Kick the bucket

Those who know me, know I hate 'buckets'.

The way the word 'bucket' is bandied about in business meetings drives me nuts. After a brainstorming session, do we really have to put the ideas into 'buckets'? Couldn't we just, you know, 'group' them? Buckets are for chum, not ideas. I wonder if people in certain parts of America organize their ideas into 'pails' instead.

But beyond my word choice peeve, there is another, bigger issue with buckets. And it's not the word I'm referring to, but the very act of categorizing ideas.

When you label a group of things, you change how people perceive them.

This came to life last week during a corporate naming presentation I gave. The meeting objective was for my client to select at least six names to undergo full trademark screening. The 30 candidate names I presented were organized in four categories, each reflecting a direction in the client-approved creative brief.

Going into this, I knew there was some risk categorizing the names. That's because really good name candidates, being multidimensional, will fit well in multiple categories, not just one. But to avoid fatigue, each name is shown just once (plus a summary of all candidates at the end).

In some cases, the category assigned to a name was a toss-up, or an attempt to balance the number of names in each category. I advised my client to see the names as more multifaceted than their singular categorization would suggest; to see the names as a customer would in the real world, without the construct of these behind-the-scenes groupings.

The names presented, we discussed their relative merits and shortcomings. The client rejected the names belonging to two of the four categories. I reasoned that a few of those discarded candidates were actually similar to the keepers from the other categories, therefore, shouldn't they also be finalists? But they were dropped along with others in their category.

As a seasoned namer, I am accustomed to seeing names fall by the wayside. In fact, names have to be rejected. A company is just not going to adopt more than one name for itself.

But the rejection of similar names that happened to be labeled differently was frustrating. It confounded my sense of logic.

At the same time, the experience was instructive.

Evidently, the labels ascribed had undermined and overshadowed the names themselves. They cordoned off meaning. The signifier eclipsed the signified.

Had I not categorized the names, or if had I better-worded the category labels, I think some of the rejects might have been accepted. Then again, it's also possible some of the finalists would have been left behind, had they not had the good fortune be grouped under a well-liked category label.

Although a few too many babies got thrown out with the bathwater, the client and I both agreed the meeting was a resounding success. There were plenty of names brought forward for full legal screening.

That evening while relaxing at home, I cracked open my new book, Psycholinguistic Phenomena in Marketing Communications. For an analytically-minded word wallower like me, this collection of academic studies is pure heaven.

As luck would have it, the first article was Linguistic Framing of Sensory Experience: There Is Some Accounting for Taste. The authors, JoAndrea Hoegg and Joseph Alba, researched whether labels on cups of orange juice would alter people's taste perception.

Labels matter, they found. (Huh. Imagine that.)

In the study, participants reported that two cups of juice labeled the same also tasted the same, even though one was secretly sweetened. A corollary result was that cups of identical juice which were labeled differently also differed in perceived taste.

In essence, the study's participants were no different from my clients (nor, I suppose, the rest of us).

My experience last week and the results of this research make the conclusion clear:

Labels increase perceived differences across categories and diminish differences within categories.

People see things in the same group as similar, even if they are not. And things in different categories are seen as more different than they actually are.

Upon reflection, this truth should come as no surprise. Brand architecture and nomenclature decisions are based on it; positioning, too.

So if you're going to group things, group wisely.

Please, just don't 'bucket' them.