Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Thoughts on Branding

Branding.  No, not what cowboys do to cattle.  

No Cattle were harmed in
this blog post. 

The other Branding that super cool cad Don Draper (aka Dick Whitman) does for a living.  Almost everyone who publishes in skepdom has developed a brand of some sort that consumers of skepticism attach to a person, entity, or group.  Some spend more time and effort honing their brand than others. 

A strong enough brand can also assist in helping a group or entity through a difficult time, and give cover to individuals within the group.  John Lennon noted in the 1970’s that during the 1965-ish period of Beatlemania he was going through a “fat Elvis” period. However, nobody recognized John's down period because the Beatles were larger than any individual problems even though the song HELP! is a cry for actual assistance.  I suspect in part that one reason Derek Colanduno has been able to carry on with podcasting during the well known ups and downs of his show and format changes over the history of his show is that “Skepticality” is a potent brand.  If Derek had tried the current format without the Skepticality name, I suspect the show would be less popular.  The brand I would argue helped to carry things forward.  

For my money, the master of branding a skeptical podcast  is “Skeptoid's” own Brian Dunning at “”  (You can hear him saying that phrase in your head, right?) If you are a skeptic and you don’t know about Skeptoid and its URL, then you need some help.  Quickly moving up in branding is Sharon Hill, cornering the market on “Doubt.”  She has iDoubtit as her twitter handle, and “Doubtful News” and “Doubtful” websites as well as “Doubtful Views” on the new Skeptical Connections podcast.  It’s actually rather brilliant much like Apple has cornered the market on “iWhatever-awesome-product” as soon as a skeptic hears “Doubt” one thinks Sharon Hill, a trusted name in skeptical circles. 

Branding can just occur.  I am sure when the Skeptics Guide to the Universe began they did not expect “SGU” and “Rogue” to be synonymous with the show.  Now even my dog probably knows that SGU is a podcast of some note.  Within the show, Dr. Steven Novella is a brand in himself known for his calm, cool, level-headed nerdy reasoning able to take on the likes of Dr. Oz on Oz’s own tv show.  Rebecca Watson is a brand unto herself within the SGU and Skepchick.  I would venture that Watson’s own brand is larger than the Skepchick organization.  

Then there is some branding that I suspect could hurt the delivery of the underlying content.  One is “Dumbass” aka “Parrot” of the Dumbass Media Empire of podcasts.  While I get the joke that Parrot does not take himself too seriously and “Dumbass” is part of the joke, I do think it is too self-deprecating or too negative a term to get in the way of some excellent material Dumbass delivers.   

When School News Papers
were made of actual paper
To some extent while the term Skeptic is something that those who subscribe to scientific skeptical worldview should fight to own from truthers, climate change crank, and the like, it has its drawbacks.  This very Skeptical Review, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Skepticality, Skeptic Zone, etc. comes with the baggage of the misconceptions of the word, skeptic.  People are going to color their view of a product even before listening to it for good or bad due to the “skep.”  Anecdotally, when I was in undergrad a friend and I co-wrote a weekly political column in the school paper.  We struggled with giving it a name that did not project a view point before the material was read.  Other columns in the paper had names “Debunking America,” “Conservative Corner,” and I believe “the Left Bank” had a short run.  We picked the name “Political Prism.”  Overall it did what we wanted, we could opine from any viewpoint and tick off both sides of the political spectrum on a weekly basis.  I think new skeptical endeavors would be wise to be skeptical and forthright but not plaster skeptic in their title or masthead.     

A small aside:
I do very little to promote my own Brand.  Sure, The Skeptical Review has morphed into plain old 'SkepReview,' but that just sort of happened.  I recently read a discussion online regarding annoying online pseudonyms, and it reminded me on why I picked Nigel St. Whitehall. (at least in part)  I didn't want to have a 'handle' like "Festersmess" or "THX1139."  I wanted something that looked like a real name, but was off just enough to be memorable.  I also wanted it to sound slightly nerdy since my own name, Howard, is pretty nerdy.  I thought at the time Nigel fit the bill.  I am not sure if I have fully succeeded, but I don't think I failed.

*edited for grammar error*


  1. I still think you're British.

  2. S. Hill can vouch for me being an 'merican! I just wish I was British.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Your comment about 'People are going to color their view of a product even before listening to it for good or bad due to the “skep.”' - there's also the alternative risk: that of having such a weird, random name for a product that it makes no real sense, is too vague, or related to other concepts for it to be a draw.

    If I went around saying my new skeptic podcast was called "Dinosaur Bones" and it really had nothing to do with palaeontology, or wasn't even perhaps a kid's show... why would I be interested in it? Also branding includes images and logo - close attention to making them relate or compliment the name.

    It always confuses me, considering that we have people in skepticism who work in marketing, art or even say they have previous experience in those fields... and yet don't consult or use such skills in order to improve the branding. Colours, design, clarity, polish and professional presentation - we notice it in the work of impressive pseudoscience or paranormal proponents and products... why not make it important to what we do as well?

  5. First, I agree that skeptical branding could use more polish. Many, although not all, skeptical website could use a redesign, especially for use on mobile devices. That is just my bugaboo.

    I think your concern is quite valid and I could be all wet. If someone wants to have start an overt ‘skeptical’ site then that is fine. It is not the end of the world because one gains instant recognition with the skeptical audience. However, I suspect if one is interested in outreach to expose new people to skepticism then instead of producing a skeptical website do a website on whatever interest one, or an organization, but just do it skeptically. I suppose I could be advocating stealth skepticism (they must be a better term.)

    Also, I think if the branding is done correctly, and a site or podcast keeps a tight grip on its editorial voice, a website could have a non-name skep name and still become widely known. An example I am thinking of is an Apple/tech blog “Daring Fireball.” It is probably the most (or close to it) popular Apple blogs on the web in league with or above other sites “9 to 5 Mac” or “Apple Insider, ” etc. While the majority of the blog is Apple related the name gives the author flexibility to cover other material from time to time whether tech with MS or Android, or cultural like the running commentary on James Bond, Baseball, or Paul Krugman. To an extent Pharyngula accomplishes this same feat too.

    I am not advocating that all websites and blogs with the letters S-K-E-P in a row should rebrand and rename right away. I think all of who use “Skep” in our titles do serve a useful purpose. However, I also think new sites or projects should think twice about automatically putting “skep” in their title or branding.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.