Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Name Game

The great thing about kids is that they don't know all the things that that adults know. This makes them open to anything, any thought, any idea. They are not constrained by "the obvious".

So, I was taken aback by a question from my daughter the other day. She asked me "how do cars get their names?" I, of course, launched into a Marketing 101 lesson about names and brands. I started by telling her about how names are sometimes meant to describe and invoke an image. Others, I said, are meant to invoke an image or create an emotional response. This got me to thinking more deeply about names in the technology sector. Since technical marketing is a big part of what I do, this is not simply academic.

I mused on the names I've known. Windows, Macintosh, and the Linksys BEFW11S4 Wireless-B Cable/DSL Router.

Over the years I'm heard a bunch of great names and a lot of silly ones (I still think that is a stupid name). On reflection I began to realize that computer product names fall into a series of buckets.

So I present to you "Tom's Guide to Technical Product Names" complete with commentary.

The Functional

One of the most popular ways to name a technical product is by assigning a totally functional name. These names usually sound like a part number, such as XLP 3010. The purpose is to give a sense of industrial strength and encode some kind of information in it. With a naming scheme like this, you can easily tell that the 3012 has two ports and the 3014 has four.

Of course, you would never remember what the two or four ports are for. It is a conceit to assume that a customer will know your peculiar nomenclature. If you don't know what an XLP is, then the distinction between 3010, 3012, 02 3014 is lost on you. Just look at the IBM Storage products to get a sense of this. What does DS6000 mean? Nothing unless you know what it is already. And in case you think I'm picking on IBM, go look at Linksys product names. Some of these are meant for the SOHO market! What are they thinking?

By the way, would someone please tell LG that I can never remember that my phone is an LG-VX8350. And yes, I had to look it up. Razor is a much better name.

A subspecies of The Functional name is The Descriptive name. This type of name tells you exactly what the product is. For example, the HP BladeSystem is a blade server system. No kidding. The problem with The Descriptive name is that it's boring. You might know what it is but will you care?

The Image

Some products are all about image. They have fancy names that tell you nothing but sure sound cool. I will put Microsoft (a great name) Windows Vista in this category. This was one that my kids asked me about. When I tried to explain it was supposed to invoke an image of a horizon without limits they looked at me like I was ready for the old folks home.

The problem with image names is that they either connect or they don't. There's not a lot of middle ground. Over all, image names are the best. They are not boring and they catch your interest. That's why I like Jott. It gives you that sense of quickly jotting down notes and sending them to someone else. Memo would not have cut it. Descriptive but dull. Jott is cool without being obscure or cute.

The Consumer

Obviously for more consumer oriented products, more consumer oriented names are in order. Unfortunately, as an industry we don't do that well. Some work well like iPhone because they are part of an overall branding strategy. The reason iPhone works is because Apple spent years convincing us that "i" anything meant an innovative and cool-as-all-get-out product.

The drawback is when the name is too cute for technical people or grown ups to buy and not feel stupid about. This is probably why I won't sign up for Twitter. It's not that I don't get Twitter. I just hate the name.

That goes for color. Recently I bought a portable hard drive for someone in the company. The one requirement was that it not be in a color that embarrassed them. Finding one was harder than it should have been. Same goes for names. As much as I like the idea of the ASUS Eee. I can't imagine whipping it out in front of a customer and say "How do you like my new Eee?" Not happening...

The "Huh?"

Some names are simply incomprehensible. They make so little sense that you can only go "What were they thinking?" One of my favorite online services is like that, called "I Want Sandy". Sandy is supposed to be your online e-mail assistant. Get it? Sandy is your assistant so you want her there to help you. My apologies to the folks at Values of N but it's a great product with a name that sounds like a porn film. I'm surprised that more firewalls don't block

Or the Dell Vostro laptop. Is that Serbian or did they just make it up? Maybe it's a Transformer. Even Inspirion was better since it invoked an image of being inspired in some way. How about the Archos media play. What's an Archos? A Greek Hero like Achilles? We know what happened to him. An old company I worked for used to pick names from foreign languages that invoked certain images. Since many people didn't speak those languages, the imagery was lost on them and the names mostly sounded silly.

I admit that coming up a product, brand, or company name is not an easy thing. Big companies spend millions trying to tease out a good name from fickle consumer attitudes. Still, the techie world seems to be especially bad at it. Perhaps it's the geeky nature of what we do. Wrong side of the brain and all.

It seems to me that we have to get more folks in the industry whose other side of the brain works better.

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