Naming a Movement
Before leaving for our lunchtime walk, I read another IPCC report that the planet is heating faster than expected, and the results are more devastating. Thinking about that and waiting for the light to turn, my dog looked up at me with this smiling pant as if to say, “this is awesome, right?” But I didn’t feel awesome. It was April, there was a global crisis, and I was in a down coat shivering through a hailing snow mix. I laughed a contradictory laugh and acknowledged that irrational thought most of us have had: “I am not so sure about this global warming thing.”
That troubled me a bit and got me thinking. What are the implications of how we describe phenomena like a warming planet? As naming and branding experts, we have tools to analyze words and phrases. Could those tools help us create better descriptors for environmental or social issues? If I were creating this descriptor, I would define points of criteria to decide if one is better than others. For example, the phrase should be descriptive and accurate. The phrase should inspire action. It should be memorable.
Then, I started working.
This is the phrase that started this and the one that troubled me the most. It asserts two facts right away. Warming indicates a change, and that change is happening to the whole planet. Naming requires you to think about what a word means and the shades of meaning associated. Warming describes affection: “I think he is warming to me.” When athletes prepare for peak performance, they are “warming up.” We use it to describe the weather: “Spring is here; it is finally warming up.” While warming indicates a change, it is nearly exclusively a favorable change. So, back to the criteria. It is descriptive, but it ultimately fails because it doesn’t inspire action. It sounds too nice, too warm and cozy.
I heard this phrase next. It was used to talk directly to the person in April, shivering through the snow hail. It implies that things aren’t just warming but are somehow going haywire. While true, warming weather trends might lead to colder winters, droughts, excess rain, stronger storms, etc., weirding still falls a bit short. Weird describes all kinds of sort of phenomena. And, the weather isn’t the primary one. So, where warming hints at temperature, weirding could describe anything from migrations to crime waves. It doesn’t inspire action because it is confusing.
Inadvertent climate modification
Let’s take a step back before moving to more recent phrases. A scholarly article in the mid-70s observed weather trends that predicted global warming. This scientist called it inadvertent climate modification. It is accurate, without hyperbole, and forgettable. It is the Genentech of the list. But, it doesn’t inspire action because it is so long and boring.
Thankfully, someone else drew this same conclusion. They tidied up the phrase by recognizing that motive didn’t really matter; inadvertent could be dropped without consequence. And, that there is a simpler word than modification: change. The phrase isn’t explicit about the global context, but it is implicit. Most people understand the weather in one place is connected to the weather in the rest of the world. Climate encapsulates temperature, precipitation, wind, and more. The hiccup comes with change. The nuance is neutral. Change is often great. On the surface, there is no way to tell if the climate is changing for the better or worse. This doesn’t inspire action because of ambiguity.
Now we are getting somewhere. There is a hint of the global context. We are talking about weather more broadly than temperature. And, there is no doubt of the meaning. Crisis universally shades negatively. There are some linguistic tricks to note also. The repeated hard -c and long -i sounds gives the phrase a poetic quality that improves memorability and makes it easier to say. The hard -c’s have a solid edge that isn’t present in words like warming or change. And, as reports increasingly emerge, it is hard to dismiss the phrase as alarmist or hyperbolic. The phrase is informative, it inspires action, and it is memorable. Pass.
If these five names were in a line-up, climate crisis would win every time. I wonder how things might be different if this phrase had been used since the mid-70s. What if we had 45 years of climate crisis versus inadvertent climate modification? Who knows. I do know that branding tools can improve communication. And, we have some complicated communicating to do if we want to moderate the impacts of this crisis. Next, I will look at how a branding agency like Bullhorn can be part of the solution, not the problem.