The Power of Strange Job Titles


In March this year Elon Musk and Tesla’s CFO received new job titles. Musk would no longer be merely Chief Executive Officer of the $650 billion car company. According to the company’s regulatory filing, his official title would also be “Technoking of Tesla.” Zach Kirkhorn, the company’s Chief Financial Officer, would receive the additional title “Master of Coin.” That term is used in George R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series to describe a treasury officer. (Tesla reported in February that it had bought $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin. In April, the company said that it had sold 10 percent of those coins in the first quarter of the year for $272 million—and in May, it announced that it would no longer accept Bitcoin as payment.)

There’s only one Technoking of Tesla, and outside the world of Westoros very few masters of coin but there’s no shortage of other people with strange job titles. From “mavens” and “hackers” to “jedis” and “evangelists,” job vacancies are filled with positions that have more imaginative titles than “salesperson,” “computer programmer,” and “marketing executive.”

AirBnB doesn’t have customer service representatives; it has “Support Ambassadors.” Ben and Jerry’s food scientists are “Flavor Gurus.”, a social media marketing company, has “Happiness Heroes” (and even a “Chief Happiness Officer.”)

The practice isn’t new. It’s been 20 years since Apple decided that the in-store customer service staff who help iPhone owners after they’ve dropped their devices in the toilet were “geniuses.” “Marketing ninjas” first turn up in Google searches in September 2009, while “growth hacker” first appeared in November 2010 before peaking in July 2014.

A recent survey by of more than 10,000 job ads looked at which unusual titles are the most popular and where applicants can find them.

Different places emphasize different unusual terms. The state most likely to advertise for a “champion” is South Dakota. Out of every 100,000 vacancies in the state, 155 of them use that word in the title. San Francisco, not surprisingly, is the city most likely to look for a “hacker.” “Ninjas” are found most often in Needham, MA, “knights” in Portland, OR, and “jedis” in Washington, DC. The city that tops the most lists of unusual job titles though is New York. It’s the city most likely to advertise for an “evangelist,” “genius,” “guru,” “rockstar,” “storyteller,” “warrior,” wizard,” and even “wrangler” in a city not best known for its cattle.

Marketing types are most likely to be hackers while technology positions tend to be for geniuses, evangelists, or wranglers. “Champion” is the most popular quirky job title overall though, the survey found, turning up in 178 of the 10,000 vacancies surveyed. It was closely followed by “hero” and “warrior.”

Placed in a job ad, the use of those quirky titles is intended to show applicants that this is not just another telesales position or coding job. It’s an extraordinary opportunity available to people with a high set of skills—or who at least believe they have a high set of skills. The wording both sets expectations of the applicant and it also tells applicants that their work will be special. It should encourage them to apply.

That doesn’t seem to happen. also surveyed 1,000 Americans to discover how they feel about the unusual job descriptions. They found that they put off a large number of jobseekers. About two out of three potential applicants would not apply for a job that includes the term “champion” or “genius.” “Guru” fares even more poorly, putting off 77 percent of potential applicants, while job ads for “evangelists” and “hackers” would be ignored by 86 percent and 87 percent of applicants respectively. Millennials are the generation most likely to answer a job ad with a strange title, beating both older workers and Generation Z. For Boomers, they’re confusing while for the youngest of new recruits, they’re cheesy.

Companies looking to close their gender gap should also steer clear of trying to recruit champions and geniuses. The survey found that women are 30 percent less likely to apply to jobs with those terms in the description, and they’re 38 percent less likely to apply for a position as a guru.

Companies generally want as many qualified applicants to respond to a job ad as possible so that they can choose the best to interview. When the cost in applications for positions with strange job titles is so high why do companies do it? What do they hope to gain from not calling a sales clerk simply a “sales clerk”?

Wanted: Champion Barista and Beverage Evangelist to Serve Venti Frappuccinos

Lisa Merriam is a brand consultant to Fortune 500 and entrepreneurial fast growth companies, and serves on the board of directors for the American Marketing Association New York. Unusual job titles, she says, are a company’s attempt to “live the brand” through company culture. In the same way that customers who order a “venti” from a “barista” at Starbucks know that they are in a unique kind of café with its own distinctive style, so a “brand evangelist” should feel that they’re not simply doing a regular job in a regular company.

