Railroaded! 10 misleading brand names.

Is your name putting customers on the wrong track?

I’m excited.  Tonight I get to meet the brilliant Nora Young from CBC Radio’s Spark at the Third Tuesday Ottawa meetup! Wait… “Third Tuesday” you ask? Isn’t today the Fourth Wednesday in June?!? Um, unhealthy yeah, thumb about that name… I Beg to Differ.

My Third Tuesday story
WARNING: Contents may not be as clearly implied!

For the non-Ottawans (or those tragically not hip-enough-to-know) Third Tuesdays are evening events at a downtown Ottawa bar organized by the inimitable Joseph Thornley of Thornley Fallis, find the ProPR blog, and recently working with my online friend (and secret biz-crush) Gini “Spin Sucks” Dietrich. For Third Tuesdays, Joe flies in smart speakers on social media topics, and their talks are held in the intimate, beer-fueled atmosphere of a real social gathering. It’s social, but actually social.
And as of noon, you can still get a ticket.

Perfect right? Almost.

You see, in March, after having missed several great Third Tuesday sessions in a row (I have these three kids you see), I saw that the presenter was William Mougayar on becoming a social media entrepreneur. So I eagerly signed up online, paid my fee to attend, and booked the evening “off” child care with my wife (did I mention three kids?).

But, silly me, I booked that evening and set my Outlook appointment for – get this – the Third Tuesday of the month. Can you believe how foolish I was? Ha ha ha. Of course I should have remembered that the Third Tuesday group almost never meets on an actual Tuesday, much less the third one, and checked carefully to see what date it was actually scheduled for… my bad!

Now to Joe’s credit, when I grumbled online about this, he promptly refunded my money, apologized,  and said he hoped there were no bad feelings. And there weren’t – aren’t. But he also said this to me about the genesis of the name:

“We didn’t want to give the group a name that would tie it to terms that would rapidly become dated. So, we gave it a whimsical name that means nothing. (emphasis mine) That has allowed us to keep the content ever fresh and to follow the leading edge of thinking.”

Hmm. Can a name that seems so obviously descriptive (to my pea brain at least) really be just a “whimsical name”?

I beg to differ

And I tell my naming clients the same thing. Choosing a name that has clear descriptive overtones has a number of advantages for branders: less time explaining your product, or helping customers remember an aspect of your service – like the date for example. It’s like a pair of memory rails guiding your customer in a certain direction and reducing the friction if they go that way.

But the flip side is that a descriptive name also sets expectations that the product will continue to line up with the “rails” – so, like rails, you lose flexibility with a descriptive name as well. As I always say to clients:

You expect ’Canada Shipping Lines’ to ship stuff, but would you ever buy toothpaste from them? (Me)

Which brings me to the The Railroad Commission of Texas and 8 other examples of descriptive names that have gone off the rails – but happily pretend that they can blithely keep chugging as they churn deeper into the swamp:

10 Misleading brand names:

  1. Third Tuesdays. (See diatribe above)
  2. The Railroad Commission of Texas. If you visit the Web site, you might expect to see pictures of trains. Silly. That’s because you don’t live in Texas. If you did, according to my good friend Julie Pippert from Austin, you wouldn’t need a Wikipedia explanation of this uber-powerful state agency: “(it) regulates the oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipeline safety, safety in the liquefied petroleum gas industry, and surface coal and uranium mining. Despite its name, it no longer regulates railroads.
    So branders, a tip. If Wikipedia needs to include a disclaimer like that? Time to change the name!
  3. Noted bluesman Snoop Dog. (Creative Commons ceedub13)

    Ottawa Bluesfest. Funny story. Ottawa Bluesfest used to be a festival about the blues, for blues fans. But since around 2005, it turns out that you can draw a bigger(and more lucrative) crowd with Kiss, Soundgarden, the Black Eyed Peas – or this year’s headliners Snoop Dog and Iron Maiden – than you can with Stone Blind Louisiana Willy – or whoever the current top Blues star is.  Crookedmouth.net says”Bluesfest is a big, fat misnomer”, and I agree. It has become a rock festival – maybe even hard rock. Time to change the name!

  4. Apple iTunes. Once upon a time, in the days of iPods, this app was actually about tunes. Now if I want to download a movie, buy apps, update my software, or synch my iPhone calendar with my PC, I have to use this tool – which is now a comprehensive dashboard for smart devices. Time for a change Apple.
  5. History Channel. I must have missed the section in high school history where we learned about Ice Road TruckersAx Men and Pawn Stars. And I’m not the only one who feels that way:  Why not change the name?
  6. MTV / Music Television. In February 2010, the venerable Cable brand MTV made news by finally “bowing to the inevitable” and removing the term “Music Television” from its corporate identity. So okay. But the M in MTV still stands for “Music” and will for as long as they keep it around. And as I’ve said many times: an abbreviation is not a brand!
  7. Warning: may cause facial hair or premature Nobel prizes.

