Thursday, June 26, 2008

George Orwell Birthday Week special or the problem with renaming

All of us who are the business of changing perceptions know that renaming something is one of the tried and true tricks of the trade, whether it's creating categories (right-hand diamond, certified used vehicles) or making something old and familiar sound new and exciting (rewards programs, pashminas) or inventing euphemisms to disguise some troubling elements of stuff we want to do anyway (gaming, troop surge) or reframing things in more negative terms (Death tax). It's a good trick that works surprisingly well, but when we apply it to ourselves in order to assert our unique differentiating (proprietary!) practices than it start to sound both trying-too-hard lame and pretty confusing.

Over the past weeks, I've met with a bunch of companies who insisted on calling themselves something other than what common sense would suggest. While they actually do conjoint and factor analysis and run tracking studies and set up consumer panels they insist on being called something other than research companies: they are consumer conversation companies or insight companies. It's not that I don't understand the desire to separate oneself from a group of other companies that may well be mediocre or old-fashioned or less good, but the more you talk to someone about their "consumer conversation" company, the harder it becomes to understand what you are talking about, especially when the thing you are talking about has very simple, plain-language name.

I'm hardly exculpating myself from this problem. I work from a company that sometimes calls itself a next-generation branding company and sometimes an agency-consultancy hybrid, but whatever we say we are, we often get called the "agency" from the clients that hire us.

Maybe we all shouldn't try so hard to reinvent ourselves with a new name and work harder just doing it better. Is it so bad to be one of the best consumer research companies? Or agencies for that matter?

For those who are interested, the Orwell reference above is to his famous essay "Politics and the English language," which should be mandatory and repeated reading for everyone, but especially for everyone in marketing. Here's one of the most quoted passages, but in honor of his birthday, I recommend reading the whole thing. It's not long and it's in the public domain. You can find it here and a bunch of other places:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

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