What’s in a name? Johnny Cash teaches us about branding

Over at the Peace Dividend Trust blog, Scott Gilmore posted this morning under the title: “We hate our name, discuss.” Here’s the summary version:

We chose the name in 2004. At that time PDT was merely a collection of vaguely formed ideas without a clear mandate, set of activities or direction. …

Once the name was chosen, we moved on to other things, like the actual doing. …

It wasn’t long, though, before we came back to the name. We decided it sucked.

After seven years, PDT is planning to ditch its name. I started to leave a comment on Gilmore’s post, but then I decided to make this a post of its own. Organizational branding is closely linked to marketing, fundraising, outreach, and resource mobilization — all of which relate to the resource allocation failures that are endemic to the “social good” sector. I’ll come back to that in a moment.


First, a story about another organization with a terrible name. My first job out of college was with a political advocacy organization called “PIRG”. The acronym was bad enough, but the full name wasn’t much better: Public Interest Research Group. Even some of our most ardent supporters had trouble remembering the name.

(One caveat to this discussion: I worked at PIRG seven years ago. I’m referring to the organization in the past tense, not because it doesn’t exist anymore, but because my statements may be out of date.)

PIRG was a stronger organization than many of its peers. I won’t name the peers who I have in mind, but I’ve worked directly for and in partnership with several similar advocacy groups. I have friends and former colleagues at many others. In general, PIRG’s systems were tighter, the campaigns were more strategic, the metrics were more rigorous, and the investment in staff development was unparalleled. Lots of budding activists cut their teeth in a job with PIRG, including a young Barack Obama. Not all of the former employees have happy memories, of course: the hours were long and the compensation was meager. Still, I wouldn’t trade the training I got there for anything. One friend referred to the job as “the best thing you never want to do again”.

The boy-named-Sue effect

Management researchers spend most of their time on the likes of GE and Apple, but I find the social sectors far more interesting. Ever since working at PIRG, I’ve wondered what made the difference between PIRG and its peer organizations. I’ve come to the conclusion that PIRG’s strength was not in spite of its name, but rather because of it. This is due to something I call the boy-named-Sue effect, after the Johnny Cash song:


In case you can’t watch the video, here’s the crux. As Sue’s dad explains:

“Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong.”

“Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do.
But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue.'”

So the boy-named-Sue effect is this: If you have a good brand name and public profile, you can coast on that a bit. If you don’t, you’d better get tough or die.

Market failures

Leaving PIRG aside for a moment, consider how branding relates to the allocation of funding for “social good” organizations. Most of the funding for the nonprofit/NGO/social enterprise sector comes from one place (loosely, “donors”) while the goods or services go elsewhere (“beneficiaries”). A donor’s resource allocation relies heavily on marketing and image, which are only loosely correlated with performance on the mission. This can lead to market failures. Great marketing can allow a poorly performing organization to suck up millions of dollars. Exhibit A: Three Cups of Tea and Greg Mortenson.

A less extreme version occurs at nearly every nonprofit, NGO and social enterprise. The external incentives for good marketing are much stronger than the external incentives for good programming. You still have to do something good with the money so that you’ll have material for the marketing. It takes a combination of personal fortitude and well-designed accountability mechanisms to ensure that the mission doesn’t suffer from the marketing imperative.

Let’s come back to PIRG, PDT, and the boy-named-Sue. Carrying a terrible name puts you at a marketing disadvantage to other organizations competing for the same resources. If your programs/services were the same as theirs, you’d lose 9 times out of 10. The boy-named-Sue effect will require your actual work to be that much better to make up for your marketing handicap. The actual work becomes your organization’s comparative advantage.

So is a bad name a good thing?

My assessment of PIRG should come with a caveat about survivorship bias. Many other poorly named organizations have died out in the four decades since PIRG formed. Those other organizations are missing from my analysis. A bad name doesn’t guarantee that your organization thrives in the social good marketplace. But if you have bad branding and you still survive, then you must be doing something right.

I doubt that I’ve convinced anyone to intentionally choose a bad name. No one wishes the boy-named-Sue effect upon themselves. The narrator in Johnny Cash’s song ends by saying that, if he ever has a son, he’s going to name him anything but Sue. PIRG launched a re-branding effort while I was there. Gilmore and PDT are considering re-branding as well. Maybe that’s the key: start with a bad name that forces you to get your house in order, and then re-brand later on if you think it’ll help.

At the very least, I think you shouldn’t worry too much about branding. The other things are more important. Sure, names like “Doctors without Borders” or “charity: water” are pretty clear. But what did “Oxfam” or “Mercy Corps” mean before they became what they are today? And what the heck is a “Kiva” anyway?


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