The legend of Boaty McBoatface: Lessons in brand management from a colossal failure

Boaty McBoatface could have been a billion-dollar brand that re-invigorated science education, but now its epic failure is a lesson for the rest of us.

Henry Timms: So there’s this scientific agency in Britain called the Natural Environment Research Council. They’re a big government body and they’ve got a new ship coming. They’ve got a $300 million new arctic explorer vessel and they’re very excited about it, and they recognize that we’re living in this world of crowds where everyone wants to participate and we’re all finding a way to express ourselves, and they have this idea. They say, "Let’s launch a campaign called #NameOurShip."

Now, this campaign is off to a slightly worrying start because they launch it with a press release, and the press release says, '#NameOurShip. Maybe you, the public, would like to name it something like Shackleton, or Endeavor, or Adventurer.'

Now, these aren’t the kinds of names the public come up with. Within a day someone has tweeted in, “We should call this ship Boaty McBoatface.” And Boaty McBoatface is immediately and virally popular.

I should say that in tenth place—Boaty McBoatface was first, but in tenth place, and I thought this was somewhat neglected, was: 'I Like Big Boats and I Cannot Lie'.

But in any case, Boaty McBoatface does terrifically well. It goes viral. Everyone is talking about it. It’s on all the front pages of the newspapers. There are literally hundreds of millions of Twitter impressions about this. They’re in the pubs, they’re at dinner tables, the whole nation and, in fact, the whole world—it crosses the ocean, it’s covered by The New York Times and CNN—the whole world gets excited and obsessed with Boaty McBoatface.

But there’s a problem. The science minister takes a very dim view of this. 'This is a very big investment of government money. This is not a serious name for a boat. This must be put down immediately and things must be put back in their place.'

And this government agency is in a really tough spot. So, on one hand, they’ve got the public who is incredibly excited about the idea of Boaty McBoatface, on the other hand, the science minister is saying this is not taking science seriously. And they end up, really, in a moment which tells us something about our age, which is what they were trying to do. They were trying to work out, 'Okay, there’s a crowd out there, we want to harness their energy.' They want to do that in a powerful way. They were trying to do that, but they had none of the skills you might need to think about harnessing the crowds.

In the end what they do is they call it ‘Sir David Attenborough’ who is this very famous British scientist, which no one could really complain about too much. And they named one of the small submarines on top of this boat ‘Boaty McBoatface’. So they literally sunk Boaty at sea.

So here’s the question: What could they have done differently? You think about this moment. You think about this huge surge of enthusiasm around science and just imagine if instead of putting Boaty out to the side, instead they leaned into it and they’d said: 'Let’s embrace this. Let’s think about how we could engage a generation of kids in maritime science. Let’s think about how we could merchandise this. Let’s think about all the different moments that Boaty could dock around the nation and you could imagine whole groups of people coming out to learn more about Arctic exploration.'

And they did none of those things. And what that teaches us is, firstly, never ever ask the crowd to name anything. It will always, always go wrong.

But it tells us something else too, which is: there’s a set of very clear skills in how you go about harnessing the crowd. And you look around the world right now and any corporation, any nonprofit, any leader who wants to come out on top needs to think a lot more carefully about how they negotiate with the crowd.

And we see four things that really help organizations and leaders get this kind of thing right. The first is strategy. Do you really need the crowd? This research council didn’t really need any help naming the boat. They already knew what they wanted to call it. So it wasn’t strategic in a very real way.

Number two: Do you have legitimacy with the crowd? There was a famous moment where J.P. Morgan tried a version of this and they did a hashtag campaign called #AskJPM. Now, this was shortly after the financial challenges and crisis and, of course, instead of people tweeting in questions like, “How do I become a banker?”, people tweeted in things like, “How dare you?” and “How do you sleep at night?” So it’s a question around legitimacy. Do you have legitimacy with the crowd if you’re entering this world?

Number three is control. Are you prepared to give up some control to others? What was really interesting about Boaty McBoatface is they weren’t prepared to give up control. As soon as the crowd took this somewhere they didn’t want to go, they shot the experiment down.

If you’re engaging with the crowd you have to honor that crowd, and you have to be able to say, “If you come up with something we don’t expect we will embrace the outcome that you’ve encouraged.”

