Should you brand your change?

We live in an era full of names and labels -Influencers, Me-Too, millennial, well-being, Gen Z and eco-this or neo-that.

Names are given for everything – things, people, ideas, trends and issues.

A veritable stream of new ones appear for topics, conditions, campaigns and, of course, products and services. Indeed there is a multi-billion pound industry that has grown up devoted to names: the creation of names, the protection of names and the development of taxonomies and structures for naming.

These names are the currency of our soundbite culture and therefore the ideal vehicle for communication.

The value of a name

But is it always useful to give a name to a new vision, strategy, programme or initiative? Does it help or hinder? 

Names do have advantages. A label can be powerful:

It provides identity

A name enables articulation, connection and categorisation.

It allows the subject to become a something. Witness the way that mental health and well-being have enabled people, who a decade ago would have remained silent, to express their felt needs or issues on this sensitive topic. It is now a something – an issue that people can identify – whereas before it might only have been so with a clear medical diagnosis. 

Similarly, we used to just have flora and fauna for nurture and protection. Then in 2021, after a long process of advocacy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have now called out an additional important category – funga. 

A name signifies it has weight and needs attention.

It creates and reinforces meaning 

There is only a small step from identity to meaning and significance. Once used again and again the label is like sticky paper as it collects values, an image, impacts and significance. 

A name very quickly becomes full of meaning with its associated values. It leaves an almost immediate impression. This is especially valuable if the name is for a concept or complex idea that otherwise takes a lot of description. We see this with terms like ‘green’ or ‘right-wing’. Herein lies much of its value!

It creates boundaries 

A label marks out territory. It identifies the scope of an idea, issue or proposition. It can therefore helpfully define what aspects are in or outside an idea. These boundaries are not immutable but they create a focus and begin the process of changing perspectives.

Witness the impact of the concept of ‘shareholder value’ and then the slow move into a new named ideas around ‘stakeholders’ that have influenced corporate governance. The two concepts delineate a different space for the area of governance.

It provides a vehicle for communication

As a result of all, this the brand provides a shorthand for communication. 

In a few words it enables an idea to be introduced quickly and easily into discussions, programmes, operations and strategy.  At the same time, it immediately identifies purpose, values or approach – legitimising some things and ruling others out.

As a result, a name creates profile and, on the right topic, can be used to escalate its importance, encourage measurement, highlight its significance. These are your hashtags and placard labels.

It is quickly value-laden

Historically, names linked people or items directly to attributes  – surnames described… Greaves (think cemeteries), Butchers, Bakers or the place were someone lived. Many of the early brands capitalised on this by trying to capture their function or usp in the name – Brillo, Sunsilk or Lifebuoy. 

Names have always been imbued with meaning and naming something is to exercise a little power over it. Simon was renamed Peter (rock) by Jesus to signify the importance and solid nature of faith.

Today ideas, topics and activities all seem to gain a following wind when they acquire a name – well-being, Islamaphobia, trolling, rewilding, omnichannel, shrinkflation, zero covid…

The downside of names

However, there are downsides from using a name or label. These mirror the advantages. We see this in society just as easily as in organisations. It makes the decision over the creation and use of a name vital when leaders innovate.

Labels provide a target

Leaders who name an initiative or vision offer an immediate target for opponents to rally around and focus upon. This can obstruct progress unnecessarily. Smaller, more specific projects which are connected to the main programme, however worthy in their specific aims, are sometimes opposed because they are seen a part of the bigger label.

This can be seen in for instance the movement around ‘black lives matter’ . The straightforward sense of the label has a multithreaded nature that crystallised both support and opposition across otherwise disparate groups. Why? Because it puts a direct challenge to racial discrimination in a wrapper with a sociological theory that explains ‘social, political, and legal structures and power distribution through a “lens” focusing on the concept of race’. Some who agree on specific abuses, oppose the wider theory and are not then sure how to respond.

