Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Poking the schoolyard bully in the eye

Poking the schoolyard bully in the eye
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“So, do we just say ‘fuck it’ and change our name?” was the question I started the day with. Over the past year we’d watched pages of accolades and general “good stuff” about our design studio erode into comments like: “smash lab = fail”. (Actually, that was on page one of Google for some time.) Nine years in business and we were contemplating dropping our moniker. How did this happen?

A decade ago

The fact of the matter is, in the pre-web world, protecting a name was in fact much easier than it is now. Communities were far enough apart to allow for a couple of groups to share something like this, without it becoming a big issue. On the web, however, everyone’s in the race for unique name. Just ask yourself how often you run a domain search and ask, “How can that possibly be taken?”

The name smashLAB was conceived at the Earl’s restaurant on the bypass in Prince George, while eating a veggie burger and dreaming about how we’d make our first millions by starting up a web design company. (Sigh… yes, I know. Let’s just call it “youthful enthusiasm”.) Amongst a sheet of options, the phrase “smash and grab” continued to roll around in my mind, this led to smashLAB. It seemed like a fine name, and we rationalized that it was descriptive, even if in an “ad” sort of way. Part chaos, part science; hence, we engineer explosive work.

A lot of people commented that the name was weird (this was a decade ago), but it seemed to stick. Phonetically it’s a bit of a difficult, as initial telephone calls often require re-stating the name a couple of times, “No, not smash-blab, smash lab.” Nevertheless, once someone had heard it, they never seemed to forget it, and some even seemed to like saying it.

As the years went on, we started to measure our success, or at very least, reach, by looking at how we were referenced on the web. Some people had harsh criticisms of our work, but many seemed to think that we were on to something. All of this was very important to us, as most of our work comes unsolicited, from people finding us, and then digging about on Google to learn more.

Sure, there were others

One guy in the U.S. registered the domain and used it as a place to talk about his music, or something of the sort. Then some weird, experimental theatre/music troupe called their rehearsal space the “smash lab”. Fine enough, they are just two words, and difficult for us to protect. Plus, we’re not exactly Disney. I think I’d feel like a bit of an asshole calling one of these folks up and asking them to change the name of where they jam. Plus, who would ever confuse what any of us were doing?

Along the way, we met up with a trademark agent who explained the necessity for trademarking smashLAB. (In all honesty, I think the money spent would have likely been better used on a trip to Vegas, but be that as it may, we did trademark the name smashLAB.) Now, trademarks certainly are useful in certain instances, but they don’t serve as the force-field many seem to believe. A trademark would be useful if someone started a business in the same industry as you, using the same name/mark in the same country. Therefore we knew that there was little we could do when the Discovery Channel released its new program Smash Lab. In fact, for a year, we were “okay” with the whole thing, but finally, it was wreaking havoc, and we were bearing the brunt of their “suckage”.

Smash Lab has been called a failure, disaster, waste of time, or some variation on the same theme, pretty much since its arrival. I have yet to see a full episode, but have watched a few rather senseless snippets on YouTube. (Then of course, I don’t understand Extreme Makeover either, so perhaps I’m not an accurate barometer of popular taste.) Unfortunately, we now receive phone calls from cabbies who want us to use their cars in experiments, as well as job applications from (clearly not particularly bright) engineers who want to work on our show.

Worse than all of this, is that a search for smashLAB now results in reams of negative fanfare regarding the television program. Frankly, I cringe at the thought of how much business we’ve lost by those who “googled” us to find seemingly endless pages of comments like “smash lab = fail”.

Let’s have a little fun

Knowing that there was really very little recourse at our disposal given the circumstances, we started to contemplate a name change. We reasoned that the name was in fact, just a name, and really, what else were we to do? We didn’t have the funds to go up against The Discovery Channel’s lawyers, and we didn’t expect we’d have much of a case anyways. A design studio and a television program (no matter how bad that program may be) are clearly very different things. That doesn’t mean that brand confusion wasn’t occurring, but our pockets weren’t deep enough to enter that dispute.

Then it hit us: we have very little to lose. Our name is largely mud (even if our reputation isn’t); so, why not have some fun with the whole situation? Even if we had limited legal recourse, a little cheekiness seemed like it was due. (And, again, it could be fun. In our minds, people often undervalue the need for fun in business.)

So, we registered a domain, drafted a letter, and spread the word. You can read the whole thing here. It’s tongue-in-cheek, catty, and in some respects juvenile–all characteristics that we somewhat enjoy from time-to-time. It largely functioned as a (humble) PR ploy. We weren’t expecting the Discovery Channel to do anything; nor, did we think that very many would take notice. That being said, we thought it was a good idea to put our side of the story out there, and at very least give our friends something to laugh about before the weekend came.

“Holy crap–this thing is tracking a new visitor every second!”

We’ve done a lot of things to build visibility for our firm, but for a three hour investment, became perhaps the most surprising of the lot. It seemed that a great many people liked the fact that we were making a bit of a stink, and found the whole thing to be rather amusing. By mid-day we watched as the site registered a new visitor every second. Within 24 hours, our little joke had been seen by over 30,000 unique visitors.

As the site seemed to be connecting with people on some level, we then sent an email to TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington about the whole thing. He surprised us even more, by actually writing this post, moments later. Michael’s not a particularly easy guy to get the attention of, so we were blown away that this (of all things) gained his attention.

Along the way we received a number of emails of support and those of the “that’s hilarious” variety–all of which were very welcome. It’s a pretty great feeling to have someone get in touch out of the blue and say something nice. My mom also thought the whole thing was pretty funny, and that made me happy.

Some also felt that we were being juvenile, uncouth, or simply “jerks”. (All of which are fair observations at times.) That being said, I think that we’re getting pretty comfortable with such criticisms. First of all, there’s very little that one can do that won’t be met with some disapproval; but moreover, the moral sensibility of some seems particularly conservative, and I don’t want to pander to this (very small) group.

The fact is that while most marketing is very safe; it’s also terribly boring. One thing that I continue to be reminded of is that even though companies desperately want people to talk about them, the public is largely disinclined to do so. No one wants to talk about safe, pabulum marketing-bullshit. We do, however, tend to talk about things that stick-out from the herd a little. The part that so many have a problem with is that the two are somewhat mutually exclusive. It’s hard to blend-in and stand-out at the same time. The latter takes some bravery and has risk attached. (It’s also rather fun.)

Along the way, we smiled at the whole thing. Not only had we run up to the class bully and punched him in the nose. We had also been able to create a marketing campaign by “dissing” ourselves. Can you imagine a self-initiated “Microsoft sucks” campaign?

The fact of the matter is that in today’s “transparent” world, approaches like this may be the way to go. Be honest, be real, and keep the legal team from neutering something interesting.

Oh, right…

The Discovery Channel’s PR people did in fact get in touch with us regarding the whole thing. Although they had a rather strange approach to contacting us, the person I ultimately spoke with was pleasant and seemed to have a good sense of humor about the whole thing. She also explained that Discovery had no intention of renewing “Smash Lab”. So… that particular train-wreck may actually be put out of it’s misery in the not-too-distant future. (Yay!)

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