by Angela Reed-Fox
Remember this? The Natural Environment Research Council (whom most people had not heard of) launched a public poll for the naming of one of their new research vessels - and for a few months in 2016 they became famous. Or even infamous. Previously there had been other public polls for naming animals such as orcas and owls - but none seemed to go as viral as this one. A BBC radio presenter suggested Boaty McBoatface and this captured the imagination of the British public and the poll took off - with Boaty in the lead at 33% of the vote.
The result? Boaty won the public vote, but this choice was vetoed; the research vessel was named the Sir David Attenborough and as a sop to the public, an on-board submersible craft was given the name Boaty McBoatface. What can brands learn from this?
1. "What could possibly go wrong?"
Recognise that asking the opinion of the Great British public is potentially even more dangerous than working with children and animals. There's tremendous opportunity and likewise great risk. On the one hand, if you catch the public's imagination the possibilities are endless - but on the other, mess it up, and you're going to look ridiculous.
2. Build reliable pre-crisis planning into every project
The results and subsequent action after the poll was concluded showed an astonishing lack of awareness of what were the possible or indeed likely outcomes of launching a public poll. The NERC suggested a few possibilities, but from these proposed options it was clear that they had absolutely no idea of the dark roads that public opinion was about to drag them down. They were then unprepared to deal with the inevitable consequences. Sun Tzu in the Art of War said a warrior should "know your enemy, and know yourself". NERC showed profound ignorance of both as the gap between what they wanted and what the public voted for was amusingly wide. They clearly didn't know themselves, and certainly weren't aware how out of touch they were with the public sentiment.
3. Never underestimate the Great British appreciation for irreverent wit
During the pre-crisis planning which wasn't done, a quick internet search would have shown NERC that in previous public naming polls, the British value humour over pomp. Indeed in 2007, a poll to name a humpback whale resulted in Greenpeace reluctantly agreeing to name the mammal Mister Splashy Pants. A similar outcome nine years later was always probable. (In the event, Mister Splashy Pants earned 78% of the vote, with the rather more staid options of Shanti, Amal, Aurora, Mira and Kaimana only earning 1% each.)
4. Don't make an offer you're not willing to stand by.
Only ask for an opinion if you're willing to take it. NERC didn't give the public parameters, it made suggestions but left the choices up to the public. By running the poll, NERC had two options:
4. Catch public imagination and surf the waves of popularity
The viral nature of the poll should have sparked NERC's interest and had them seeing the possibilities regardless of the acceptability of the outcome.
Allowing the public to name the vessel as inappropriately as it liked had the potential to create the first celebrity boat. This was a missed PR opportunity; children would remember into adulthood their school trips to see Boaty. It was a fabulous chance to spark the imagination of the next generation of marine explorers - and educate everyone else on what marine explorers actually do. It would have been a boat everyone had heard of.
5. Brand value doesn't have to come at a high price
The internet and social media has enabled far faster viral spread of ideas. Advertising is far cheaper than it ever has been before - and publicity stunts pulled off well need not cost anything at all. There was immense value created by running this poll. So many got involved, had a vote, shared the poll with friends and colleagues, and talked about it amongst themselves. It captured the nation's sense of fun -and if you can do that, it's difficult to go wrong from there (although clearly not impossible!)
6. Opinions matter
Polls and quizzes are popular because they invite opinion - and everyone has one of those! It also has the ability to create tribes. The tribe effect is evident in people voting and then sharing the poll, inviting others to join in too. A press release of the imminent launch of a research vessel could never have the same organic reach as a poll on the same subject. A poll taps into the twin desires of wanting to contribute, and wanting to be heard. The fact that the voices heard where then dismissed was the reason the entire PR project backfired.
7. So much to gain and yet so much was lost
Instead of a PR victory which would see hordes of people keen to visit Boaty, schoolchildren's imagination sparked by marine discovery, a renewed faith in these research bodies of which we know very little, and the affirmation of the irreverence that Britain holds so dear - the result was negative:
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