What’s in a name??

For companies trying to tap into the power of the crowd, naming contests can lead to embarrassment and PR disasters.

At its best, crowdsourcing can lead to better product and service creation that is more closely aligned with consumer wants and needs, and can function as a self-fulfilling marketing for itself.

At its worst, crowdsourcing has led to a bevy of embarrassing PR disasters and subsequent backtracking for major companies and organizations.

NASA’s Space Station fiasco

In 2009, NASA decided to crowdsource the name for a new node of the International Space Station. The online poll provided four suggested names (Earthrise, Serenity, Legacy, and Venture), but also allowed voters to submit their own suggestions. Submission voting quickly spiraled out of control, with names including “myYearbook”, “SocialVibe”, and “Xenu” (Scientology’s galactic overlord) receiving an alarming number of votes.

The real coup came when Stephen Colbert encouraged viewers of his show to vote to name the node “Colbert” – ultimately, “Colbert” was the runaway favorite, finishing with 40,000 more votes than the most popular NASA-suggested name, Serenity.

NASA refused to honor the results of the contest as the fine-print rules stipulated that they had ultimate discretion in choosing an ‘appropriate’ name. A few months later, they announced the node would be called Tranquility, completely ignoring all contest submissions…

Kraft’s Vegemite saga

In 2009, Kraft developed and launched a new Vegemite – cream cheese blended product, and asked consumers to submit suggestions in a “name me” online contest. Of 48,000 submissions, the name iSnack 2.0 emerged as a winner, and Kraft released the newly minted product across supermarkets in Australia. Kraft’s head of corporate affairs announced the new name by saying “Vegemite iSnack 2.0 was chosen based on its personal call to action, relevance to snacking, and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite to the original”.

Backlash for the name was immediate – Vegemite is a beloved Aussie bread-spread product that is present in 80% of Australian households, and consumers felt that Kraft was mocking the brand. Succumbing to pressure, Kraft chose a pre-approved shortlist of different names, and yet again allowed the public to vote on a name replacement. Vegemite Cheesybite was the ultimate winner, and is still on Australian shelves today.

What can we learn from crowdsourcing disasters?

What these two examples have in common is that the thing being crowdsourced (a product name) was superficial, added little to no incremental value to consumers, and was conducted in a forum easily co-opted by jokesters or nefarious consumers. The best of crowdsourcing comes out when consumers are engaged in actual product design, and can perceive additional value in co-creating with their favorite brands and organizations.

However, we should consider how disastrous these crowdsourcing failures really were for each respective organization… After recovering from public embarrassment, NASA announced they would name a treadmill aboard the new Tranquility C.O.L.B.E.R.T. (Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill), a compromise that thrilled both the comedian and his fans. In Kraft’s case, though backlash was quick and vocal, sales for Vegemite didn’t suffer, and in fact later increased over the course of the re-naming campaign.

Crowds can be fickle – if they detect that a company’s crowdsourcing effort is merely a publicity stunt rather than a genuine attempt to engage and innovate, collaboration can quickly cede to catastrophe. That being said, in a world where all publicity is good publicity, the media attention garnered by a crowdsourcing disaster might be worth the calculated risk.


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Student comments on What’s in a name??

  1. Interesting how crowd sourcing for names can go so wrong. It reminds me of real life, namely the task of picking a baby names. A lot of friends and family provide a lot of ideas (often funny and ones they would never consider themselves), but at the end of the day the choice has to be up to the parents and not the “crowds.”

  2. To me this brings up interesting questions about when crowdsourcing is most useful. When faced with the decision whether or not to crowdsource, it seems worthwhile to consider who will benefit from the results of the campaign, and in what way. As you mention, crowdsourcing product design can bring to the surface hidden insights about utility. This means that individuals in the crowd have an incentive to suggest features that they actually need. This incentive is aligned with the company’s incentive, since more valuable features for users will increase their willingness to pay and boost profits. “Co-opting” features, while it could conceivably overrepresent a niche set of needs, illustrates a set of valuable needs nevertheless.

    This illustrates why crowdsourced naming can go terribly wrong. People in the crowds have an incentive to generate a name that is “Co-opting” a name, therefore, will more often reflect incentives that aren’t aligned with the company’s goals (i.e. humor, self-promotion, etc.). Not as helpful for the company.

    Very interesting post and food for thought.

  3. Choosing a name is really, really difficult. One of the major points of failure, here, especially for NASA, is that they tried to use the crowd for convergence on the final name — I think they would have had much more success using the crowd during the divergence stage, to help surface interesting names that NASA’s team would never have thought up on their own.

    Crowds can play a big part in converging on a name, too — however, instead of giving them final say, I think they would be more useful in helping to eliminate poor choices. For instance, it’s impossible for a single person to think up all of the different connotations a name might have across a diverse audience — by vetting a name across the crowd, assuming that it’s representative of the future audience, can help avoid selecting a name with unintended (negative) significance.

  4. Interesting post! Perhaps it is just as important to pick the right crowd as well as the right crowdsourcing contest. For a company with paid members/users, crowdsourcing names or similar relatively low value-add contests might turn out better, as these users will take the contest seriously as they will end up paying for and using the product themselves. In the case of NASA, the submitters had nothing to lose by making a mockery out of the contest. I am quite impressed, though, with how NASA turned around the situation with naming the treadmill and connected with the fans. If they were seeking engagement – they certainly got it, which leads to your point that perhaps bad publicity can still be good publicity.

  5. I wonder what NASA’s motive for crowdsourcing the name was, in the first place? We can say with certainty that they didn’t need to draw on the crowd for this task, and that they were well aware the crowd would probably stand to gain no real value or utility from co-naming, as you mentioned. Knowing this, however, perhaps they did imagine – or unknowingly create – some other form of ‘utility’ for the crowd. In a cynical way, the humorous names – and ultimate Colbert victory – created increased awareness of the Space Station, and NASA’s work, in general. This may very well have been NASA’s intention, and the perceived value they thought could be created for the ‘crowd’, although the way things played out, the naming spiraled far beyond the realm of what they had envisioned. In this case, it all goes back to your point about bad publicity being better than no publicity. In some alternate world, I think it would have been incredible if they had actually named the Space Station ‘Colbert’ – it is in fact much more memorable than the bland/generic sounding ‘Tranquility’. Hats off to their smooth move in naming the treadmill.

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