They can be misinterpreted 

Shorthand terms cannot provide a full and complete description of the meaning of the whole. This can be helpful because it takes debate out of the less important features of the topic – but it also exposes it to misunderstanding (of scope or aims) and even hijack.

One of the business waves of the 1990’s, ‘re-engineering’ fell foul of this. The core idea of working on the effectiveness and efficiency of cross-business processes was lost in the wider issues and consequences of restructuring, downsizing and hollowing-out leading to considerable resistance in many organisations to some otherwise valuable tools for improvement which struggled to be extricated from the other topics.

They can mis-scope change

A name creates boundaries as it focuses on certain aspects of an initiative. Yet sometimes these boundaries might not be clear at the start of the idea. Once established though, boundaries are difficult to move. The impact can be to unduly limit or even divert attention from the core.

This can be particularly true in organisations where strategic initiatives (e.g. a vision or important themes, like quality or service) are launched. It can be especially important to ensure that names do not carry different pre-existing meanings or implications.

Acquiring a name brings with it the values that it was associated with rather than the values that you would ideally like to attribute to it. It is very easy to become a prisoner of the identity of a name. I once ran an initiative looking at excellent customer service, something that you would think is quite clearly focused. However, it struggled to engage those in the after-sales area who saw only the spares fulfilment and repair/replacement as customer service and struggled to see the wider approach to customer centricity, let alone enquiries, sales support and complaints areas as constituent parts of the idea.

Three factors to consider before naming 

The choice of and use of a name is more art than science. Yet much of its value is tied to the breadth, shape and nature of the stakeholders that sit around whatever topic is under consideration. This is where forethought is needed.

With this in mind, here are three factors to weigh up in the decision:

Timing the need for broader support

When advancing a vision of what might be, especially a vision with many components, progress can sometimes be easiest through selecting specific projects or work that can be justified on their own merit. In these cases there is little to be gained by pushing for a wider name and exposing progress to debate and challenge.

However, if there is too little incentive for movement around specific initiatives or progress demands broader support from stakeholders who cannot readily be engaged in the smaller projects then the timing may be right to find a suitable name or label to build a bigger case for change.

This could be seen in last year’s COP discussions on bio-diversity where previous progress has been slow and diffuse despite the pressing need to address the wider topic. This time round though the adoption of ‘30×30’ (30% of planet protected by 2030) helped to crystallise the political support needed to close an agreement.

The value of broadband communications 

Some initiatives can be advanced readily in 1:1 or small scale dialogues that enable the full details of an idea or argument to be discussed and agreements secured. In other cases, the number of stakeholders or the context prevent this approach from being successful. 

In these instances, there is more value to be unlocked by branding a proposition, which can help open up multiple communications routes, engage a wider constituency and build support and ideas that might help progress.

The clarity of the proposition and its scope 

Where the proposition is not clear and well-scoped, or further experience and data is needed to shape and validate it then it is less likely to benefit from a name at this moment. It is often better to leave explanation in a long form format until further experience is gathered. It can be worth the wait.

To provide an appropriate name with the right values and impact sometimes makes this a task that itself takes time. The choice around a strong new corporate brand demands a wealth of understanding of the attributes that will be built upon and the target audiences in order to make it a success. A similar challenge faces a significant initiative in an organisation.


These factors are worth considering when you are tempted to come up with a catchy and hopefully sticky soundbite to label a programme, idea, method or aim.

However, in life it is not always under your control because as many people discover you don’t have to own an initiative to give it a name – anyone can. This is worth remembering. Whatever the decision to be made on labelling a change initiative, makes sure that it is based on a good understanding of all the stakeholders. Otherwise your ‘special military operation’ might become a war.

Lockdown learning: #14 of 14 Life and death

The last in a short series of 2 minute observations…

For me the lockdown has been like a magnifying glass poring over life and death. I have been encouraged to look more closely at what life is and is not really about and it has highlighted death on a dally basis.

