*Be certain to read the footnote at the end of this post once complete
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
These are, of course, the words of Juliet from William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, yet another literary classic for which I waited on the film.
But I digress.
Shakespeare’s words were meant to be a profound inference, which I imagine is why they have stood the test of time. It suggests that names themselves do not hold value. Rather, they simply act as labels to distinguish one thing or person from another.
Me doth thinks, however, Shakespeare may have consumed a bit too much mead when considering this notion. Words matter. They can be powerful, have meaning. Words are important, they can hurt. Words can make us smile and bring us to tears.
Let’s take the word progressive, for example. It brings to mind a few notions:
- The thousands upon thousands of companies bending over backwards to be thought of as progressive. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve led or participated in brand and communications messaging sessions where the client — as well as those of us writing the messages — wanted to use progressive as a descriptor as many times as we could possibly squeeze it in. It’s nauseating to a degree, but also kind of the gold seal of third-party corporate descriptions.
- Progressive Insurance is one of the most recognizable and engaging consumer brands in the U.S. While 25 years ago it was thought of as low-rent or cut-rate insurance, today it is a reputable and trusted brand, largely due to the culture it has built around its brand through advertising. When we think of Progressive Insurance, we think about affordable insurance products, humorous marketing and the “Flo” character.
- Those of us with mustaches or students of American history might remember the Progressive Party (or Bull Moose Party). It was a third political party formed in 1912 by former president Theodore Roosevelt after he lost the Republican presidential nomination to the last president of these United States bold enough to wear facial forestry — William Howard Taft. The new party was known for taking advanced positions on progressive and populist reforms.
But here’s the one that most fascinates me, and admittedly, the impetus for writing this piece: Progressivism is a political philosophy supporting social reform. Today, progressive politics are considered a movement representing the interests of ordinary people through political change and the support of government actions. And in carrying the banner for progressive politics, Democrats assumed ownership of the word, although ironically, when the Progressive Party folded, most of its members joined the Republican Party.
Thus today, for the most part, if you exist in the political sphere (with some exceptions) you are lumped into one of two buckets: progressive or conservative. And how would you rather be known (based on popularly accepted definitions)?
- Averse to change or innovation (Conservative defined).
- Favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform (Progressive defined).
As our world becomes more politicized and fractured, this creates challenges for marketers, copy writers and reputation managers wishing to infuse the progressive moniker on the brands and organizations we seek to position positively.
“Wait, if we say we are ‘progressive,’ will we get associated with AOC and the Green New Deal and turn off conservative consumers?”
These are very real considerations and conversations that are occurring in C-suites, corporate marketing departments and agencies. In fact, according to a study by Edelman, 64 percent of global consumers will buy or boycott a brand solely due to its position on a social or political issue. Therefore brands must always think about protecting themselves from the looming threat of cancel culture: Nike yanked its planned Fourth of July “Betsy Ross” sneaker from sale after criticism that it was offensive for using the revolutionary version of the U.S. flag, and consumers launched a boycott of SoulCycle for supporting President Trump in 2019.
Words and how they are used will continue to change.
The word “fag” was originally defined as an English public-school boy who acts as servant to an older schoolmate. Today, however, it’s an extremely hurtful slang for gay men. And as debates rage on about what constitutes facts in our politically polarized culture, the frequency of the meaning of words being altered may very well only increase.
So what’s in a name? Quite a bit, or so it would seem.
Now get me some of that mead!