“Thoughtful vocabulary is an important part of corporate identity,” she says. “Brand is used internally to build corporate culture and externally to build reputation.”

The attempt to build that culture through renaming however carries risks that extend beyond a fall in the number of job applications. Going too far with branded language, warns Merriam, can result in confusion. It can take time and effort for a company to educate customers about the need to use its own vocabulary. If someone orders a small or a medium coffee in Starbucks should the barista serve them a “tall” or a “grande”? How much time do the chain’s baristas waste each day by pointing to a chart of drink sizes and asking the customer to repeat their request? How many new customers are put off by the need to speak a new corporate language in order to buy a cup of coffee? And does everyone who dropped their iPhone in the bathroom realize that the store’s “geniuses” are the people who can help them fix it—or at least offer them a box and bag of rice?

Companies with a tight budget and time pressure might not want to add such a barrier to understanding and purchase, advises Merriam.

An even worse reaction is ridicule. Unusual job titles are meant to make regular jobs sound more exciting and cooler than they really are. But what seems cool now might well invite cringe later, Merriam warns, like a father who calls his kid’s friends “homies,” or Steve Buscemi posing as a teenager and walking into a high school, saying: “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?”

“Imagine being in your late 50s going into a job interview for the CMO position and having to explain that resume entry as the ‘Associate Growth Rockstar’ for a failed start-up,” Merriam warns. “Most people scrub them from their resumes.”

Sometimes though, the cringe and the invitation to laugh and mock is the point. Lee Monks of the Plain English Campaign, an organization that campaigns against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information argues that “the fact that a lot of these titles become items of ridicule draws a lot of publicity. Whether or not bad publicity is better than none is another matter.”

Shapermint, a retailer of women’s underwear, for example, recently announced that it was looking for its “first-ever Chief Mom Officer.” The job, which can be done remotely, will involve championing body positivity and women in the workplace, as well as helping with product innovation, market research, content creation, and brand ambassadorship.

It is, in other words, largely a marketing job, and its announcement on a PR website suggests that the company is looking to use the term to raise its profile. News of the opening spread across both financial websites and sites aimed at moms. By advertising for a “Chief Mom Officer” instead of a social media manager and inviting a discussion about the strange new role, the company was able to win attention and build its brand.

So should a company create unusual job titles or stick with the tried, tested, and dull?

Lee Monk recommends against being creative with job titles… unless you want a few pretentious applicants. Lisa Merriam, whose Fortune 500 and private equity-backed companies tend to be more focused on building value than looking cool, recommends prioritizing clarity. “The purpose of the title is primarily to identify function and role within a larger team. When title gets in the way of clarity, it is a fail. If you can inject a little personality without impinging on clarity, maybe give it a try. In general, efforts and brand building and culture building are best made elsewhere.”

Begin then by deciding why you’re creating an unusual job title. If you’re only doing it to be different and to make an otherwise regular job sound cooler and more unusual than it is, then you should think again. You’ll have fewer applicants in general, and fewer female applicants in particular. You’ll also put off both experienced older workers and new graduates looking for their first job. You’ll confuse customers and employees who will wonder why the company doesn’t have any customer service representatives or aren’t clear from the company’s job title who’s responsible for which functions.

But if you’re producing a position that isn’t closely linked to a team and doesn’t require the employee to explain to members of the public what exactly they do, then a creative job title might be a useful way of attracting publicity. Come up with something fun and vaguely ridiculous, and tell the world about it.

You can also copy Elon Musk’s idea. No one either inside the company or outside might understand the responsibilities of the “Technoking of Tesla” but Musk did retain the title of chief executive. It’s still clear who’s in charge. There’s no law saying that your company can’t have a “customer care evangelist” but there’s also no law saying that workers can’t have more than one title: a strange one to build the culture and a sensible one to ensure smoothing functioning.

“Most people find such titles amusing and can see the funny side,” says Lee Monk. “But then again we do need to poke fun at something in our yearly awards.”

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