Why Lean In or Forward: The Branding Behind the Gentle Command

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Lean In is more than the title of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's new book, it's also the name and driving slogan of her movement-in-the-making, encouraging working women to "lean in" to their careers instead of pulling back with help of networking "circles." But as a catchphrase, it's not the first two-word command to encourage us to come hither, following MSNBC's election season re-branding, "Lean Forward." While that campaign was meant to not-so-subtly hint at the network's positioning as a progressive version of Fox News, Sandberg's slogan has a trickier task of standing in for modern feminist ideas without using the f-word. But why lean?

"It's an invitation to do something, but it's not overwhelming," said David Placek, the founder of Lexicon Branding, the legendary marketing firm behind product names like Pentium, BlackBerry, and Swiffer. "It's not a command, it's more of a suggestion."

Placek once explained to The New Yorker that "the best name brands, like poems, work by compressing into a single euphonious word an array of specific, resonant meanings and associations." But for a slogan, two works well, he told Daily Intelligencer.

"It's quick and simple. In both cases, leaning is easy to do," he said. "And the metaphor around it — it's got fairly deep semantic value. Think about the associations: 'You can lean on me' is a very powerful statement. 'She has a nice, lean figure.' Lean bacon, things without fat. Lean Cuisine. All those things are really positive expressions connected to lean."

"If her book was saying 'Go Forward,' it's like here's another person prescribing me to do something: ten steps to getting a raise ... ten steps to having more money ... ," he continued. Lean "is more graceful. It broadens the appeal to the women and it doesn't alienate."

"Lean Forward" is a bit more "self-righteous" than "Lean In," Placek said, "but maybe those are just my associations with the people in the commercials." If Sandberg came to Lexicon with her title, on the other hand, "I would say good job — I don't think we can do any better. And can you work here?"