What we talk about when we talk about Boaty McBoatface

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Don’t propose brand names you don’t want the client to choose. Losers can win. Standard advice. Extending this logic, the universal set of “absolutely anything you can think of” invites certain disaster. Or in this case, the pleasantly gentle, if puerile—Boaty McBoatface.

On March 17th, the Natural Environment Research Council opened up polls to the public to vote on the name of its newest state-of-the-art research vessel, which at the time was unnamed. With the invitation to submit names, very quickly things turned silly, and by 9am on March 29th (two days ago!) Boaty McBoatface was leading the polls with over 100,000 votes.

Much like this recent public naming scenario, The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert’s now-defunct satirical nightly news program, has also played with naming in the public sphere. Dependent on the slowness of the news cycle, Colbert often launched the “Colbert Nation” at any mischief-rich target and then proudly pronounced “The Colbert Bump,” should their attention pay off. While this included Stephen Colbert running for U.S. President and starting a fundraising political action committee (“Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow“), it also won two online naming contests. The first was run by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Transport of Hungary to name its Northern M0 Danube bridge. The second was to rename a mascot for a minor league hockey team, the Saginaw Spirit. The winner there? Steagle Colbeagle.

Both of the Colbert examples are from 2006! The lesson herein: our clicking, connected, commoditized culture is an unpredictable voter with a predictably outsized statistical advantage and a silly streak. Your very serious ambitions will fail to persuade a crowd in a passing moment looking to smirk.

The good people of the Natural Environment Research Council will choose the obvious Route 1 of course: acknowledge the escape clause buried in the fine print. Naming—whether it be brand naming, product naming, or service naming—is not a democracy. That’s true on every naming assignment. Certain important NERCs will overrule. After a lot of fuss and free publicity, they’ll settle on a name that feels “appropriate” and “inspirational.”

Fine enough. And maybe that’s the best of both worlds. Tweets Julia Maddock, acting associate director of communications and engagement and committed NERC: “We wanted people to talk about our ship and get involved. We are delighted!”

That’s the Saginaw Spirit! But, you know, extending this logic… there’s an interesting Route 2 that keeps everyone talking and this whole enterprise afloat:

Embrace Boaty McBoatface in all its boatingly boat-arsed glory. See if a fickle public can maintain a sense of humor and an interest in the necessary marine research this state-of-the-art vessel will no doubt be involved in. What better way to deal with the power and peril of environmental change than to popularize the travails of our fearless crew out to sea on Boaty McBoatface?

I’d go with Route 2. These days everyone works to pile up eyeballs. Here you have them. One silly suggestion has caught fire and crowd sourced a personality and tone of voice everyone likes—something we seldom always find in the world of brand naming and brand strategy. For all the bridges and boats named after inspirational explorers and leaders, how many times is anyone actually inspired? The back stories are powerful, but the names are bland. But Boaty McBoatface can be more than just a name—it can be a brand for the NERC to rally behind and inspire budding scientists and marine biologists with humor and humility. After all, the people named it that.

So when the world spins your way, go with it.

Christian Turner is global director of naming at Siegel+Gale. Follow him on Twitter: @audiblechill

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