Neither of these things are comfortable topics.  They have sharpened my focus.

For life, it calls forth a focus on priorities and bigger questions. For me, it has highlighted an idea well expressed by St Augustine back in 400 AD who said that humans are fundamentally lovers above all else – our choice in life is simply to decide what we will love.

I agree with him. Contrary to appearances, we are lovers not consumers (even if people might wish differently just at the moment!).

Our loves are the most important things in our lives. These are what we serve and end up ultimately being shaped by.

How do I know what they are? For me the lockdown has made them clearer. They are the aspects of life I most value or have missed most.

Our church did an online vox-pop where people explained their important loves and some humorous highs and lows. There were some strikingly similar thoughts and the exercise was a good prompt to consider this question. What are my loves and – are they worth loving that much?

On death, although so far I have not lost anyone close to Covid-19, people I know have, and two of my own friends have died of other things in the last couple of months. Death feels as if it has been brought out of the shadows. We have all been taken to the graveside and whatever bubble we were living in has finally popped. We understand afresh that mortality has a 100% hit rate and the world has always been a risky place.

In reality, our  risk of dying in any one year is quite low and Covid-19 has not really increased it by much (as David Speigelhalter explains). Nonetheless, we are much more likely to know someone who has died than before. What it has done is punctured our sense of unbounded safety – and brought us back to the reality of death….albeit with a vicious bump.

Death demands perspective on the importance, joy and value of life. We get one life to live and we need to live it well.

So at the end of this set of posts here’s the thought I am left with as we emerge (slowly and not smoothly) from lockdown:

What is worth loving and living for – and am I investing my life in that?

Lockdown learning: #13 Economy 2.0?

The penultimate in a short series of 2 minute observations…

We are nearing the end of ‘lockdown’ and entering a new ‘normal’ (or what passes for it). This week I was led to wonder if Covid-19 provides us  with a chance to reset our approach to living or at least the economic bit?

Bizarrely, this was provoked by the death of Lily Lian at 103 (see the obit in the Economist). She was the last of the street singers of Paris- a profession that lost its popular relevance post-WW2 as cultural changes, the pace of life and the importance of the economics grew.

We are starting to stare into the economic mess that the virus has created and talk is all about business and rebuilding.

I completely share the desire to provide useful lives for everyone in our society. The virus has wrecked millions of these but I also sense with others that it provides a wake-up call to rethink our approach to the economy.

We have an opportunity. Many of the jobs the virus has destroyed (an estimated 40% in the US) will not return. We have all cut back on consumer spending, travel and been forced to look again at our way of life. Simply going back to how it was does not make sense when that approach was not working well.

Put graphically, it was killing us – breeding mental ill-health, destroying our habitat burning our planet and not increasing our welfare. Simplistic goals aiming for higher personal or country income do not help us. Indeed, as another paper explained this week, the most successful people at this simply destroy our environment much more quickly (If you want a disturbing read on this, try David Wallace-Wells’ book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’).

We need to set different goals for life and approach the realisation of them in a different way and we need it in the next decade. The challenge is that this needs all actors in the system to revisit their living – from governments and corporations to countries and individuals.

It has to start somewhere and where else but me?

This means that despite the encouragement to go simply go back out and spend I won’t do that – and I sense that I am not alone.

It means working out what really and sustainably makes life buzz. Deciding where to spend time and energy, as well as money and, of course, what not to spend them on.

I don’t have a plan – only places to start.  I know that certain goals, like decarbonising my life, are limited by our current technology and approach. But, having been forced into a habit breaking 100 days of life, now is definitely a good time to act.

lockdown learning: #12 An ironic trade-off

A short series of 2 minute observations…

For almost all of us at the moment, our biggest health headache is Covid-19. Especially those of us of an older disposition are seeking to avoid meeting the virus.

However, we are also of a generation that grew up being told year-in-year-out that smoking was really bad for your health: something that will impact not just your lungs and throat but also your heart -reducing your life expectancy and increasing your morbidity.

