In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet muses about the conflict between her family, the Capulets, and the family of her beloved, Romeo. The two families are feuding and she’s been trained to hate the name “Montague,” yet she’s still managed to fall in love with someone from that clan.
Jul. O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet…
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.” —Romeo and Juliet, Act II, sc. ii
Romeo, who’s been eavesdropping out of sight until this point in the scene, tells Juliet that he’d abandon his name if he could because of her antipathy for it.
The phrase that’s passed into common English: That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Shakespeare was partially right: the substance of a thing is still its substance no matter what it’s called.
But marketing rests on the fact that we don’t always accurately perceive substance when its branding or marketing points us to something different. When the name of a thing misdirects us, that affects our perceptions of it. And when there’s a mismatch between a thing’s “name” or self-declaration and its actual nature, there are only negative feelings.
Back in the 1990s, three or four major soda companies tried a “clear cola” experiment, and soda drinkers just wouldn’t latch on. Coca Cola’s Tab Clear made it just two years in the UK and US. It had as much caffeine as classic and diet Coke did, and it was just as flavorful.
But Coca Cola sold the drink under one of its down-quality product lines, and they positioned it to tank a Pepsi competitor. To consumers, it wasn’t Coke enough: A cola by another name and color didn’t taste as sweet.
In the aftermath of the US federal election, Evangelicals including Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne have worried that the Evangelical brand is so corrupted that they can no longer use it. “Jesus-centered faith needs a new name,” Campolo and Claiborne wrote in the New York Times, arguing that the community once known as Evangelical needed to shed its sociopolitical baggage and its association with the 45th President and the Republican Party.
Other writers have pushed back hard on Campolo and Claiborne’s attempt to dissociate, but the core issue Evangelicals face today is the same one Shakespeare explored through Juliet and Romeo:
People are susceptible to Madison Avenue’s psychological marketing techniques, and we wrestle with the distances between the substance of a person, product, service, or community and whichever associations its marketers and brand strategists promote. When character and name or experience and brand are at odds, we notice. No one likes false advertising and expectations that aren’t met, but we do like to be pleasantly surprised, to have our expectations exceeded.
The lesson from this could be the simple dictum “under-promise and over-deliver.” But perhaps a better lesson is that in religion and in relationship we should rather focus on the health of our characters and the quality of our contributions. No matter what people call it, a rose only smells sweet when it is fresh. No marketing campaign, even on Madison Avenue, can cover up the stink of rancid flowers or the disappointment of a clear soda.