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.