Smoking is a key cause of COPD, one of the big risk factors for the seriousness of Covid-19. As a result, in the face of the virus, both UK and US governments have stepped up their advice to give up smoking.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that quite a number of scientific studies seem to suggest that smoking may actually protect you from Covid-19!

The evidence is not definitive. But in the USA, France and China, where many adults smoke, the number of hospital admittances are heavily skewed to non-smokers. In multiple studies in China the proportions are 6.5% vs 26.6%. In the US,  in a study by America’s Centers for Disease Control,  for 7,000 people who tested positive for coronavirus, they discovered that only 1.3% were smokers vs 14% of the population.

These sort of results prompted Professor Francois Balloux,(UCL) to say that ‘the evidence for a protective effect of smoking (or nicotine) against COVID-19 is bizarrely strong… actually far stronger than for any drug trialled at this stage…’

There is even an understanding of how this might be the case – as both virus and smoking interact with the ACE-2 receptors which play a critical role in the infection.

This suggests a question – is it safer to smoke or not smoke at the moment?

Its an ironic question but a great example of a popular economics concept – a trade-off (and probably one a better statistician than I could answer at least in a probabilistic manner).

In this case the trade-off seems to be between short and long term. In the short term (before I become addicted and my health badly damaged) I might be better off smoking to protect myself from Covid-19 . However, if I avoid the virus and do not give up quickly I am likely to be killed and my health battered in the long term.

What will I do? … probably stick to not smoking.

I am sure I am with the majority. Even though, as perhaps our most famous economist, Keynes said, “in the long run we are all dead”, the high probability of the health impact of smoking is much greater than the low probability that I will get a serious dose of Covid-19.

… I hope.

Lockdown learning: #11 Choices and consequences

A short series of 2 minute observations…

I like having choices… but not always the consequences!

As we hit week 14 of lockdown I am reminded of how what seem like local choices that have led to our current situation.

How does hygiene in a Chinese market come to have such a profound impact on the whole world? Such small actions have led to a pandemic that has impacted the whole human race.

It is a stark reminder of our interdependence in this world. We live in a web of cause and effect and our choices shape this for good or ill or both!

Sometimes we like it: wielding a golf club successfully; when we make a job choice that works out well or hold that BBQ on a sunny day (rather than the adjacent wet ones).

Sometimes we don’t: when we carelessly drop a knife and damage our nice wooden floor ☹️ . When we don’t allow enough distance between us and the parked car and break a door mirror.  When we rely on someone and they let us down.

Bad consequences normally mean pain and hurt which we don’t like. We try to avoid them. Yet they play an essential role – feedback to help us to learn how to live and to stay healthy. Indeed there is a lot of evidence we rarely change our behaviour unless it stings or hurts – physically or verbally. A muscle twinge warns us off more serious damage. A bruised ego can  lead us to better decisions. The absence of this is disastrous: lepers become maimed, disfigured and can die simply because leprosy stops them feeling pain and infection in their bodies.

We rely on consequences. Our society and world would not work without them – but sometimes they are scary and often they are more significant and interrelated than we realise. Many things can’t be undone.

I love the story about archaeologists researching the Dead Sea scrolls. They realised locals had known about the caves containing these scrolls for years – fragments of parchment were all over the place. So they offered money in exchange for each piece of paper handed in and the locals obliged …with lots of pieces, many  ripped from bigger bits to earn more of a reward!

Good choices come from owning consequences – even if we make mistakes. That can be tough but its a big incentive to think round our decisions, look ahead and consider possible consequences – to people, events and our own options and wellbeing.

As I write this Siberia is experiencing temperatures 20-25 degrees above normal. Yet another consequence in a system reacting to our choices and actions.

Our ability to choose is a great gift but definitely one to be used wisely.

In big and little choices, we can often get what we choose but not what we really want.