What’s in a (Campaign) Name?

True confession: I never liked the name Ronald. It came with no cool factor, no sizzle, no wow. The only other Ronalds I knew of growing up were McDonald (imagine the ribbing), Colman (well before my time) and Reagan (no badge of honor growing up in the Boston area). Oh to be the enduring Michael, William or Benjamin or today’s equivalent of a Jackson, Noah or Oliver. I went by Ron, but the damage was done.

I think of that often when I consult with clients on the subject of campaign names. In fact, I’m obsessed with this. As a kid I collected baseball cards. As an adult I collect campaign names. I’m at 200-plus, and counting. I don’t jot them down on card stock and pin them to my bicycle spokes, though some are worthy of such treatment. But I do sort them and play with them in all kinds of ways. A few examples:

  • One-word names — Momentum (Miami), Soar (UNC Wilmington), Aspire (Princeton)
  • Three-word names — Connect. Transform. Lead. (NYU), Dream. Dare. Deliver. (Boston Children’s Hospital), Protect. Connect. Inspire. (National Parks)
  • Alliterative names — Boldly Brown, Boldly Buffalo, Boldly Baldwin (Baldwin School) (There’s also Boldly Notre Dame, lack of alliteration notwithstanding.)
  • Forward-looking names — Shape the Future (Vanderbilt), Invent the Future (Virginia Tech), Embracing the Future (Tulsa), Brilliant Futures (Iowa)
  • Ain’t-no-stopping-us-now names — Wake Will (Wake Forest), We Will (Northwestern), Women Who Will (Wellesley)

I could go on. And on. Most of what I’ve collected is not memorable or even interesting. There are no 1909 Honus Wagners or 1952 Mickey Mantles in the batch. Not even among the elite institutions with $1 billion-plus campaigns. One obvious takeaway:

It’s incredibly hard to dazzle people with a few words and capture the essence of an institution and its mission.

No one imagined that Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan would become as big as it is today. Few remember that those words were inspired by the moribund use of “Let’s do it” — the phrase spoken by the murderer Gary Gilmore before his execution. The ad agency that pitched Just Do It embraced the words “do it” as the ultimate statement of intention. How did the Nike team react? Nearly everyone hated the idea. Co-founder Phil Knight reportedly said, “We don’t need that s—.”

So, what to make of this when considering a name for your campaign? Some thoughts:

  1. Be authentic to the institution. My favorite themes are those that couldn’t be used by other institutions. The University of Rochester’s recent campaign stands apart. The university’s motto is “Meliora,” which translates to “ever better.” It’s a word that resonates with students, faculty and alumni. As leaders were planning for the campaign, the provost, as part of a separate initiative, rewrote Rochester’s mission statement. He received praise for its brevity: “Learn. Discover. Heal. Create. And make the world ever better.” Ultimately, the new mission statement inspired the campaign theme. Ever Better: The Meliora Challenge. Another winner: MD Anderson’s Making Cancer History campaign. MD Anderson does not own the cancer care and research space, but it’s clearly a powerhouse and this theme was spot-on.
  2. Think about the future. Donors don’t give to sustain what is; they give to move an institution forward, to advance a cause, to create a new and bold future. I loved the theme from the last Yale campaign: Yale Tomorrow. I loved it a bit less when I learned of the theme for the last University of Florida campaign: Florida Tomorrow. We can argue about who was first in line, but, alas, the constituencies are quite different. And the names were well received at both places.
  3. Use design to communicate. Words alone can come across as hollow or ordinary, unless you have a Shakespeare, Dickens or Dickinson on your team. Campaign names take on a totally different feel when the element of design is introduced. The combination of words and design can elicit emotion in ways that words alone often cannot. I always say that the best design is not about decorating, it’s about communicating. When presenting a short list of campaign names, pair them with a design element to show how the words can play out.
  4. Don’t overthink it. Many of the most successful campaigns in recent years played it straight with their names, falling back on the power of brand. To wit: The Stanford Challenge, Campaign Emory, the Smithsonian Campaign and The Harvard Campaign. The Crimson may not have earned a Grand Gold CASE award for their efforts, but they did raise $9.6 billion against a goal of $6.5 billion. The point: Naming a campaign can and should be fun and invigorating, but in the end it’s not the name that counts. It’s the institution and its vision for the future. Tell that story!

So, what’s in a name? Not as much as we sometimes believe. I’d like to think I’ve had a modicum of success in my life not because of but perhaps in spite of “Ronald.”