. In the weeks that followed, fearing that the name was too reminiscent of Taliban, they changed it to Talavera, which means delivery. With that they changed the direction of the marketing message, which begs the question, was the name that important in the first place?