    Disney Baby Einstein. Pretty simple really. You buy a DVD; your child becomes Einstein, right? Not even close. In 2009, watchdog groups called for the name to be changed. But, as you can see, while Disney toned down the “educational” language and have shifted to saying they “create products that engage babies and make discovery fun for them and their parents” the clear implication is there. Change the name!

  8. Podcasters Across Borders (PAB). Two weeks ago, I attended the last iteration of this venerable – and mind-blowingly awesome – conference, which, it will not surprise you, was originally for Podcasters. But as time passed, and “Podcasting” became less the hip, insider cool-kid thing it once was, Mark Blevis and co started saying that the name was now “PAB”. But you also won’t be surprised that this caused confusion, consternation, apologies, and lots of onstage corrections.
  9. 140 Character Conference.   Last year, I was pitching some ideas around for speaking engagements, and saw that Jeff Pulver would be bringing his 140 Character Conference to Toronto. So I pitched him an idea, and I guess I must have used the word “Twitter” one too many times, because he sent me an abrupt – and oddly peevish (“pulverish”?) – e-mail telling me that if I had taken the time to read his site, I’d know that his conference was not about Twitter but about the emerging “real-time internet”…
    Funny thing though, I had read the site, like this part on the home page: “#140conf events provide a platform for the worldwide twitter community to: listen, connect, share and engage with each other, while collectively exploring the effects of the emerging real-time internet on business. To his credit, Jeff is now shifting from emphasis on “140” to a new master name “State of Now”, so perhaps we’re seeing the name change. Real time.
  10. Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). And speaking of changing. Here’s an example of an organization that got the message, saw the disconnect, and made the name change. And they took the heat for it from pundits like Glenn Beck who misread this as a move away from the “Christ” part of their name. But as John Piper responded:

The problem was not “Christ”. The problem was the limiting word “campus” (when CCC ministers to millions that have nothing to do with any “campus”) and “crusade” (which for millions of people has one main connotation: Medieval crusades against Muslims). Beck’s approach is not responsible journalism but careless hype for the religious right.

So how about you Brand fans? What are you doing to make Glenn Beck angry? Any examples of misleading names you’d like to see changed? Fire away in the comments below!

25 thoughts on “Railroaded! 10 misleading brand names.”

  1. Great post, Dennis. Except it’s “Glenn” Beck, or, as I prefer to spell it, “marginallysaneamericanpundit Beck.” CBC’s The Irrelevant Show did a great parody of a promo for TLC (which used to be “The Learning Channel” featuring shows like “Surprise! You married your dad!” and other trashy, tabloidy shows. Not far off from their regular programming, as I understand it, and not something I need to “learn” about.  

    1.  @bobledrew As a noted expert on American wingnuts, I defer to you on the “Glen(n) question Bob. Correction made.”TLC” was on my long list, but I’ll have to hunt down the clip you mention. I do love the irrelevant show. But any thoughts on idiotstrings’ musings on Folk Festivals (a subject you *may* know a thing or two about)?

      1.  @DenVan The game of naming things by genre seems bankrupt by now. If I were creating a festival right now, I’d be going with a name like Escapade (here in Ottawa) or something that didn’t open me up to those criticisms. 
        Currently in Ottawa, I’m thinking that an “ish” or a “y” should be appended to the names of festivals… Ottawa Jazzy Festival, Bluesishfest, Folkish… 

  2. Along the same lines as Ottawa Bluesfest, Hess Street Jazz in Hamilton.  I went expecting to hear some jazz.  I still had fun, but what I heard wasn’t jazz.  Folk festivals don’t seem all that folky to me either.  I think the general rule is, if you want to have a festival that features a certain style of music, don’t put the name of that style in the name of the festival, just in case you need to alter your original intent in order to draw in more fans.

    1.  @idiotstrings Good example. Or to stay on the Hamilton theme, the old “Festival of Friends” which last year became “Festival of Cows in a Rural Pasture”. I agree. Calling yourself a “Folk Festival” or a “Bluegrass Rap Fusion Festival” or whatever means that you owe it to fans of that genre (and your own historical supporters) to be true to that genre. 

      1.  @DenVan If you tried to get to the FoF, you would be calling it “Festival of Stuck on the Highway Not Listening to the Music I Came to Hear”  The infrastructure to handle such a popular event simply wasn’t there, although maybe some enterprising farmer could have smoothed out his fields and charged for parking.
        To be fair to the FoFfers, though, at least their original mandate didn’t change, only their ability to fulfill that mandate at their new location.

