What does Boaty McBoatface teach brands? | DMA

Filter By

Show All

Connect to


What does Boaty McBoatface teach brands?


The naming of a boat has thrown open the role of public participation in ostensibly private concerns. So what can brands learn? Sally Rushton, head of social at Jaywing and DMA Social Media Council member, takes on the case of Boaty McBoatface.

The power of the public vote

I think it is safe to assume that the Natural Environmental Research Council didn’t foresee the global attention they would receive when they decided to run a public vote to determine the name of their new research ship.

But when Communications Manager James Hand suggested the name RRS Boaty McBoatface something interesting happened. The British public got behind the suggestion with some force and it fast became a trending topic on Twitter and the most popular choice – by public vote, at least, with 124,109 votes.

Global news coverage quickly ensued with James heralded as a bit of a hero (by me, at least). And in the main, people joined me – save a few commentators like Admiral Lord West the former head of the Navy, on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 who said the idea was "the typical thing of Brits going mad, normally silly season, not at this time of year".

Brands quickly saw it as a great opportunity to capitalize on an emerging meme with South West Trains temporarily dubbing their service ‘Trainy McTrainface’ and even Royal Carribean issuing an invitation for James to help name their new ship (not an April Fools’ apparently).

But what are the implications for the brand and NERC as an organisation? If they choose to ignore the public vote they undoubtedly run the risk of negative feedback online (actually it’s already started). Conversely is naming a £200m state of the art research ship Boaty McBoatface disrespectful to the likes of Henry Worsley (the 3rd most popular choice) who died trying to make the first unassisted solo crossing of the Antarctic?

This weekend NERC closed the public vote to deliberate on their final choice to be announced very soon. As we await the news, here are some key things to consider before you decide to run a public vote through social media, for your brand and business:

  • Understand that you may not get the answers you’re looking for. Be prepared for anything to happen! From behind a keyboard people will happily make seemingly bonkers decisions and revel in the opportunity to make you sweat – particularly for a bit of recognition online as the first to share etc.
  • Be quick to respond to suggestions – with a degree of humanity… and ideally a sense of humour. You need a plan to manage any outcome. If Boaty doesn’t get chosen, they need to do something special to honour the support they’ve received.
  • Acknowledge the online community… involve them in the output as much as possible. At a basic level, keep them informed of the process at every stage.
  • Understand your online audience – and accept that it may not be just your ‘target’ audience or followers who will engage in the decision.
  • Raising awareness is great – but with the right audience? What long-term damage or implications could your vote have on your key stakeholders? Consider your broader objectives and if a public vote of this nature will really help to meet them.
  • Build the basics – if you’re lucky enough for your public vote to gain momentum Boaty style make sure you site can support the traffic. NERC’s couldn’t, as it wasn’t initially built for mobile! (Although this was corrected after the initial deluge of entries).

So has the global coverage been helpful? It’s certainly got NERC noticed – I know who they are and arguably it has increased my knowledge, in some part, of what they do. Win, win so far. Let’s see what happens when the final decision drops.

Hear more from the DMA