Brand tip: Call a duck a duck

Imagine this: You walk into a pet store, looking for a canary, because, i don’t know, maybe your coal mine is having dirty air issues or something. The salesman, eager to please, walks you over to a cage with a duck sitting in it.

I may be yellow, but I ain't no canary, yo.

I may be yellow, but I ain't no canary, yo.

He says, “Do I have just the thing for you, check out this canary. He is a new, better breed of canary. He has webbed feet, can swim, quacks rather than sings, he’s bigger. We call this the web-footed hydro ultracanary. You’ll love him.”

So you buy the “canary” and take him into your coal mine, where he quacks incessantly. In fact, he is still waddling around quacking about ten minutes after you and all of the other miners are lying dead from breathing poisonous air.

In this case, the brand promise (a canary) and the brand experience (a duck with strong lungs) did not match. If you had been looking for a duck, this little guy would have probably been perfect. But as a canary… not so much.

One of my favorite brand rules is to call your ducks ducks. What do I mean? Make things simple for your customers. Don’t make them learn your language or analyze your intent in order to understand your message. Be straight with them.

When naming products (a subject that I’ve discussed previously here), you may choose to use simple descriptive names rather than creating a new brand every time you create a product. What is Red Hat Enterprise Linux? It is Linux, designed for enterprise customers, and made by Red Hat. Simple.

New brands create complexity for customers. In some cases creating a new brand may be warranted, for a number of reasons (brand separation, different markets, different audiences, etc.). But each brand you create adds a layer of translation burden for your customers. My view? Only create new brands when there are no other good alternatives.

Here’s an example of how simple descriptive names help: What if Red Hat had named Red Hat Enterprise Linux Red Hat Megawowzit instead. From a customer’s point of view, here’s how the thought process goes:

Oh look, Red Hat has a new product.
It is called Red Hat Megawowzit.
I wonder what it is?
Here we go, Megawowzit is a version of Linux designed for enterprise customers.

When you call a duck a duck, you simplify this process– those last two lines go away.

But naming is just one example of where you should call a duck a duck. Positioning is the place where companies make the most outrageous mistakes. When you are talking about your product (or company) strengths, are you telling the truth? Or are you selling people ducks disguised as canaries?

When working through your positioning exercise, and deciding on your points of difference, be sure they are real and not aspirational (if aspirational, they may actually be points of parity).

Ask yourself, would my current customers agree this a strength of ours? If you are claiming something in your positioning that you can’t actually deliver, you are creating misalignment between your brand promise and your brand experience.

And when brand promise and brand experience are badly misaligned, unhappy customers (and former customers) start multiplying. Not necessarily because your product or company is bad, but because you misrepresented them. There is nothing wrong with a duck… that is, unless you are passing it off as a canary.

In the open source world, we talk a lot about transparency, and calling a duck a duck is really just another way to be more transparent. It makes things easier for your customers, but it also makes you more credible and trustworthy too.

Was this post helpful?

If so, you can find more tips about how to position your brand effectively in my book, The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:).

Only $9.99 for the Kindle, but available in each of these formats:
| Kindle | Nook | EPUB/PDF

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


8 thoughts on “Brand tip: Call a duck a duck

  1. If I ever have the chance to bring a new product to market I will call on you for naming advice. I thought Supersexyshinyfoo was good until I saw Megawowzit! I do understand, and agree with, the point you make. However, it seems you have some repressed super power in picking cool product names.

    Posted by Ed Tennant | October 8, 2009, 7:29 am
  2. It’s all about keeping it simple so your potential customers know what you’re selling. Keep up the good work of helping people know the difference between and duck and a canary!

    Posted by Natalie Perkins | October 12, 2009, 1:24 pm


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