When Brand Nicknames Are Bad PR

Coke. Mickey D’s. Tar-zhay. Brand nicknames are usually a marketer’s dream. Impossible to impose (just ask RadioShack), they have enormous power when they happen organically. And they’re nearly always a sign of familiarity, engagement, or even affection. That’s what General Motors learned – the hard way – after its ill-fated attempt to legislate use of the formal name for Chevrolet and ban “Chevy.”

But occasionally nicknames are painful. Case in point: Ground Zero. Yes, the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers were national brands – drawing business and tourist traffic to New York City since their inauspicious debut in the 1970s. But post-9/11, the site of the fallen towers was a bleak, devastating location and a political black eye for the city. It instantly became known as Ground Zero.

Now, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would like us to start referring to the newly opened downtown memorial by its proper name, The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.

That’s a mouthful, but I can understand Bloomberg’s concern. After a decade of embarrassing wrangling, the ugly scar on the downtown landscape has been replaced by a fitting memorial, and the construction of One World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower; now, that’s another rebranding story) has real momentum. “Ground Zero,’ with its evocation of the site in the early days after the attacks, is not a name that suggests dignified remembrance.

So, I’m going to do my best to use the proper name for the site, though it will probably end up as “the 9/11 Memorial.” “Ground Zero” might persist among hardcore New Yorkers, much as Avenue of the Americas is still called “6th Avenue” by us Manhattanites – 66 years after its name was officially changed. But that’s an insider thing.

I hope this nickname fades. I’m looking forward to visiting the 9/11 Memorial just as soon as I can get tickets, and to the opportunity to erase my memories of Ground Zero.

Ten Years On…A Look Back At 9/11

There’s an awful lot of “ten years later” coverage of 9/11 on our screens these days.  It’s a little unnerving to be reminded of the ten-year anniversary of anything at all, let alone that of something dreadful.  Ten

years married, ten years graduated, ten years old.

Ten years on.

Here’s what I learned from 9/11: people are capable of extreme behavior, in both good and bad ways. Since I’m the poster child for cockeyed optimism I mostly mean good.  In this case, a tremendous evil brought about a tremendous good.

It was a stunner of day; it was perfect.  Then, it happened, and we all stopped at the sheer shock of it all.  But, in the aftermath, we did what we had to do; we volunteered, we donated — blood and goods — we went out into the street and checked in with our neighbors. People did the same all over the country, and even the world.  You OK?  You need anything?

I was, at the time, the Air Force Auxiliary’s Deputy Group Commander for New York City.  There was no “official call” to report to what was now called Ground Zero – I just showed up, along with my colleagues, to see where we could help.  I worked at a donation collection point near the Javits Convention Center; I rode truckload after truckload of relief supplies down to Ground Zero and back.

I watched firemen and police officers cry and I cried with them.  I watched the hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who lined West Street day and night to stand there and applaud the trucks going down to the Pit, and back up north to get more supplies.  They stood there for hours; I kept thinking, wow, their arms must be killing them by now.  But still, they stood, and they clapped.

I am constantly astonished at what people are capable of. Even today, the one quality that I look for in colleagues is this inherent “capability.” It doesn’t matter if you’re an Account Coordinator or a Senior Vice President – this ability to cope, and to do what’s needed, is what cuts the mustard.  It’s important in PR, and in life.  And what I learned on 9/11 is that we’re all capable of tremendous good.  We bring it out in each other.

Wherever you spend this weekend, take a minute and make sure the guy next to you is OK.  I’m betting he/she will be doing the same thing.

In Defense Of The 9/11 Anniversary

It’s hard to forget what day it is, and not just because I’m writing this while waiting to board a plane. Occasionally I’ll glance up at a CNN monitor and catch video of President and Mrs. Obama observing the moments of silence earlier today, or glimpse the rain-drenched ceremony down at the World Trade Center site. The reminders are all around me, and rightly so.

So, I can’t quite understand the virulence of Jack Shafer’s disgust with what he calls “the 9/11 anniversary racket.” Shafer feels that the wave of features, columns, and commentary surrounding the day is “a media scam designed to exploit audiences by reviving memories — usually painful ones — to sell newspapers or boost ratings.” He indicts the press both for exploiting the occasion and for phoning it in, as well as us – the lazy, complacent public, who “crave the psychological stimulation that the familiar brings,” (a sentence that makes no sense to me.)

It’s true that many anniversary stories – particularly those around disasters, death, and tragedy – can be little more than sensationalized rehash jobs. But, I didn’t feel that way about today’s coverage.

First of all, it hasn’t been excessive. I’ve heard and seen more about this week’s healthcare speech and the distraction du jour, Congressman Joe Wilson’s heckling of the president, than I have of the 9/11 anniversary. Enough already.

The occasion is more than just a chance to open up the video vault and relive our trauma. It’s a legitimate opportunity to review the actions leading up to and resulting from the event, with the perspective of eight years’ time (Afghanistan, anyone?) Or, to check the progress (or disgraceful lack of it) on the WTC memorials, as the New York Times does in a restrained, but cogent editorial today.

We need reminders. Most of us lead harried lives, and our consciousness is increasingly divided. As writer Ryan Sager points out in a blog  post about Shafer’s rant, memory is reconstructive, not reproductive. We’re unlikely to recall something that happened an hour ago without a complex process of recalling and reconstitutionalizing it.

And, then, there’s the perspective and synthesis that only time can bring. We owe it to ourselves to think about what happened eight years ago, and not in a shallow way. Beyond the social and political consequences of the September 11 attacks, the anniversary’s commemoration in the media is a remembrance of how much was lost, and how much we still take for granted.