And then finally, commitment. The fourth thing, which is really important if you want to get this kind of thing right, is are you committed to this in the long term? What we see time and again now is leaders who once a year will “engage with the crowd” and they’ll do some kind of Facebook Live event and they’ll say, “Let’s be open to new ideas.” And then they’ll disappear to their corner office for the rest of the year.

And one of the key things in engaging with the crowd—and you can learn this from anyone, particularly activists who have mobilized—is this is a muscle you have to strengthen day after day after day.

So as we think about how we engage with the world we need to avoid Boaty McBoatface moments, and by doing that find ways of really getting the crowd and getting the value out of the crowd that we can benefit from.

An organization who really got these dynamics right was Lego. So Lego was—I guess about 15 years ago, everything was not very awesome with Lego. They were almost bankrupt. They had spent all this money on theme parks and wristwatches, things were going very badly for the company and they were close to collapsing.

And they recognized—this was just when the Internet was beginning—they recognized there was a group of people out there who had enormous value to offer who they hadn’t previously engaged with, and they were called the AFOLs, the Adult Fans of Lego. And these were people, largely men, who had been building Lego past their childhood, into their adult lives, often in secret, and they all began to realize there were others of them like that around the world. And so as the Internet rose so did this group of AFOLs around the world. And what Lego realized was that these people brought huge value to their brand. So not only were they outspending kids 20 to 1, but they were doing things like creating new sets Lego had never dreamed of or creating whole fan events that Lego had never dreamed of.

And what Lego then did over a decade, which was so smart, is they structured for participation. They built their whole brand around finding ways to invite their crowd to engage with them in meaningful ways. And I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One thing they did even with the recent Lego movie, many of the lines and ideas in the movie were sourced from their fan base. And they did something else too: they opened up their innovation to their fan base. So you now can submit your own ideas for what the next Lego set should be. There was one female scientist who was an AFOL and she had never shown anyone her Lego creations apart from her husband, but she thought that women scientists were very badly underrepresented in Lego so she put together this very cool kit of female scientists and put that forward. Over 10,000 people voted for it. It was hugely successful. It did a great job of doing some great PR for Lego, and that set is now in places all around the world.

And so what Lego teaches is perhaps the key skill of our age, which is: we need to start recognizing that offering agency to our broader community is what’s making the difference between success and failure.

So I think the answer is to think a lot less about hashtags and a lot more around invitations. Because ultimately participation—there are lots of hashtags which don’t work at all, obviously, because what they don’t do is offer people a real genuine chance to participate. 

So as you think about the work of building for new power, one of the things to think about is: What am I doing here which will be beneficial to the people I want to engage with? Not, 'What can they do for me?' but 'What can I do for them?'

One of the people we talked to inside Lego—which is a company that's done this very, very well over the years—she always asks herself, the first question she asks herself and encourages her colleagues to ask themselves, is: What am I bringing to the party? What is it that I’m creating that will make my crowd more valuable? Not 'What is it they can do for us?'

I think that power dynamic is actually very important in this work. So, if you’re looking to spread your ideas or start a movement, the first place to begin that isn’t “Here’s my idea, how can more people get behind it?” but “How can I get behind more people?” That’s the right frame.

In March 2016, the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) decided to crowdsource the name of its new $300 million arctic explorer vessel. It hoped the public would suggest something like 'Shackleton' or 'Endeavor', but the moment someone suggested the name 'Boaty McBoatface', it went viral and shot to the top of the poll. The NERC had the right idea in harnessing the power of crowds, explains Henry Timms, executive director of the 92nd Street Y in New York, but it lacked the skills needed to pull it off. Instead of turning Boaty McBoatface into an opportunity to revive science education and merchandise Boaty, it shut the idea down, canceled the competition and named the ship 'Sir David Attenborough'. "There’s a set of very clear skills in how you go about harnessing the crowd. And you look around the world right now, any corporation, any nonprofit, any leader who wants to come out on top needs to think a lot more carefully about how they negotiate with the crowd," says Timms. Here, he shares the four key components of successful crowdsourcing and brand building, and explains how Lego used those methods to pull itself out of near-bankruptcy and up to new heights. Henry Timms is the co-author of New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World-and How to Make It Work for You

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Michio Kaku: Genetic and digital immortality are within reach

Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.

  • Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
  • We age because errors build up in our cells — mitochondria to be exact.
  • With CRISPR technology we may soon be able to edit out errors that build up as we age, and extend the human lifespan.
Keep reading Show less