Dropping the F-Bomb on the Branding Experts

Dropping the F-Bomb on the Branding Experts

Satirical image creation by OZY.

SourcePhoto and illustration by Alex Furuya/OZY

Why you should care

Because there are do’s and don’ts when it comes to names.

Leticia Gasca runs a think tank called The Failure Institute and is director of Fuckup Nights, an event series sharing stories about professional failures.

In business school, you are taught that defining the name, or rather a brand, is one of the most important decisions for any company. For the co-founders of Fuckup Nights, however, defining such a memorable name for our project was a decision that took no more than a minute.

Once we planned the model of the first failure session, I asked four friends what name this experiment should have. One of them said, “Fuckup Nights,” and we all agreed it was perfect. We didn’t even think about whether the name might affect our effort’s growth into a global movement.

For most brands, we seem to be in the era of politically correct names. In fact, the riskier names tend to stand out. The Washington Redskins endured a long legal battle over their name and logo depicting a Native American. Ironically, the logo was created by Walter Wetzel, a political leader of the Blackfeet Nation, one of the 10 largest tribes in the United States.

Opinion polls consistently find that a majority, ranging from 60 to 83 percent, support the Redskins’ continued use of the name. But an alternative method to standard polls was used by the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino, to question 400 people, 98 of whom were Native Americans. Sixty-seven percent of the Native Americans said the term “Redskins” is offensive and racist. The response from nonnatives? Sixty-eight percent said it was offensive. Yet the Washington Redskins preserved its name.

Choosing a brand with the word “fuck” has had implications we never considered.

Other examples of less PC names? Scoop up a bowl of Holy Crap cereal. Originally called Hapi, the owners decided to change the name after one of the first customers exclaimed, “Holy crap … this really works!” The firm, started in 2009, offers three high-end, gluten-free cereal varieties.

One of the better-known cases of politically incorrect branding is French Connection, or FCUK, the U.K. fashion brand. French Connection began using the branding FCUK after 1991; it was controversial and, as a result, successful. This led to similar tactics from other organizations. FCUK launched a trademark infringement case challenging the owner of First Consultants UK Ltd., a computer company, over its use of the “fcuk” initials.

The case found that the domain name fcuk.com was registered prior to FCUK applying for the U.K. trademark, and its claim was dismissed. Justice Rattee refused to grant an injunction, describing French Connection’s use of the initials FCUK as “a tasteless and obnoxious campaign.” The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority later requested that the company submit all poster campaigns for approval. In 2005, French Connection stopped using the initials in its advertising, but as of last year, it was reportedly planning to bring back the FCUK slogan campaign.

Choosing a bold name, then, tends to come with risk as well as reward. “Political correctness attempts to guide society in what is ‘appropriate’ and what is ‘inappropriate,’ ” says Paul Jankowski, chief strategist for New Heartland Group, a brand strategy agency. While some applaud PC progressivism, he says, “others find it suffocating.” Marketers need to be sensitive to both.

After the first Fuckup Night, I asked a friend who’s a branding expert what she thought about our name. Her response? “It’s a high-risk brand. I do not think you will get very far with it.” Five years later, and I wonder whether it would have become so popular if we had followed my friend’s advice. I think not.

Choosing a brand with the word “fuck” has had implications we never considered: Registering the brand has been complex, because many countries won’t register brands with words that violate morals and good customs. For our sins, we also have never been able to buy advertising on the internet. Facebook’s advertising policy states that “ads must not contain profanity.” Other social media have similar rules.

In the end, though, having a memorable brand has certainly been an important element in creating a global and viral movement. People use swear words while speaking, so having those words as part of a brand shows authenticity and courage — two things that attract people in an age obsessed with being politically correct.

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