Atheists eat babies?: Steve Cuno on labels and branding



OK, he didn’t say babies, he said kittens. Last weekend I watched streaming video of The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) 7 from Las Vegas (awesome conference and awesome technology) and was fascinated by a paper give by Steve Cuno of the Response Agency.

For those who may not know, TAM is the premiere skeptical conference, attracting hundreds of people from around the world to learn and socialize with other like-minded skeptics. “Skeptic” in the context refers to someone who applies critical thinking and scientific methodology to investigating things like crop circles, UFOs, Bigfoot, anti-vaccination scares, etc. It’s sometimes used as a synonym for “atheist”, but not all atheists are skeptics, and vice versa.

Anyway, Steve Cuno talked about the words “skeptic”, “humanist”, “atheist”, etc. and what they might mean to the average person. As with all labels, there are a lot of stereotypes floating around, so it’s not surprising that someone might really believe that skeptics are cold-hearted communists or that atheists eat kittens for breakfast. Cuno’s talk focused on how to lay positive groundwork first, so that people have good experiences before they encounter the label. Your neighbor sees you volunteering at the homeless shelter, and then learns you’re a skeptic – ah, maybe those skeptics are good people after all…

This rings true for me, since it’s an issue we encounter with naming all the time. Clients want a name that communicates all the good things about their product/company/service, a brand that will automatically make their customers feel all warm and fuzzy and trusting. But as we so often say, a good name can’t save a terrible product (just as a bad name can’t kill a wonderful product). Deliver a consistent, positive brand experience, and soon the name will become synonymous with the brand – and suddenly the name alone will carry all the brand associations on which you’ve been spending all your time and energy.

This has led me to think that I should conduct a naming project to come up with alternatives to “atheist” (I think “skeptic” is doing pretty well and we should leave it alone, except it should always be spelled with a “k” – you hear me, Britain and Australia?). Richard Dawkins and friends tried, disastrously, to rebrand atheists as “Brights” a few years ago, and honestly, I can’t think of a WORSE word. Arrogant? Check! Childishly cheerful? Check! Smugly superior? Double check!

Maybe I can do some online research and present the findings at TAM8.


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