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.

PRIG? PURG? PERK?

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referring to the organization in the past tense, not because it doesn’t exist anymore, but because my statements may be out of date.)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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  1. Brilliant post. I would say, though, that Oxfam, Mercy Corps, and Kiva have two advantages on “Peace Dividend Trust”. 1. They are two syllables, making them easy to pronounce, spell, remember; and 2, they are do not mislead. PDT does not do “peace”. We do jobs, enterprise, business, poverty reduction. But the name would have you believe otherwise.

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    1. You know, I kind of like that PDT has “peace” in its name. Your work contributes to peace, even if you don’t “do” peace work. It emphasizes that we should think about peacebuilding more broadly than we usually do. But maybe I’m idiosyncratic in liking that aspect of the name.

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  2. This is a really good post – as you say, the important thing is to make people associate your name, whatever it is, with high quality work. If you do that, it doesn’t matter what your name is really.

    I don’t really go with the point about acronyms either. The 2nd (I think) most recognisable brand in the world is IBM and I don’t think more than about 10% of people would be able to tell you what it stands for (International Business Machine btw!)

    The point is, your brand should be your work. As you say, if you’re coasting on your name and your advertising, sooner or later you’ll suffer.

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    1. “Your brand should be your work.” Well said.

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  3. Genius blog! – particularly linking Johnny Cash to aid marketing.

    I think your point about how a good brand can lead organizations to coast rather than excel goes beyond just the name. Organizations with an appealing, easily understandable mandate (and good skills at communicating it) also find it easier to get funding and support. This has the added advantage that it can make them a great magnet to talented staff. The downside is that such organizations also don’t need to be as competitive in terms of their performance, how quickly they adapt to change, or in well they manage and develop their staff (since they can always recruit new people) – but in the long run this is bad for the quality of their work and for their beneficiaries.

    I don’t think the branding things only applies to new organizations either. If your organization has a good reputation based on past work, then it can be a little too easy to coast on past successes rather than creating new ones.

    In a way, if you want to do your best work, it might help to be a little bit unpopular or unfashionable since this will make you work a bit harder at being excellent.

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  4. I totally agree on the sentiment that “Your brand should be your work.” However, as the guy who has to make sure 150 people get paid every 2 weeks, I am acutely aware of how a bad name can handicap you in terms of marketing and fundraising. The Boy-Named-Sue theory makes sense, but it doesn’t hold that you can’t be good and have a good name too.

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  5. I love the comparison to the Boy Named Sue! However, I am a little confused as to what the conclusion of this post is. It seems that you’re suggesting that organisations either have great branding or great programming, and that somehow these two things are mutually exclusive. However, would it not be better for the organisations to spend energy on both improving their branding and programming (this is a rhetorical question)?

    The implication also seems to be that pursuing branding leads to an organisation that is not genuine, that the branding is there to cover up the gaps in the organisation’s work. However, this is a rather cynical way of looking at the purpose of branding, which is simply to tell the people outside the organisation what they are all about. This post has got me really thinking, but I’d love to hear a little more about what your final advice for NGOs is, Dave.

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    1. Weh, I wouldn’t go to such extremes with the argument. I don’t think I portrayed it as an either-or, binary, mutually exclusive choice between branding and programming.

      To answer your rhetorical question: Yes, do both. But there are choices to be made in terms of how much energy (or time, or money) you spend on marketing versus programming. A hypothetical executive will face more external pressure to focus on marketing. And my general advice is this: resist that pressure.

      As a final note: I think the function of branding/marketing lies somewhere between “not genuine…covering up gaps” (which you call “cynical”) and “simply tell people what they’re about” (which I would call naive). It’s both of those.

      Reply

      1. Hey Dave,

        The only problem I have with that assessment is that you’ve mixed up branding and marketing. While there is some overlap, my view is they’re not exactly the same thing. Branding (unlike marketing) can be “simply telling people what they’re about” without being naive. An example you used was Doctors Without Borders. No ambiguity there. Also, branding doesn’t necessarily have to involve a lot of time/energy/money. It can be simply coming up with a message, or a way to represent your organisation, and then consistently sticking to it.

        Cheers,

  6. Oxfam was the much wordier “Oxford Committee for Famine Relief” for its first 23 years, back when people liked to use more words. Not much room for ambiguity and it only got all sexy and bisyllabic in 1965. And the name “Oxfam” not being misleading? I guess you’ve never been asked by the head of a Nigerian farming cooperative how big your farm in the UK is, and how many ox do you have, and how many acres can each plough in a day…

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  7. […] Extra: What’s in a name? Johnny Cash teaches us something about branding. Dave Algoso looks at the challenges NGOs with vague or difficult names face, and the importance of […]

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  8. Nasir Sajjad Baloch February 2, 2012 at 3:34 am

    I enjoyed the discussion and I like it too, that the work of an organization that it done so for and what is its image to the world that should be considered its brand.
    Marketing is a medium (a tool, a way) which is for to tell the people, audiences /stakeholders that what they are, why they are there and what kind of support they need. It continuum started from people / stakeholders, organization’s printed materials, websites, linkages.
    In the case of Doctors without Borders that not only a name but their name is reflecting their message too as a entity.
    As for as some entities did not stayed with their earlier names regarding this I do think that there are some reasons the non profit entities would not stay with theirs earlier names, like changing of donors /funding program, for including their organization in the funding lists, so the organization starts including that brand/theme into their program. And another reason may be this that is with the passage of time founders become mature and would like to address more issues therefore what they are doing today and what was their earlier motives in the days of formation.

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