How names can make or break government programs
Financial experts are quickly evaluating President Obama’s newly proposed “myRA” savings program , determining whether or not it will be a boon to the millions of Americans who haven’t adequately funded their retirements.
But marketing and branding professionals are weighing in on an altogether different aspect. Forget what the program can accomplish from a dollars-and-cents perspective, many say; the real problem is that the name itself may not add up.
The issues are varied. Sure, the name is supposed to be read as “My RA,” but because it’s a play on the popular IRA program, there’s a temptation to read it as “My IRA.” President Obama himself made this slip when he spoke of the program during Wednesday night’s State of the Union address.
As “a general rule of thumb, if a gifted orator like President Obama struggles to pronounce it, you may want to look into other naming options,” says John Paolini, a partner with Sullivan, a New York-based branding and marketing firm.
Plus, on paper, the name looks like a woman’s name — Myra (a name shared by such figures as the famed British classical pianist Myra Hess and the title character in Gore Vidal’s novel-turned-film Myra Breckinridge). And to make matters more confusing, the abbreviation RA already has competing meanings in the American vernacular: For instance, it denotes both a dormitory’s residential assistant and the painful disease rheumatoid arthritis. Consider: If you go to TrackMyRA.com , you won’t be gathering information about rates of return. Instead, you’ll be learning about a medical smartphone app “developed specifically with RA patients in mind.”
That website alone makes Marlin Collingwood, president of the Boston-based communications firm CHT Group, question the branding savvy of the president’s team. “I have to wonder how much research and testing — if any — they did on the name,” Collingwood said.
The White House did not immediately respond for comment about the “myRA” name.
It’s not as if the names of government programs or bills don’t matter, marketing experts say. True, many names are fairly innocuous or hard to understand on face value — the name 401(k) actually derives from a subsection of the Internal Revenue Service code — but they still somehow become embraced by the public, often simply as a function of being heard again and again. But other names don’t catch on, so they become what amounts to a missed marketing opportunity. (Yes, bills and government programs must be “marketed,” political pros note.)
Even worse, a name that isn’t quite right invites ridicule: That was the case with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), argues Julie Doughty, a director of verbal identity for CBX, a New York-based branding agency. “If you choose a name that is awkward, long or difficult to remember, then you run the risk that someone else will give you a nickname that sticks — and take the conversation in a direction you didn’t intend,” she says.
Conversely, a cleverly crafted name can help a bill or program succeed — in spite of the fact that legislators or the public might not be all that supportive of it. The classic case that’s cited? The USA Patriot Act of 2001. To be against it was to seemingly imply that one wasn’t “patriotic,” a 2010 Northwestern University report noted. The naming was “an act of public relations genius,” government relations expert Peter Peyser wrote in the report.