With all due respect, the scientific community might just get the award for “biggest marketing fail ever.”
As of this writing, some parts of the U.S. are suffering wind chills of 77 below zero. Six states are reporting temperatures as low as those at the South Pole. In Chicago, train operators are using fire to keep the trains running. At such cold temperatures, the metal rails shrink, allowing them to pull apart at the connections. When that happens, gas-fed systems that run alongside the rails are used to heat the rails so that they expand and can reconnect.
In conditions like these, even the most die-hard proponents of global warming (if they’re being honest) can understand all the wisecracks currently making the rounds, including the ones from President Trump:
Even if you thoroughly understand the difference between weather and climate, you’ve got to admit…this situation is almost too tempting to resist.
If only the scientific community had used the term “climate change” from the beginning.
Back then, nobody but scientists understood the difference between weather and climate, and weather just presents too many opportunities to refute or even poke fun at “global warming.”
What’s that got to do with marketing?
It’s got everything to do with marketing, because it illustrates how difficult it is to change an association once you’ve successfully established it in your audience’s minds.
What could have been: The marketing of global climate change
What if the scientific community, once they realized that whatever-you-want-to-call-it was a serious threat to humanity, had asked themselves a simple question:
“Who is our audience for this message?”
This was perhaps the biggest mistake of all. The scientists were used to talking to other scientists — people who spoke their own language. They were also used to speaking to the government officials who had control over policy decisions — not to mention funding for grants — and they knew how to speak that language, too. But they completely misread the general public, resulting in Tweets (and other social media posts) like these every time things get a little chilly:
And then there’s this one from Rush:
You can blame it on ignorance, and in some cases, that may be true. But I think there are plenty of folks who believe global warming is real who can’t resist opportunities like those presented by the current images of hell freezing over.
And it could all have been prevented if scientists, from the very beginning, had communicated their findings from the perspective of a marketing campaign targeted to the general public.
But they didn’t, probably due to one or both of these misconceptions:
- They greatly underestimated the role the general public must have in reversing climate change and, therefore, didn’t recognize the need to speak to them in a way that would energize them and get them on board.
- They suffered from the “curse of knowledge” and assumed that the general public would understand that “global warming” included not just higher temperatures, but other extreme weather patterns, like deep freezes and more severe storms.
Either way, you wouldn’t have people insisting that global warming can’t be real when we’re experiencing record-breaking cold temperatures.
More on the importance of naming
Have you seen an Overstock commercial lately? They’re jumping through hoops to let people know they’re more than just a place you can go to buy surplus merchandise on the cheap.
Overstock was launched in 1999 in an attempt to benefit both consumers and retailers/manufacturers by providing a marketplace where consumers could buy excess, liquidated products at bargain prices. The name fit then, but the company eventually changed their business plan so that, instead of selling only surplus merchandise, they were selling first-run products like furniture, home decor, and even cars.
To their credit, they did realize that the name “Overstock” no longer fit and attempted to rebrand themselves as “O.co”. That rebranding attempt was a big flop, partly because people were used to typing “Overstock” and partly because those who did remember the name change typed “O.com” out of habit.
So Overstock eventually dropped that attempt and went back to the original name. But now all of their commercials start with an explanation that they’re not just for Overstock items. If they had seized the rebranding opportunity when it was ripe for the picking — just with something better than O.co — they wouldn’t have to keep explaining their business model to prospective customers. (Strangely, this sense of apology isn’t apparent on their home page, but maybe that’s because visitors can quickly see the quality and variety of their offerings.)
Tips for choosing a name
There’s plenty of advice out there on how to choose a name for your product or company and, for companies with enough capital, there are consultants who will be happy to do it for you. But let’s start with some common-sense questions you can ask yourself.
Who is your audience?
In other words, will customers know what your name means (and does that matter)?
