Tech sector ponders: What's in a name?

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With gadget proliferation rising, companies struggle to find something to stick

once there was an aspiring tech company named TeleWorld. Its founders knew the name was terrible but were too busy working on a breakthrough device for time-shifting TV viewing to change it.

Eventually, they hired a designer who came up with a list of 800 possible names. After weeding out the not-quite-rights and potential global embarrassments, co-founders Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay posted about 15 finalists around the office. Employees marked favorites with green dots and dissed others with red ones. In an Electoral College-like vote, a name that stands for nothing at all was chosen: TiVo.

The TiVo story points out a familiar quandary in the tech world. How does one find a name that resonates? And to paraphrase Shakespeare, in a category so reliant on product attributes does the name even matter?

HODGEPODGE

The answer is yes. And whether by craft and construct, fate or flash of inspiration, naming tech products well is a challenge. Like car companies, tech marketers face the difficult task of conveying power and sophisticated technology, while still communicating consumer friendliness and ease of use.

The result is a hodgepodge of alphanumeric serial numbers, product descriptors, morphemes (made-up name from parts of two real words) and common nouns given new meaning. In the tech aisle, one can just as easily find an ep7120, SureShot, SyncMaster or Apple.

But no matter the philosophy, any good name has similar attributes: It's catchy, simple, descriptive (literally or figuratively), and generally has fewer than three syllables. Sounds easy enough, but ask anyone who's done it: Coming up with a product name usually involves months of research, hundreds of possibilities and thousands of dollars.

Electronics companies generally fall into two camps when naming products, Tech Lovers and Soft Sellers. The "go-tech" group favors numbers and letters and morphemes like cyber and net; they are a practical, analytical engineering-driven bunch that lean heavily on the parent brand plus alphanumerics. Find them at companies like Microsoft, Olympus, and Samsung.

The "soft sell" group goes for descriptions and emotive words that call up images and create feelings; a more marketing-driven group, they still use numbers and letters, but also like family name buffers between parent and product. Find them at companies like Sony, Apple and Kodak.

A company with a strong corporate brand, like Sony or Philips, can more easily use nondescriptive alphanumeric product names because consumers already identify with the parent brand.

"In electronics, you usually have a master corporation name, a family name and then a model number or a descriptive word about what it does. Recognize that those all work together and while the customer may not understand the last set of numbers, that can be OK," said Michael D'Esopo, senior partner at Lippincott Mercer. Sony, for example, has family names like CyberShot for its cameras, Wega for TVs and Handycams for its camcorders.

A name is a way to make complex technology accessible. It also defines the product and the brand it will or could become. "In deciding what the name should be, you're also deciding how to position it," said Julie Cottineau, executive director-consumer branding at Interbrand. "The danger is you could end up with a name everyone can live with, but no one is passionate about."

Thanks to the proliferation of electronics products over the past decade, there is an increasing shortage of interesting and available names. Some companies imbue common or proper nouns with a branded meaning, like Apple, Dell, Gateway and Sun, but most still create new names. And that usually means a process that includes hiring a naming-specialty company and creating marketing programs and support around every new name.

Companies fall back on number-and-letter combination names because they're not only easy and inexpensive, but also global, something many tech products aspire to these days.

"Tech products, particularly, should constantly evolve and update, so you wouldn't want to come up with a whole new trademark every time. You don't want to get into what we call naming soup, that is when you've got 20 versions of a product and 20 different names," Ms. Cottineau said. She agreed with Mr. D'Esopo that many times, a solid parent name and recognized family sub-brand can carry the techie-numbered specific product.

too many numbers

However, sometimes tech companies do seem to get carried away with the power of alphanumerics. Consider EOS-1Ds Mark II digital and the DVDL1200 II. Sure, they sound technologically advanced, but wow, what a string to remember and repeat to a salesperson. (The first is Canon's 16.6 megapixel camera and the other is a Samsung portable DVD player, and are both very cool gadgets, in fact.)

Certain categories of consumer electronics have yet to become cool enough to earn their own brand names. Devices like DVD players and printers tend not to have specific product names. But there is hope. The TV category is proof-consumers used to simply have an RCA, or a Panasonic. The advent of sexy new flat-panel designs spawned a host of sexy new brand names like Aquos, Ambilight, and SyncMaster (from Sharp, Philips and Samsung respectively).

Interestingly, some of the biggest companies may not be the best at naming. Joe Wilcox, a Jupiter Research analyst, points out that the world's largest software maker is far from the leader in good names. While the main brand, Microsoft and some of its sub-brands like Windows are fine, many of its other product names are just confusing, he said.

Consider the following three products: Media Extender, Media Connect and Windows Connect Now. While the names are strikingly similar, the products are completely different, and are, respectively: a device to make Xbox function as a media center; a device to deliver PC-stored content to your stereo or TV and an architecture to simplify wireless home networking.

"It's a recipe for confusion," Mr. Wilcox said. "Microsoft takes a very dry and analytical approach to naming, and although their code names are quite good, the product name they switch to usually isn't."

For example, Windows CE for Smart Display was originally named Mira, and Windows 95 was Chicago. Next year's highly anticipated new operating system, currently called Longhorn, is likely to meet a similar fate, Mr. Wilcox predicted.

Microsoft's practice of putting dates on its products can also be problematic as they appear outdated. Office 2003, for example, sounds old in 2005, but it is actually the most recent office software suite available.

Apple Vs. Microsoft

The problem seems even more glaring when positioned against its OS competitor Apple. Mr. Wilcox offered this example: When Apple released its digital photo software, it named the package iPhoto and sold it separately. Around that time, Microsoft buried its similar photo capabilities inside the Windows operating system and called it the Scanner and Camera Wizard.

"Now how do you sell that?" Mr. Wilcox asked.

In the end, what matters even more than the name chosen is the marketing and support around it."Sure the iPod is a great name, but at the same time, if you went back to 2001, you'd say `OK, it's short and simple and easy,' but it was nowhere near as powerful then as it is today. Much more important than the name being short or meaning something is the life and meaning Apple has infused into the iPod with their marketing," said Mr. D'Esopo.

Top 10 mistakes

When naming the baby, avoid...

1. Treating naming as an afterthought.

2. Ignoring complex trademark and URL issues.

3. Keeping a brand name that is no longer relevant.

4. Ignoring that naming is not only creative, but strategic.

5. Falling into the subjectivity trap.

6. Overlooking the global implications of names.

7. Failing to effectively communicate the name internally.

8. Ending verbal communication of a brand with its name.

9. Naming when it’s not very necessary.

10. Believing that naming is an easy process.

Source: Interbrand

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