        1.  @idiotstrings Fair enough. I’m just bitter because I used to love that festival when it was downtown and we happened to be in the Hammer for the one weekend it was on, but never made it to the site because of the traffic. 

        2.  @DenVan I wasn’t in the Hammer at the time, but if I had been, I probably would have tried to go, and would probably be bitter now too.

  3.  @DenVan Wow I did not know that about Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). My mind goes straight to fine wines. Not Jesus. Although, upon closer thinking, fine wines and Jesus are actually related so maybe that one is quite clever. Unintentionally.
    Otherwise, I absolutely agree about names. They need to be accurate and descriptive.
    Also glad I could help (and flattered to be included) clarify one teeny portion of the very confusing Texas state government.

    1.  @juliepippert I like the name because a) it’s also the way you say “cross” in Latin (spelled “crux”), b) it’s a short name but not an acronym, c) I liked and hung out with some members in Uni, but always felt the old name was way too heavy handed for me to join, and d) it’s headed by evangelicals, but they still told Glenn Beck to go stuff himself (politely). 

  4. Great post @DenVan ! I wonder if the reason for staying with the tried and true is the equity built up with the name… I presume it takes more effort to re-brand and make sure people who are already aware of the brand make note of the change. Isn’t this just as challenging as explaining the incorrect name?
    Also perhaps it creates an “insider” feeling among those in the know.. Strengthening the brand internally?
    (I am genuinely asking because I don’t know)

    1.  @krusk I think you nailed the two big counter arguments: 1) The “insider” argument goes like this: the name is our little inside code for those in the know – and the unwashed masses will never get it, so why even try? That was the sense I got from Jeff’s e-mail. It’s the same argument I hear for using jargon and technical acronyms in communication, and it’s hogwash.  2) The “equity” argument to me is stronger. But I’d say it can also be a reason for changing the name sooner rather than later. At a certain point, you need to question how much effort it takes to maintain the ballast in a sinking ship vs investing in a more seaworthy vessel while the old one is still floating. There’s no worse reason to rebrand than “we were failing so we had no choice”. If the product and customer loyalty are still strong, a stronger name can only help. 

  5. Dennis, Great post! I’m inspired to rename Third Tuesday. So, as of today, it’s “Third Tuesday Rarely on A Tuesday and Not Necessarily About the Thing You Thought It Was About Last Time Nor Featuring Any of the People You Might Expect It To Feature But I’m Not Going To Promise Anything.” I think that about covers it. 🙂

    1.  @thornley Wow! Great idea! The only thing that could possibly make it better is a long, hard-to-remember acronym! This should do it:TTROATANNATTYTIWALTNFAOTPYMEITFBINGTPA
      Although, looking at it, I like “Rarely On A Tuesday”. Any other branding geniuses want to help Joe out?

    2.  @thornley Oh, and all gadflying aside. It was a great event last night, and really nice to hang out with the very gracious Nora Young afterwards. Thanks so much for keeping this series going all these years. Whatever I may say about the name, the product is strong. 

  6. Great post. My mind goes straight to fine wines. Fine wines and Jesus are actually related so maybe that one is quite clever. Thanks for letting me join this conversation.

    1.  @tracey14 Mmm. Fine wines. Not sure what the connection is. But my mind often goes to fine wines as well, especially after the first glass or two.

  7. Speaking of railways, another Hamilton one just crossed my mind.  Their public transit system is now referred to almost always as the HSR.  But this stands for the Hamilton Street Railway.  It’s still in Hamilton, it’s still on the street, but it’s not a railway.  When I took the HSR as a kid, they still had buses that still used the overhead wires, which I assume were leftovers from the days when they did use rail.  Now they don’t even have that.  At least, unlike the Texas case, it’s still transit related.  Also, if things go according to plan, there’s a chance they might get some light rail in Hamilton, which would render the name valid again, if only just a little.

    1.  @idiotstrings Good example Randy. Although in the Hamilton Street Railway’s case, I *might* make the case for this name being a more pleasant, nostalgic kind of misnomer – and as you say the street railway may actually come back some day as a Light Rail system. Hopefully faster than Ottawa’s is moving.

  8. Love it. For years General Motors held my mortgage. It was the only funny part of paying it.

  9. When I first learned about Third Tuesday and coming to speak, Joe threw out a few dates and I said, “But, wait. None of these are on the third Tuesday of the month.” I really love his new name, though. It’s pretty darn effective, even with the acronym.
    I guess your secret isn’t so secret anymore! I know you’re teaching a class that night, but perhaps I can sneak away for coffee beforehand!

    1.  @ginidietrich Aha! See Joseph Thornley? Needs work – and I know just the naming guy to help you out! Yes Gini, let me know what time you’re arriving. I can do lunch or coffee any time that afternoon before 4:30 or so. (I’m denvan on gmail too).

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