I have a favorite research vessel. Launched yesterday, this 423 foot long, 79 foot wide, icebreaking hulled ship is not your average craft. It is designed and built by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) for the British Antarctic Survey group intended to spend it’s life doing polar research. It’s a big boat. But none of these characteristics make it my favorite. It’s my favorite for it’s name.
Shortly after construction began on the vessel, the NERC asked the public for naming recommendations. The overwhelming favorite with 124,000 votes was “Boaty McBoatface.” Boaty McBoatface is a steep departure from your typical ship name. It’s different because it’s fun. With a fun name like Boaty McBoatface there are marketing opportunities, public relations opportunities, and an emotionally invested online community around this name. There are few easier ways to keep the public engaged with the important mission of polar research than naming this vessel Boaty McBoatface. And yet in the end, the popular name was not chosen by the NERC.
Instead, they decided on “RRS Sir David Attenborough”. A total letdown. This decision generated a ton of negative press. It was was so controversial in the UK that the House of Lords conducted a formal review of the naming process calling the directors before them to explain themselves. And yet yesterday the it was launched to sea as the RRS Sir David Attenborough.
Throughout this process, the public was energized, a community was formed, a boat was named, polar research was gaining additional momentum over a name, and with a blink of an eye, that momentum was spoiled. Momentum for a great cause was spoiled over the seriousness of the directors, momentum was spoiled over an agency afraid to take a risk, momentum was spoiled because those in charge did not realize that their mission has room for fun.
There are so many lessons here – don’t ask if you aren’t willing to hear the answer – the power of a name can itself bring momentum – bureaucrats keep acting like bureaucrats – among others.
But my lesson is simple: Dare to be different, it’s the only space that’s not crowded.