Communication is a two-way street. What’s sent isn’t always what’s received.
So when you find out that what you’re sending is being horribly misinterpreted–to the point of angering people and potentially damaging your business–you’d change what you’re communicating, right?
I would, but then I’m not an artsy hipster like these guys in Baltimore. They created a brand of eyewear based on an ancient design that helped the Inuits prevent snow blindness. They’re basically big glasses with slits that you look through.
Let’s recap the dominant ideas here: eyes, Inuit, slits. These simple concepts are about the most you can expect people to grasp in the nanosecond that you have to make a marketing point.
So what did they name the product?
If you detected a whiff of racial slur, you’re not alone. The product introduction was met with a mixture of outrage (“mind-blowingly offensive”), befuddlement (“i do not get it, not at all”), derision (“fucking retarded“) and praise (“freaking cool”) One reviewer even commended the company for trying to make it cool to have slanted eyes, helpfully adding, “at least they didn’t call these things Chinkies.”
Did the makers of Slanties intend the name to be racially charged? Not from what they’re saying publicly:
The term slanties can be interpreted and perceived in many ways. In this context, Slanties are meant to directly imply having conceptually slanted vision, meaning a subjective, biased or narrower viewpoint, “to see with a slant”. The slant is caused, not by any physical characteristics (as one can see, since the slits are not slanted), but from eyewear being specifically built to limit your ability to see, allowing Slanties to antagonize your viewpoint. Such a vision can be understood as representing both a unique perspective or a flaw. The wearer decides, is it enlightenment or is it a flaw?
They go on to apologize to anyone who was offended.
But that apology rings hollow when you read elsewhere that, apparently caught off guard by the controversy, they temporarily regrouped but decided to forge ahead with the Slanties name.
There are a number of lessons to be learned here.
1. Always disaster-check your proposed brand name. When it comes to seeing the weaknesses in their own creation, many entrepreneurs have blinders on. But outside feedback is critical, and any feedback is better than none. An unscientific poll (what we ad agency creatives used to call the “secretary test”) gleans opinions that are mostly useless, except when you’re about to have a branding accident. If you try the name out on your family and friends and hear consistent concerns about racial connotations, stop. Put your product launch on hold, and either rename the product or hire a researcher to tell you what you know is true but don’t want to hear. Then rename the product.
2. Esoteric explanations do not travel well in a name. You may intend for “Slanties” to signify “antagonizing your viewpoint” (whatever that means), but brand names don’t come with an attached brochure. People will read or hear the name and form an instant impression based on their own experiences and filters–they’re the receiving end of the afore-mentioned two-way street. You can’t change what’s already in someone’s mind. You can only craft your message so that it connects with the appropriate ideas. As we’ve seen, when the context is eyewear, “Slanties” connects with ideas that already exist but are far from what the name is purportedly trying to convey.
3. If your brand name has negative connotations, it must also have positive connotations. As I’ve blogged about before here and here, there’s nothing wrong with negative connotations in a name as long as there are also positive connotations conveying the brand promise. “Slanties” has no such balance. At best, “slant” is a neutral concept lacking any strongly attractive qualities to offset the word’s potent negative connotations within an optical context.
4. If your brand name has negative connotations, they can’t be racially based. Just don’t go there. No amount of buzz will compensate for the damage to your brand (not to mention your karma). Yes, your brand will be talked about, but it will mostly end up as a punch line.
It’s disappointing that the makers of Slanties decided to dismiss all the negative customer feedback. And ultimately, it’s unfair to the product, because now this outrageous fashion statement is forever saddled with stigma. For many customers, it will be the name that puts them off buying a pair. They wouldn’t want people to think they’re racist, after all.
As for the makers of Slanties, my hat’s off to them for creating such a remarkable, brave product. I just hope they’re always wearing equally impressive flame-retardant underwear.