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The Hugo Awards: Tarnished by Puppies?

Posted in Branding, Guest Bloggers, Infringement, Mixed Bag of Nuts, Trademarks

-Laurel Sutton Senior Strategist & Linguist at Catchword Brand Name Development

Have you read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? What about Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game? Frank Herbert’s Dune? Maybe Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (coming soon to the cable network Starz)?

jhghfIf you’ve read any of those books, you’ve read a Hugo Award winner. The Hugos (named for Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the pioneering science fiction magazine Amazing Stories) have been given out every year since 1955 and recognize the best science fiction or fantasy works of the previous year. They are awarded to outstanding novels, short stories, graphic novels, and works in many more categories representing creativity. Unlike the Academy Awards, they’re voted on by fans of the genre and are generally regarded as one of the most prestigious science fiction awards. There’s a trademark for The Hugo Award and everything!

Don’t feel clueless if you haven’t heard of the Hugos; most people outside science fiction/fantasy fandom haven’t. I give the capsule history here to show that since its inception, the Hugo brand has stood for excellence; the yearly competition is fierce, and simply to be nominated is recognition of worthiness. Until recently, that is…

The 2015 Hugos were disrupted by two related groups of “sad losers” (Neil Gaiman’s words, not mine) called Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies who, in an effort to stem the inexorable tide of diversity in science fiction and fantasy (i.e. works by women and people of color), tried to game the system by nominating works that were not popular, not excellent, and not appropriate. The voters rewarded the good stuff and simply chose “No Award” for categories where the nominees didn’t meet Hugo standards. They tried, and failed, again in 2016.

Since the 2016 Hugos were handed out, there’s been a lot of talk about whether the Puppies’ stunts have permanently damaged the Hugo brand. To be clear, this isn’t a case of trademark tarnishment: those unhappy few trying to rig the awards via slate voting aren’t creating an infringing mark that portrays the infringed mark (The Hugo Award) in a negative light. Rather, they’re trying to tarnish the brand, by nominating inferior and inappropriate works for the membership to vote on. While not legal infringement, it’s clearly an attack on the reputation and positive image of the brand. The Puppy thinking seems to be that if they can’t dictate the Hugo winners, they’ll break the nominating and voting process, making the Hugo Awards themselves undesirable and even irrelevant.

Will they succeed? It’s instructive to look at other brands whose reputations have been tarnished – sometimes by bad decisions, sometimes when they were the victims of circumstance or malicious intent. Take, for example, BP, widely perceived to have compounded the damage done to its brand by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 through poor public relations and crisis management in its aftermath. Yet by 2011 BP had reversed the previous year’s $3.3 billion net loss, and it posted $26 billion in income, and publicly embraced environmental initiatives to rehabilitate their image.

In 1982, seven Chicago-area residents died from cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol. Many marketers predicted that the Tylenol brand would never recover from the sabotage. But Johnson & Johnson acted swiftly, recalling 31 million bottles of Tylenol from stores and offering a  replacement product free of charge. Rather than being paralyzed by the situation, the organization took action to show that its goal was to put customers first. The following year, Tylenol’s share of the analgesic market climbed 23 percent, and The New York Times wrote, “ It is almost as if nothing ever happened.”

New Coke was perhaps the worst marketing decision of all time.  Launched early in 1985, this new formulation of Coca-Cola was designed to replace the original formulation and initially did well in the US. But there was a growing feeling among consumers that the company had gone too far in changing the taste of Coke: it was no longer The Real Thing. Coke concluded that it had underestimated the public reaction of the portion of the customer base that would be alienated by the switch to a new formulation. They quickly switched back to the old Coke formula, now called Coke Classic, while continuing to sell New Coke in small batches until it was finally phased out in 2002. The New Coke story is a cautionary tale among businesses against tampering too extensively with a well-established and successful brand. Despite the New Coke debacle, Coke remains as strong as a brand as ever, dominating soft drinks worldwide.

So has the consuming public’s opinion of The Hugo Awards actually been lowered by the Puppy antics? I would say it’s just the opposite. By voting for the best works on the ballot, and No-Awarding the gamed categories, the voting membership showed that they will keep doing what they’ve been doing since 1955: rewarding great works. And the Puppies weren’t the first to try gaming the Hugos – it happened in 1987, when Scientologists mass-nominated L. Ron Hubbard’s Black Genesis on to the ballot. (Spoiler: It lost.) All indications are that the Hugo Awards, a strong, established brand, will continue to deflect attempts at tarnishment even as it embraces the very diversity to which the Puppies object. Bonus: This year’s best novel, The Fifth Season, was written by N.K. Jemisin, an African-American woman.