It started when right-wing pundits decided to attack the 2009 health-care reform effort with a pejorative: "Obamacare." This term became shorthand for all the potential drawbacks of the wide-sweeping reform legislation -- reminding people that a not-so-popular president was behind it.
But recently something shifted. Taking a lesson from other attacked groups, such as the gay activists who embrace the formerly negative label "queer," the left wing has now taken the once-negative term "Obamacare" and made it its own. I heard a left-wing pundit on the radio use the term, which surprised me. Yet I shouldn't have been surprised: It's a common strategy to embrace negativity to take away its power.
So what's in a name? Is it a good strategy to appropriate the name Obamacare? Or is using the Obamacare label a decision that will continue to carry negative connotations? No matter what your opinion about health-care reform, taking away the sting of name-calling by referring to yourself with the same name can be effective.
Naming something is so hard precisely because our opinion of whether a name is good changes with time, typically from dislike to like. At first, names are empty vessels that we fill with meaning. And we usually hate them, because they don't mean anything to us. Even the names we think are great ones, such as Google or Kodak, were at their start just sounds, devoid of all the associations we now bring to them. When Shakespeare said a rose would smell as sweet if it were called something else, he was talking about branding. He was talking about how actions and communications fill a name with meaning, not the other way around. The infusion process takes time, which is why the left owning the term Obamacare is like voting in Chicago: It's best done early and often.
Another example of someone in politics taking a negative and turning it into a positive is President Bush, with his new book. Derided as "the decider," Bush has titled his new book Decision Points. A classically trained marketer might suggest a name that doesn't remind people of the negative label. A social-brand marketer might see instead the need to base the book's title upon what people are already thinking, thereby providing additional meaning and becoming part of the process that determines value. A book title that refutes the Decider pejorative will generate more buzz than one with a lofty and abstract title.
This is a good example of how brands have evolved from a unidirectional process -- a corporation broadcasting to the masses -- into social brands, where the consumer shares in the ownership of the brand's meaning. President Obama didn't put the health-care legislation out there as Obamacare, but now that the community knows that moniker, he is wise to own it and share in its future definition. Similarly, President Bush couldn't take back his "I am the decider" comment, but he can make it his own and provide a more positive spin and context.
The shift in claiming labels points to the sea change that is happening in marketing: Things are moving from marketing to conversation, from telling to listening, from image to authenticity. It will require new ways of thinking for businesses and -- sometimes -- embracing the negative so you can add your voice to the positive. Are you ready?