This blog originally appeared in Fast Company.
From Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s to Sony’s pink speaker balls to exoplanets, crowdsourcing for names is all the rage. There’s strength in numbers, or so you’d think, right? But remember, the supposed “wisdom of the crowd” effect is often flawed, at least where more specialized creative services, like naming, are concerned.
The first forms of crowdsourcing required no fancy polls or technology, just someone asking what their friends thought. Gradually, as the Internet democratized the exchange of information and ideas, it’s become easy to ask for opinions from intricately networked masses. The spending and thinking power of the public can be harnessed for your own needs, and what could be more egalitarian and economical?
Crowdsourcing is now everywhere. You can vote for your favorite T-Shirt, plug into the collective knowledge of Wikipedia, or fundraise for your play or product on Kickstarter. One of the more direct forms is the rise of work-soliciting platforms, either for more tedious chores (TaskRabbit, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) or complex creative work, like logo design (crowdSPRING, 99designs).
In theory, crowdsourcing creative work sounds like the bee’s knees, providing unlimited access to the world’s inspired minds. And in some cases, it works. For example, iStockPhoto shook up the image industry, creating an affordable, reliable photo source, where even amateur shutterbugs could contribute. But quantity doesn’t mean quality, and as the classic design principle goes, less is more. Although you wouldn’t think this, judging from the proliferation of naming contests and “namesourcing” sites (like Naming Force, Name Station, SquadHelp, Name Contests, Hatchwise, and the granddaddy of them all, WordLab).
Just recently, you could contribute names in official contests for a studious gnome, a river otter pup, a historic lawn in Brooklyn, or a PlayStation game. With naming contests, the sponsoring companies usually get responses very quickly and cheaply. They’re a boon for building consensus and buzz (witness Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” contest), getting instant feedback on product ideas, and involving your customers in your brand. But if you’re more focused on the result–an actual brand or product name that needs to succeed in the marketplace–crowdsourcing falls short.
Anyone remember what happened when Mountain Dew asked customers to name its new green apple drink? An attempt to build brand loyalty turned into a PR fiasco, as customers clicked amok, voting for “Diabeetus” and “Gushing Granny.” Or when Kraft Down Under solicited names for a spreadable version of Vegemite, settling on the bland name iSnack 2.0 from some 48,000 submissions. Even people in the marketing biz fall prey to the allures of crowdsourcing. For example, ad agency DW+H hired Victor & Spoils to handle the crowdsourcing of its name and eventually settled on…keeping DW+H after reviewing 1,500 submissions.
When you crowdsource naming, you surrender control over the quality of what you get. Many of the candidates you receive won’t reflect your desired messages or tonality because you’re asking the masses, who aren’t experts in your business or category. They’re generalists, and they probably won’t take the time to get to know you too well, or as well as they should. In order to create an indelible brand, you and your branding partner need to establish intimacy. Casual encounters don’t build consistency or quality; they’re more likely to yield the least common denominator, rather than customized creativity.
There’s no guarantee that what you get is legally available or linguistically appropriate, unless you ask a bunch of trademark attorneys. You also give up confidentiality and face the threat of having your ideas stolen. You might think you’re saving time, but reviewing hundreds, if not thousands of submissions takes much longer than you think. It’s also a logistical nightmare to collaborate with a large group on anything but the simplest tasks.
Asking people to vote on names invites the smart aleck to play (as in the Mountain Dew example). Popularity is misleading, and the number of votes often has no bearing on whether the target market finds the name appealing. They’re in it to outwit, not choose the best or most appropriate name for your brand. The same is often true for focus groups, where the loudest self-styled comedians will often show off their “smarts” by tearing down the names they’re being shown.
So, if you’re looking to generate word of mouth or crowd-please, then by all means, run that contest. But if you’re looking to create a name that stands out from the crowd, don’t follow the crowd. Dare to name alone–or with a trusted partner.