(This article was originally published on Big Bang Science's blog)
In the previous chapter, Mark Kuchner reminded us that marketing nowadays is not about selling stuff to people who don't need it (as the popular imagery still puts it), but about building long-term, honest working relationships.
In today's chapter, he explores Branding; this subtle craft of making things seem unique even if they're not.
The word "brand" - he writes - originally meant a symbol burned onto a cow's hide to identify the ranch it came from to distinguish the cow from many thousands of others.
Again, he realized the importance of branding from his country music perspective and eventually saw how it may be helpful to scientists. Nothing resembles more a country music artist than another country music artist. So, in order, merely to be visible among the crowd, he had to “brand” himself. He wanted something that wrang true and went for the obvious: He became the “songwriting astronomer”. That certainly made him unique. And it paid off!
Because my brand was based on the truth, I found out that it had a kind of coherence that I didn't initially expect.
Country music is not renowned for its complex harmonies.
At first, other songwriters criticized me for breaking some of the rules, rules about not adding too many color notes to my chords, for example. But my brand turned these infractions into a feature.
OK. I guess we see how this works for music. But what does this have to do with science? Well, it works just the same, albeit in a slightly subtler manner:
(…) when I was organizing a scientific conference, I became quite sure that I was seeing a bevy of scientific brands in action. When you're on a committee discussing who the invited speakers should be, you notice how everyone almost instinctively names the same two or three people. These scientists may or may not have made the most important contributions to the field during the last six months. Sometimes these scientists even have somewhat negative brands, but they are needed at the meeting anyway to stir up controversy. What's important is that they are familiar; they are on everyone's mind because they are the go-to people for some topic or angle. That is branding at work.
So branding is no longer about marking cattle with a branding iron, but...
“A brand is a person's gut feeling about a product, service, or company” (…) A brand is a product's promise, its reputation (…)
Everyone and everything has a reputation, like it or not (…)
The trick is to develop effective brands that people remember and admire.
So, as usual, here come a few tips & tricks:
First off, you have to create emotions:
"Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind."
String Theory is an excellent example. Your visceral reaction (it all makes us a bit uncomfortable, doesn't it?) helps turn this on going research question into an effective scientific brand. The maths behind it didn't need a label. Come to think about it, there are heaps of scientific brands.
The Hubble Space Telescope, on the other hand, elicits a warm fuzzy feeling (…) The word “Hubble” feels comforting, like “cuddle” or “bubble bath.” And nobody can forget the long string of astounding images of nebulae, galaxies, planets, and so on that Hubble has brought us over the years. The telescope's strong brand helped save Hubble from being axed by budgeters more than once during its lifetime.
The author has selected a few of the “laws” of branding, according to the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, a bestselling authoritative book on the topic. We'll keep it short here, but of course, the reasons for the selection are developed in the book:
For example, everyone remembers Charles Lindbergh. But who was the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic?
What shipping company comes to mind when you hear the word "overnight"? (Federal Express.) Which ketchup comes to mind when you hear the word "slow"? (Heinz.)
In a way, you might say that the history of new ideas in science is but a string of word coinages:
cell (Robert Hooke)
nucleotide (Phoebus Levene)
calorie (Nicolas Clement)
quantum mechanics (Max Born)
osmosis (Thomas Graham)
electron (George Johnstone Stoney)
neuron (Heinrich Wilhelm Gottfried von Waldeyer-Hartz)
species (Ernst Mayr)
seismology (Robert Mallett)
bacteria (Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg)
gravity (Isaac Newton)
black hole (John Wheeler)
liquid crystal (Otto Lehmann)
dark energy (Michael Turner)
inflation (Alan Guth)
quark (Murray Gell-Mann, appropriating a word coined by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake)
laser (Charles Townes)
scientist (William Whewell)
I've come to think that, as a scientist, if you're not coining new terms or at least struggling to find new terms, you're doing something wrong.
For us scientists, that probably means we have to focus on one subfield of science at a time (…)
Once you have gotten the job you want or become the person who always gets invited to speak about this subject at every relevant conference, then you can change directions if you feel like it (…) Don't dabble.
(…) our scientific brands will inevitably fade (…) When you sense this happening, it is simply time to move on and start working on a new brand.
So what makes for a good brand name? Probably a name that people will like to say and repeat:
“Fractal” and “laser” are made-up words-in this sense, they are no different from “Big Mac” or “Tylenol.” Marketing books, such as Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, contain what seems to be good advice about to how make up effective brand names like these.
A brand name should be novel and somewhat mysterious. (The book provides cool ideas as to how to achieve that). Remember that acronyms are boring. Buzzy prefixes or suffixes often work but can quickly become overused.
Using a logo is an essential way to show you mean business, and to make your brand more memorable and recognizable.
Though, the author warns, this only works for a team:
A lone scientist trying to use a logo might be viewed as self-promoting.
Again, you'll find many very good and practical ideas in the book as to how to design a logo, with what tools, and what works and doesn't.
... Is often what makes a brand or an idea memorable.
It seems to help if a science project is vast in scope. For example, the Human Genome Project, when it was first imagined, seemed so dauntingly huge that even before it was funded it was newsworthy, just for the audacity of the idea.
When it comes time to choose a name for whatever project you're working on, sometimes everyone wants to weigh in, and nobody seems quite happy with the outcome.
I'm sure we've all been there...
This is how marketers often view branding. And it is true that in this era of information, when each of us, in any given context, is continually overwhelmed with notifications and new data, giving any attention to anyone is a real challenge.
We recognize that our colleagues are all steadily bombarded with information, and we seek to make our ideas attention-worthy (…) As a scientist, I feel like I am perpetually running around, sword in hand, defending some scientific result or another. It's become part of my personality that everyone around me has come to expect.
And that brings us to a new topic, one that I find marvellous and mystical: how to brand ourselves through archetypes.
Which is the very subject of the next chapter. Stay tuned :)
Category: science communication
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