What’s in a Technology Name?

wii.JPGiPod. Google. Woot! PlayStation. Tivo. Razr. They were all meaningless formations of vowels and consonants just a few years ago. Now they’ve become technology products and services that most people — even those who aren’t quite so ‘tech-savvy’ — understand and use in their everyday speak. (Okay, maybe not Woot!…. but that’s just because you haven’t found one of their great deals. Woot.com… Check it out!)

But where some marketing execs would have you think that any catchy assembling of letters will elicit a positive response from the public — just as long as the product itself is trendy, I’m not quite certain that this is true. But reflecting over some of the names being given to products lately, I began to wonder whether it really matters what you name a product at all? Would an ‘iPod’ by any other name be the phenomenon that has people finding the extra $300-400 of expendable income in their budget and forking it over to Apple to listen to music? Well, perhaps. But there are situations when the so called “better product” doesn’t win. When the Digital Video Recorder market wasn’t dominated by Tivo, Panasonic’s Replay TV was considered among many in the tech community as “the better product”. But that didn’t stop Tivo from gaining popularity and eventually causing Replay TV to be banished into enthusiast circles. But was that because of the superior Tivo interface? Or did America just like the way that catchy new word, “Tivo” rolled off their tongues more than they did the somewhat boring “Replay TV”? After all, Tivo follows one of my rules of good tech naming (stay tuned) — it can be generalized and turned into a pop culture term. In this case, turned into a verb. “Hey did you see Lost last night? Nah, I Tivo’d it. I’ll watch it later.” That works. Somehow saying, “Nah, I didn’t catch it. But I Replay TV’d it” doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

So does this mean that ‘Google’ and ‘Razr’ and ‘iPod’ were all great sounding names from the start? Well, no. (I actually thought Google was a bit silly sounding when I first heard it.) I believe that some technology products and services are so innovative and so useful that they survive despite being given a bad name. But my general philosophy is that creating a good sounding name does get your product off on the right foot. It creates a buzz. A good and accessible name can set the conditions for success and turn a word from meaningless into a phenomenon overnight. (When my grandmother asks me, “So what kind of iPod do you have”, trust me — the brand development team has succeeded. So what are the “rules” that companies should follow when naming a technology product? So glad you asked.

Rule #1 – The name should not have an existing connotation. (Example: Wii, Motorola Rokr) To you marketing folks: We know it’s tough to find a new name these days. After all, it is true that there’s nothing really new under the sun. But please make sure that you check the pop culture lexicon for names that already have some associated meaning. The Wii is pretty much the gold standard for bad names. Sure, it’s going to sell like hotcakes this November. But this is definitely one of those examples when the product succeeds despite the name. When Nintendo picked Wii, they couldn’t have picked a worse name if they ran a “Help Us Name Our Next Console” contest at Sony. Wii means small — as in “wee”. Wii is the bodily function name most children understand before they know how to walk. Actually Wii is both the bodily function and the thing you use to do the function. You get the point. And as for Rokr — I’m sure Motorola thought, “Cool…Rokr…like, Rock and Roll’er!” But in essence, I’m thinking more like my grandma’s rocking chair. Or Rokr as in, “You’re off you’re rokr if you think that selling an iTunes phone that can only hold 100 songs is going to do well.”

Rule #2 – Weird = good. But not too weird. (Example: Google, Ubuntu) I must admit, when I first heard the name Google, it just had this ‘Romper Room-ish’ juvenile-sounding appeal to it. But, of course, like the rest of the world, it grew on me. Now it means something totally different. And perhaps that’s what Nintendo is going for with “Wii”. And whether or not they’ll succeed remains to be seen. Sadly, “Ubuntu” is one of those “too weird” names. When I think about how great the concept is, it actually makes me want to shed a tear because the “earthy” name is preventing it from reaching the status that such an idea deserves. How great is it that the organization wants to create a free and simple to use, yet powerful build of Linux. The website wreaks of user-friendliness. It looks like a Benetton ad. They’ll even send you a free build of the OS if you want and it installs in a snap! So what’s it called? Ubuntu? Hmmm, maybe I’ll pass.

I totally admire the thought behind the Ubuntu concept, where it was derived from the phrase meaning “humanity towards others”. However, when it comes to an OS, ‘humanity’ is not necessarily the first thing I think of. Bottom line — I think it’s a bad name. But I really hope that the product does well. And somewhere down the road, as it gains momentum, I hope they make the decision to ditch the name.

