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The Legacy of Boaty McBoatface

Sam Sullivan
Art Director

If you asked a second grader what you would call the person who finishes the race first, they’d say, the champion or if they were sports fans, Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive. The expected outcome of a competition is, obviously, the best person or idea, but what happens when your contest gets hijacked by those who don’t care for the best outcome? This escalates when the outcome is meant to reinforce a brand and persona with meaningful purpose.

From logo competitions, to naming contests, institutions host competitions for publicity, to engage the public, and, generally, to arrive at the best expected outcome – based on the idea that crowdsourcing, will emerge the best outcome.  But when a brand and strategic plan aren’t given their foundational place in these competitions, disastrous outcomes can ensue. A prime example of this has recently commanded national attention.  The “Name Our Ship” campaign.

NERC Name Our Ship campaign site

On March 17th, The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the United Kingdom launched a campaign to name their state-of-the-art polar discovery and research vessel. The ship will be the UK’s largest and most advanced vessel, set to launch in 2019.

Duncan Wingham, the NERC chief executive, spoke of the campaign saying:

“Today we are launching our campaign to bring our ship to the UK people, asking for their help to find her a name that encapsulates her role at the forefront of UK science. We are excited to hear what the public have to suggest and we really are open to ideas.”

The NERC wanted to involve students, parents, teachers and adults in the campaign and gave guidelines.

“We’re looking for an inspirational name that exemplifies the work it will do. The ship could be named after a local historical figure, movement, or landmark – or a famous polar explorer or scientist.”

Sounds like a good move, an opportunity to involve a community, inspiring interest in state-of-the-art sciences while announcing their remarkable work. What could go wrong? A submission that did not follow the guidelines and was most definitely not what NERC had in mind, yet became the most popular name.

The auspicious entry? Boaty McBoatface. The name was the most loved submission leading by 84,223 votes.

RRS Boaty McBoatFace vote

As organizations, we tend to assume that our broad constituencies take us as seriously as we take ourselves. But that is not often the case. When those involved don’t take a contest or competition seriously, or, even more likely, they see an opportunity to use the publicity platform as a pulpit for their own agenda or as a joke, the consequences can cause a host of publicity problems for the organization.

Although the NERC has reserved the right to choose the final name of the vessel, which has yet to be released, the outcomes of all the publicity around the naming have made the whole process and the vessel itself more of a laughing stock than a promotion of NERC’s truly remarkable work. Additionally, while contests like these often put the “we reserve the right to choose the final outcome” in the contest rules. By doing so, the organization undermines the very thing it’s after, engaging the public. In effect, going with a name that isn’t the winner is a public let down and sends the message that the organization never took the public input seriously to begin with. And there is always the danger, as in the case of Boaty McBoatface, that the naming goes viral and many more people who weren’t involved in the initial voting are now picking up support for the name.

Isn’t any publicity good publicity? The adage would imply that it is. However, is it good publicity when an influential individual’s name is associated with bad press? There’s a reason advertisers quickly drop celebrities who become associated with negative incidents. Or when acts of violence are associated with an institution? Many institutions of higher ed will tell you that the fight to overcome “party school” or “high crime school” can be costly both in terms of dollars invested in marketing and lost applicants.

So is the Boaty McBoatface campaign good publicity and is it worth it at any cost?  Certainly it drove many people to the campaign site, but the input resulted in more names like It’s Bloody Cold Here, Boatasaurus Rex, and Honey Bunches of Boats, than in the kind of names the organizers had in mind, such as Henry Worsley, Sir Francis Chichester, and Willem Barentz.

Crowdsourcing, contests, and polls can be effective, such as the Doritos Superbowl Sweepstakes. Fans submitted commercial ideas, but the finalists were vetted by Doritos and then put up for a vote, allowing Doritos to carefully control its image in correlation with these commercials. The outcome is the kind of brand engagement and investment that advances the brand image. Similarly, Lays search for the next “great potato chip” invites consumers to submit new chip flavor ideas, but carefully controls what flavors are included in the final voting, thereby never putting the brand itself in danger of being coopted or jeopardized.

Finding ways to build brand loyalty and investment is an important aspect of contemporary marketing. However, the lesson learned from the Boaty McBoatface campaign is how critical it is to keep that engagement within the context of your brand. Before a campaign is launched that has impact on your brand, it needs careful consideration and should always be controlled by the brand, not by a disclaimer, but by a process that allows the organization to vet public input along the way and then offer finalists for selection that are in keeping with the brand.

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