The Boaty McBoatface brouhaha has crystallized the dilemma of social media marketing: To what extent should you put your brand in the hands of the public? James Heskett wants to know if you would pick the Boaty name or scuttle the whole idea. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

by James Heskett
The Internet is a wonderfully democratic device that brings large numbers of people together around ideas practically in an instant. In one sense, it is a marketer’s dream as a way of building brand recognition. But unless its users are willing to cede some control over their brands, it can create dilemmas. A story by Dina Gerdeman that appeared on this site last year featured advice by Harvard Business School Professor John Deighton and Leora Kornfeld for anyone thinking about “playing with their brand.”

Deighton and Kornfeld suggested that the benefits of lightening up the marketing effort might range from increased sales to lower-cost recruiting (as prospective employees get a different picture of an organization with a staid image). In addition to “lightening up a little,” they proposed two more “rules.” One was to “throw out the rules” (of conventional marketing). Another was perhaps most important for us here: “no risk, no return … the public enjoys playing with brands … the risk is that the play may take some unexpected turns.” It turned unexpectedly for Britain’s Science Minister Jo Johnson.

An artist’s illustration of the research vessel
possibly to be known as Boaty McBoatface.Source: The National Environment
Research Council

A staff member of the United Kingdon’s National Environment Research Council suggested that NERC create a citizen poll to suggest a name for a $287 million polar research ship. Johnson, the U.K. Government’s Science Minister responsible for, among other things, NERC, sought to get the effort off on the right inspirational foot by saying: “Can you imagine one of the world’s biggest research labs traveling to the Antarctic with your suggested name proudly emblazoned on the side?” (One might add, proudly flying the British flag.) There were apparently employees of NERC pulling for names like Shackleton or Endeavor. Instead, they got something else.

James Hand, a journalist, apparently thought he would have a bit of fun with the contest. He proposed a name, Boaty McBoatface. The name immediately zoomed into the lead on the Internet, perhaps supported by adolescents (and their parents) who had grown up playing with toys like Thomas, the friendly locomotive. (Hand later apologized for “scuppering the contest,” saying he actually preferred Clifford, the Big Red Boat.)

The final result was that Boaty McBoatface, aided by the Internet, polled 120,000 votes, four times more than the second place finisher. It was likely much more attention than had ever been drawn to a relatively quiet corner of the U.K. Government’s science establishment.

Now Minister Johnson has a decision to make. He apparently has delayed it, perhaps waiting for interest to wane. But he did issue a statement saying that: “We want something that fits the mission and captures the spirit of scientific endeavor.”

This is perhaps a learning opportunity for all of us in marketing. What do you do when a brand goes out of control? Is it even possible to bring it back under control? What are the costs and benefits of trying to do it? Specifically, should British Science Minister Jo Johnson think about Boaty as an opportunity or salvage project? What do you think?

References:Dina Gerdeman, Advertisers Get Serious About Playing With Their Brands,Harvard Business School Working Knowledge,, May 18, 2015 (accessed April 19, 2016)

Emma Henderson, “Boaty McBoatface ‘unlikely’ to be the name of new multi- million pound research vessel,, April 19, 2016 (accessed April 19, 2016)

Katie Rogers, “Boaty McBoatface: What You Get When You Let the Internet Decide,, March 21, 2016 (accessed April 19, 2016)

from HBS Working Knowledge


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