Rule #3 – If we can’t pronounce it, you’re asking for trouble. (Example: Sony Wega Series, UMPC, Viiv.) This is self-explanatory. If there’s the chance that someone’s going to butcher the name, how can it gain any momentum? People are still saying both “Mac-uh-fee” and “Mick-kaff-ee” to identify the number two virus detection software in the world. And perhaps that’s why it’s number two. After all, Norton — with it’s easy-to-identify yellow and white boxes — is so much easier to remember and to repeat…. and to reccomend. Hey, I have a virus? What should I use to remove it? Uh, ehy don’t you use Mac-uh… umm, McKaff…. uhhh — just use Norton.

In the days when Sony ruled the television space, “Trinitron” was the definitive name in display technology excellence. Somewhere between those days in the early 90s and the pre-HD era, someone in a Sony board room came up with the name “Wega”. Problem is, the logo folks got too cute and the “W” in the Wega logo looks kinda like two “V”s. Bottom line is that people still can’t decide what to call it. (Don’t believe me? Do a search on both “Sony Vega” and “Sony Wega” and you’ll see some of the most reputable folks referring to it as both.) The Wega brand was successful. But perhaps that success could have been greater had we been able to agree on the name.

Rule #4 – Check for pre-existing meanings in foreign markets (Example: The Ikea “Fartfull”) Again, self-explanatory. Check to see whether the name has any alternate meaning(s) abroad. Particularly if you plan on marketing the same name in multiple nations. In Germany, Fährt means “to travel”. In English, it kinda has something to do with travelling — but just not people travelling. I hate to beat up on Nintendo again, but Wii is one of those names that might have benefited from a different branding and name here in the U.S.

Rule #5 – Too much numbering = problems for consumers (Example: MS Office series, Intel Pentium) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked customers what version of Microsoft Office they’re using and sometimes the answers make me chuckle. “Office 98.” “Office 2001” “The one that comes with Windows 99”. (None of these are real names). But it’s not the customer’s fault. It’s these weird numbering conventions. I completely understand that, in the case of a company like Intel, products are coming out every month. Naming conventions need to allow for expansion as new chips and speeds are announced. But something makes me think that having a more friendly name than the “Intel Core2Duo 2.7 Ghz” might lead to better consumer education.  And perhaps better sales.

Rule #6 – If the name reaches pop culture status, that can sometimes be a good thing. (Example: Tivo, Xerox) When your product’s name can be “verb’d” — you’ve reached a level of marketing genius few will ever see. It’s the ultimate compliment, honestly. Go get the baby some ‘pampers’. I was wrapping gifts and I ran out of ‘scotch tape’. Did you ‘Tivo’ Grey’s Anatomy last night? Quite an accomplishment. And sometimes it’s a blessing. In the beginning of the Digital Video Recorder era, this was a great thing for Tivo. There were these other “DVR-thingys” and then there was Tivo. The best in class. Of course, when cable companies began to put Tivo-like functionality in their cable boxes and when people began to refer to all DVRs as “Tivos” — well, then the Tivo folks didn’t feel quite so honored. Quite honestly, if you reach the level of brand awareness where your name is generalized like this, that has to be a good thing. The challenge is that it’s up to the company to keep pace by innovating with the technology, as to make “Tivo” really different and better than all other DVRs. And therein lies the problem for the folks at Tivo — lately innovation is something that those folks haven’t exactly been focused on.

So, what really is in a tech name? If you have that next, great product or service and your team is in the final stages of launching, does it matter if you follow my rules?  Well, judging from the fact that most of the so-called “bad” names that I’ve discussed above have been from products that have been considerably successful, perhaps not. Any maybe it shouldn’t matter.  After all, in a fair world great tech should always supersede a bad name. Well just get used to saying it. Maybe we’ll shorten the name and make it cooler. And if it’s bad enough, maybe we’ll abandon the name altogether. However, my message to tech marketing execs is this: Think long and hard before you slap any old name on a product. We want to like what you have to offer. Give us a reason to run and tell our friends about your next great thing. When you give us these bad names, to take a page from Jerry Maguire, you’re not “helping us to help you.” And if you decide to abandon every rule I’ve listed, please follow this one additional rule: After your meeting in the board room, go into the bathroom, look in the mirror and say that new catchy name three times to yourself. If you feel like an idiot saying it, more than likely, we will too. (And if the guy who’s reading the newspaper in the stall starts to chuckle uncontrollably, you probably have the next “Wii” on your hands.)


6 Responses to “What’s in a Technology Name?”

  1. 1 Matt
    August 24, 2006 at 1:38 pm

    In refrence to rule number three, I wondered the exact spelling of “Sony Vega” myself, so I went to the sony website. At the time the Vega was introduced, they had a handy little “Is it spelled ‘Vega’ or ‘Wega'” article on the website, right off the front page. Sony themselves said it was “Vega”, not “Wega”. I thing that since it came from Sony, it’s pretty much concrete that it’s spelled with a “V”.

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