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The power of gender

Even hurricanes do not escape branding, says Mary Lewis. Every year a list of potential names – male or female – is prepared in advance of the season

Mary Lewis Lewis Moberly

As all marketers know, the power of a name is highly significant as it seeds all the communications of a brand – think of Mister Clean or Absolut vodka. Even if the name is a given as a founder’s family name, the name’s signifiers will have influence on the brand destiny - sometimes subconsciously, a phenomenon first acknowledged by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and called the power of the signifier.

Before 1950, hurricane naming was quite simple and straightforward. The name comprised the year when the hurricane happened followed by an alphabetical letter (e.g.1945A, 1945B…). It was then decided that hurricanes should be ‘baptized’ as it was established that names, either masculine or feminine, are better “processed” by humans in written or spoken communications - better understood and more differentiated, therefore generating less error.

Each year a list of potential names is prepared for next season’s hurricanes. The list proposes a name for each alphabetical letter avoiding the most tricky ones such as Q, U, X, Y, Z as few first names start with these letters. Past names associated with hurricanes that caused serious damage are withdrawn from the list to avoid any confusion between a new and an old hurricane.

Since 1970 weather centres made the decision to use alternately each year a masculine name and a feminine name to avoid being accused of sexism. This decision sounds reasonable but can have catastrophic consequences: Choosing ‘Eloise’ or ‘Edward’ may not be harmless – it can be deadly.

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which analysed the hurricanes that happened in the States between 1950 & 2012, feminine-named hurricanes caused almost three times more deaths than masculine-named hurricanes. Why? Because feminine-named hurricanes lead to lower perceived risk and consequently fewer precautionary actions being taken. ‘Christina’, ‘Alexandra’ or ‘Victoria’ sound less dangerous than ‘Christopher’, ‘Alexander’ or ‘Victor’.

In the whisky and bourbon category male names dominate mainly because many brands are named after their founders who were typically men - think Jack Daniels, Bell’s and Ballantine’s. Is it a surprise therefore that most whisky used to be drunk by men? Now, thanks to the emancipation of women in general, the trend for cocktails and the adoption of female brand ambassadors such as Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks by Johnnie Walker, whisky is also being embraced with increasing enthusiasm by women consumers.  

It is hard to think of many alcohol brands given female names but one exception is Marie Brizard who, with her nephew Jean-Baptiste Roger, founded the anisette and liqueurs company named after her in 1755. Even in 1807, when she died and left the company to the Rogers who stayed at the helm until 1998, the female brand name stayed in place. Interestingly, a move from the female shaped anisette bottle to a squarer, masculine one in 1984 was a disaster and the female named brand quickly reverted back to its tall slender shape.

More common are brands given family names with specific sub brands named after women of the family. Sadly it often took the men to die before the women could shine through. Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame honours the founder’s son’s widow. She took over at the tender age of 27 and turned the brand into a huge success. Within its portfolio Porto Ferreira has Dona Antonia Reserva. Twice widowed, Dona Antónia did not merely manage an inheritance. She took over the business at 33, strengthening and expanding it thanks to her entrepreneurial spirit and charisma. 

If we now consider new brand names within the alcohol category in the light of the hurricane research it raises two questions: should we take gender into consideration when naming a new brand and, if yes, to achieve what goal? Should we cast a virile masculine name (Captain Morgan), a delicate feminine one (Eve) or a gender neutral one like one of our creations (Monkey Shoulder)?

What the hurricanes tell us is that the causality law can work in unexpected ways! 

19 December 2014