There are many ways for a company to position itself as innovative, from creating a product that revolutionizes an industry to simply using unconventional fonts on a website. Now even job titles have become part of the innovation toolkit, an opportunity to signal a company's out-of-the box approach.
It's no surprise that the trend has been propagated by Internet start-ups, given that many of them boast of their casual, nonhierarchical work environments. (Come to the office in jeans and flip-flops! And feel free to bring your dog!) With the organizational charts and cubicles of traditional corporations replaced by flexible work groups and open-plan offices, plain-vanilla job titles were open to re-interpretation as well.
What better way to show the world that your business thinks differently than by describing your employees differently?
For an example of inventive job descriptions, consider the team at Punchtab, a Silicon Valley company founded last year, where staff titles include "Socializer," "Alchemist" and "Pixelwrangler." The company produces an online loyalty platform that website publishers can use to reward frequent users (by awarding "points" for activity such as Facebook likes and blog comments). It makes sense for a social-media based company to use attention-grabbing, buzzworthy titles.
It's worth noting, however, that the company's engineers are still called just that, signaling that there's less room for whimsy when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of keeping a business running.
Quirky job titles are fine, as long as they're true to a company's DNA, says Phillip Davis, founder and creative director of Tungsten Branding in Brevard, N.C. A clever job title communicates a sense of humor and approachability that can be very appealing. But a confusing or overly wacky title may turn someone off from doing business with you.
"It can add color and character that supports the brand message, but at some point it can also detract," Davis says. "For example, I could call myself the Head Lightbulb of Tungsten Branding. No one will know who that is. You're communicating that you're self-absorbed, more brand-centric than customer-focused. It becomes more about you and less about them."
The goal is a brand message that is "intuitive, natural and easy," Davis says. Red Frog Events, an event production company in Chicago, wants its clients to associate the company with having fun. So employees are encouraged to make up their own job titles: examples include "Skipper of Silliness," "Kingpin of Comedy" and "Honcho of Happiness."
While these over-the-top titles work within the Red Frog brand, they would be hard to pull off elsewhere. (Keep in mind that Red Frog's headquarters has an indoor treehouse, slide and swings.) Job titles should be used only to make a statement about a company if the office culture backs them up.
"It's about the volume of what you're saying," Davis says. "Some brands are matching their look and feel with their job titles, but they're overstating it. It's like a shout when it could be a whisper. You should do it in a way that enhances your brand without hitting people over the head."
As an example, take the online men's clothing catalog Bonobos, where the employees who handle customer interactions are called Ninjas. It's a powerful, memorable title that instantly comes across as more powerful than the lowly customer service reps found at other clothing companies -- and reminiscent of how Apple empowers and sets apart is customer tech advisers by calling them "geniuses."
It's also a risky choice, given that "ninja" can conjure up images both positive (they're fast!) and negative (they can kill you!).
But in the context of Bonobos, it works. To avoid confusion, the company's website refers to its "Customer Service Ninjas," making their role clear. Customers who have a problem know instantly who to contact, and the Ninjas themselves post on the company blog, solidifying their role as core employees rather than outsourced service providers.
In the end, job titles should be a reflection of a company's vision, not an added-on attention-grabber. "We don't control the conversation any more," Davis says. "Companies have to master those nuances of branding themselves so it doesn't come across as forced. If you're tone deaf, customers will leave."