What Does Boaty McBoatface Tell Us About Brand Control on the Internet?

SUMMING UP. Boaty McBoatface may have been shot down as the social-media sourced name of a research vessel, but James Heskett's readers are up to their hip-boots in opinions on the matter.
by James Heskett

When Should Control Over a Brand Be Ceded to the Public?

The verdict is in. Our hardly scientific poll has endorsed the name of Boaty McBoatface for the new research vessel being commissioned by the UK’s National Environment Research Council (NERC). Further, several creative ideas for capitalizing on the name in the interest of creating public support for research were advanced.

Far from being concerned about the loss of NERC control over the naming process, the majority of those commenting positively on the name saw it as a result of what they regarded as a serendipitous loss of control over the brand. They immediately seized control of the discussion by enthusiastically endorsing the name and its further use. So much for scientific inquiry by blog. On the plus side, however, the issue brought out the best in British humor, something that the scientists at NERC probably should have been able to anticipate. As Duncan Philps-Tate noted, “This after all is the nation which elected H’Angus the Monkey … (the local soccer team’s mascot) … as Mayor of Hartlepool.”

Those endorsing the name saw it as a way of popularizing a little-known but important government activity. David Moore said, “a dodgy name is not always a major impediment to success.” Gretchen Kennedy commented, “Boaty McBoatface is the PERFECT name for bringing a little humor to a world that takes itself way too seriously.” Science Advocate added, “You can’t buy that kind of publicity… They can name it whatever they want, but people will still refer to it as Boaty… I say take the gift and run with it!” Frank D. did indeed run with it, suggesting that “The life boats could be Life Boaties. He (apparently referring to the gender of the boat) could … teach kids science lessons and water safety … the ‘Boaty McBoatface Boat Show!’ … Partner with a toy company and there could be a Boaty under every tree this Christmas … and a Boaty Book explaining his or her research mission.’

Others were less enthusiastic. Darmody1 reminded us that, “it’s important to consider the effect of such a name on the employees who work on the vessel.” Siouzie14 asked, “Would anyone believe the name in a mayday call?”

Advice was offered up by many. Anticipating the final decision, Athena K praised another respondent for being “spot-on with naming the dingy Boaty McBoatface.” Tom B commented that, “I don’t see where anyone committed to use the results of the poll. Sounds like terrific results … So, near the end of a particularly long and difficult mission, where the crew and scientists want to draw particular attention among school children to findings, they should simply paint a giant smiley face on the bow of the RV Shackleton (assuming a name that was not chosen), add a ‘aka Boaty McBoatface’ to the side, and proudly sail back to the UK.” IMS, while saying “I don’t think you can live with the result,” suggested announcing the name chosen by officials, but noting “also affectionately known as Boaty McBoatface as part of the announcement.”

While lauding Minister Johnson for arriving at “a truly Solomonic solution,” Guy Higgins suggested that this was a good example of managers failing “to think through the ‘What can go wrong with this?’ question.” Nevertheless, I suspect that we will be seeing many more situations in which control over brands is explicitly ceded to the public for marketing purposes. As I write this, the Binghamton, New York minor league professional baseball team is thought to be on its way to being named the Stud Muffins in a poll of fans. This prompts the question, when do the benefits outweigh the risks? When should control over a brand be ceded to the public? What do you think?

Original Column

The Internet is a wonderfully democratic device that brings large numbers of people together around ideas practically in an instant. In one sense, it is a marketer’s dream as a way of building brand recognition. But unless its users are willing to cede some control over their brands, it can create dilemmas. A story by Dina Gerdeman that appeared on this site last year featured advice by Harvard Business School Professor John Deighton and Leora Kornfeld for anyone thinking about “playing with their brand.”

Deighton and Kornfeld suggested that the benefits of lightening up the marketing effort might range from increased sales to lower-cost recruiting (as prospective employees get a different picture of an organization with a staid image). In addition to “lightening up a little,” they proposed two more “rules.” One was to “throw out the rules” (of conventional marketing). Another was perhaps most important for us here: “no risk, no return … the public enjoys playing with brands … the risk is that the play may take some unexpected turns.” It turned unexpectedly for Britain’s Science Minister Jo Johnson.

An artist’s illustration of the research vessel
possibly to be known as Boaty McBoatface. Source: The National Environment
Research Council

A staff member of the United Kingdon’s National Environment Research Council suggested that NERC create a citizen poll to suggest a name for a $287 million polar research ship. Johnson, the U.K. Government’s Science Minister responsible for, among other things, NERC, sought to get the effort off on the right inspirational foot by saying: “Can you imagine one of the world’s biggest research labs traveling to the Antarctic with your suggested name proudly emblazoned on the side?” (One might add, proudly flying the British flag.) There were apparently employees of NERC pulling for names like Shackleton or Endeavor. Instead, they got something else.

James Hand, a journalist, apparently thought he would have a bit of fun with the contest. He proposed a name, Boaty McBoatface. The name immediately zoomed into the lead on the Internet, perhaps supported by adolescents (and their parents) who had grown up playing with toys like Thomas, the friendly locomotive. (Hand later apologized for “scuppering the contest,” saying he actually preferred Clifford, the Big Red Boat.)

The final result was that Boaty McBoatface, aided by the Internet, polled 120,000 votes, four times more than the second place finisher. It was likely much more attention than had ever been drawn to a relatively quiet corner of the U.K. Government’s science establishment.

Now Minister Johnson has a decision to make. He apparently has delayed it, perhaps waiting for interest to wane. But he did issue a statement saying that: “We want something that fits the mission and captures the spirit of scientific endeavor.”

This is perhaps a learning opportunity for all of us in marketing. What do you do when a brand goes out of control? Is it even possible to bring it back under control? What are the costs and benefits of trying to do it? Specifically, should British Science Minister Jo Johnson think about Boaty as an opportunity or salvage project? What do you think?

On May 6 (after this column was posted), an article by Reuters titled "Democracy is Dead" conveyed the news that the research vessel had been named the RRS Attenborough after the famed British naturalist. At the same time, it was announced that the underwater research vehicle to be operated from the Attenborough would be named Boaty McBoatface. In the spirit of the case method, we never let a decision stand in the way of a good discussion. After all, how can we know that the decision made was the right one? With that in mind, here are several added questions: What did you think of the way this matter was handled? What would you have done differently? Why? What do you think?--JH.


Dina Gerdeman, Advertisers Get Serious About Playing With Their Brands,Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, hbswk.hbs.edu, May 18, 2015 (accessed April 19, 2016)

Emma Henderson, “Boaty McBoatface ‘unlikely’ to be the name of new multi- million pound research vessel, www.independent.co.uk, April 19, 2016 (accessed April 19, 2016)

Katie Rogers, “Boaty McBoatface: What You Get When You Let the Internet Decide, www.nytimes.com, March 21, 2016 (accessed April 19, 2016)

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