There are plenty of hugely successful companies out there whose names don’t provide the first clue as to what the company does: Apple, Disney, Nike, etc. But those companies have spent years building their brand capital. Assuming you’d rather have customers remember who you are and what you do now, it’s probably better to choose a descriptive name.
Then there’s the case of Overstock.com. Their name did fit when the company was founded, but then they changed their business model.
What if your company goes through the same type of transformation?
So have some deep discussions on company strategy and where you see your organization 5, 10, 15 years down the road. Rebranding is as expensive as heck and doesn’t always work, so choose a name that will fit your company or product for the long term.
What is your audience’s knowledge level (when it comes to your industry or product)?
This is where the scientific community messed up on global warming.
In my content strategy work, I tell clients that they should be targeting one of two different audiences:
- People who do, regulate, or fund what they do.
- People who buy what they do.
In this case, the scientific community targeted the first group: the legislators who make policy and provide funding. And they nailed it.
But they didn’t think about the third group: people who buy what they do. In this case, they needed the general public to “buy” the concept of global warming.
Perhaps they underestimated the importance of public buy-in for driving behavioral change. Or perhaps they overestimated the public’s knowledge level and assumed that everyone knew a cold snap doesn’t mean global warming is fake. Either way, it was a near-fatal marketing mistake.
Remember which audience you’re talking to, and resist the temptation to assume they’ll know what you’re talking about. Most of the mistakes I see happen when clients talk to prospective customers as if they’re people who do what they do instead of people whom they want to buy what they do. Don’t assume your audience will automatically understand (in this particular scenario) the difference between global warming and climate change. Or that several years of extremely cold weather doesn’t mean that the overall global climate isn’t warming.
Think about how your name could be misinterpreted
The role of devil’s advocate, naysayer, and hole-poker has always come naturally to me, so I was surprised, as an adult, to discover that not everyone does this. (In fact, many find it quite irritating.) But if everyone thought of what could go wrong — especially how consumers could misinterpret (or, even worse, mock) your company’s name — you wouldn’t have examples like these. (I’ll keep it as clean as I can.)
- Goin’ Postal (a chain of shipping/receiving retailers)
- Sam and Ella’s (a pizza and sub shop)
- Passmore Gas and Propane
- Amigone Funeral Home (get it?)
- Stubbs Prosthetics and Orthotics (probably the family name, but still…)
- STD Contractors
- Master Bait and Tackle
- Boring Business Systems
There were a lot more, but I just couldn’t make myself type them — too scared my southern, devoutly Catholic mama would yank a knot in my head from Heaven. (And if she didn’t, her mama would!)
So once you think you’ve come up with a good name, write it down as people would type it into a search engine. That will help you avoid unfortunate situations like americanscrapmetal.com. (Is that American Scrap Metal…or Americans Crap Metal?)
Don’t forget your URL
It’s also important to think about your URL. Jeb Bush has to win the prize for dumbest move on this one. There was nothing wrong with JebBush2016.com, but not also claiming JebBush.com was a rookie move, and he deserved to get scooped by Trump on that one.
That’s why you should consider related buying related URLs — close enough to be the result of a typo or just because the user isn’t sure of your site’s name. If those URLs are available, buy them and redirect them to your real site, kind of like what Trump did with www.jebbush.com. (Hint: That will also prevent your competitors from trying similar tactics.)
It is wise, however, to do some careful thinking and get honest feedback before you decide what to call something.
That’s why you get memes like these whenever unusually harsh winter weather strikes:
So be careful what you name things, and keep your audience in mind. I’m somewhere between a Boomer and Gen X, and a lot of the names my kids mention are, in all honesty, made-up nonsense. It works for those companies, because their audience is on social media and pick it up from each other. (For example, I will never understand why a business productivity platform would choose the name Slack, but it sure seems to be working for them.) But if that’s not you, choose a name that makes sense.
Need help with your content, whether strategy or writing? I’d love to help! Just email me at [email protected], and I’ll get in touch as quickly as I can.