Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How to name tech products

Image from FreeDigitalPhotos.net
What’s in a name? Would an Apple, by any other name, smell as sweet?  Would Jobs and Wozniak have had as much success with their company if it had been called Lemon?  Would a Blackberry be better as a Raspberry or a Gooseberry?  Would Raspberry Pi sell as quickly if it was Apple Pie?

With tech products there is no hard-and-fast rule of what works and what does not.  Is Apple’s habit of naming OSX versions after big cats (Panther, Puma, Mountain Lion) better than Google’s rule of naming Android versions after deserts (Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice-Cream Sandwich, Jellybean…)?  Does it make one product more likeable than another? Does it make it more reliable?  Does it sell more?  Are either of them fundamentally better (leading to greater brand recognition and helping drive brand loyalty) than Microsoft’s Windows versions (Windows 95, 97, Millennium, XP, Vista, 7)?

Some tech products have names that have little more thought behind them than no one else had the name and the inventors liked it (see Firefox).  Others used branding experts to exhaust all possibilities in the search of the one, true, perfect name (iPod).  Some brands are vanity projects (Dyson and Dell) whilst the actual product names are instantly forgettable (Latitude E6320 anyone?).

In an age of multiculturalism, anyone thinking of branding has to think how the name will be received in different countries and languages.  Mitsubishi should have consulted their Spanish office when deciding to call their 4x4 ‘Pajero’ (which has connotations of self-pleasuring in the Iberian language) and, because it has to succeed in the USA to gain global acceptance, the name must be easy to pronounce in English.

It can have connotations of space (Galaxy) or be an acronym (Vaio).  It can be frivolous (Twitter) or a compound pun (Pinterest; Instagram).   It could even evoke the beginnings of a burning fire (Kindle).

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Having been asked to write something (above) for ZDNet Asia but for which I have been asked to include less questions, I created another version.  My inability to self-edit efficiently means I am including both versions in this post.... with full disclosure and apologies for repetition:


People who create, design and program tech products, have long had a sense of playfulness.  Perhaps it is the ability to create something from nothing, and name it, that gives a sense of power.  It is different from naming a child as one must consider the feelings and opinions of one’s spouse, relatives, the child’s grandparents and, in some cases, if the name is so odd, if it will lead the child to get beaten up at school.
With tech products there are no such limitations. But there are no rules either.  Some fruit are suitable names… but not all fruit.  An Apple computer would perhaps not have the image it does if it were a Lemon or a Banana.  Calling a smartphone a Blackberry might seem obvious now, but would we have embraced it if it had been called a Raspberry or even a Gooseberry?

The idle sound of birds talking led to the name Twitter…but it could just as easily have been Natter, or Cheep-Cheep, or Noise.   Raspberry Pi, the new open-source credit-card sized computer, has as much connection to its name as Apple Crumble or Strawberry Sigma.  The two main sources of computer operating systems have very different nomenclatures but neither indicates, at all, what the products actually are nor what they do. Some names, therefore, are designed to clearly differentiate themselves from the previous version, or maintain an air of seriousness some might consider appropriate for a business, such as with Microsoft Windows’s Millennium, XP, Vista and 7. Some try to exude power and passion, such as Apple’s OSX Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Lion and Mountain Lion over the same period.  Some try to suggest a sense of fun, as with Google’s mobile operating system Android, which uses deserts in its naming: Cupcake, Donut, Éclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean.

Some product names have little more thought behind them than no one else had the name and the inventors liked it (see Firefox).   Some brands are vanity projects (Dyson and Dell) whilst the actual product names are instantly forgettable (Latitude E6320 anyone?).

In an age of multiculturalism, anyone thinking of branding has to think how the name will be received in different countries and languages.  Mitsubishi should have consulted their Spanish office when deciding to call their 4x4 ‘Pajero’ (which has connotations of self-pleasuring in the Iberian language) and, because it has to succeed in the USA to gain global acceptance, the name must be easy to pronounce in English.

Tech products often try to suggest the future, or science fiction. So any suggestion of space is valid, as with Samsung’s Galaxy range, or Sun.    Acronyms will sometimes work, such as with Sony’s Vaio range, whilst some companies go for compound puns, such as with Pinterest or Instagram.   A verb suggesting the beginnings of a roaring fire might, for some, be a strange alternative to paper-based books (Kindle).

One can go through a complex branding exercise to try and suggest a name that summarises the essence of the product (iPod), or one can name a product after one’s daughter (Apple’s Lisa or the MySQL database) or a popular TV programme (Python) or an item of clothing the founder wears (Red Hat Linux).

In summary, there are no hard-and-fast rules about what names work and what names do not.  The only rules are:
a.        Make sure no one has used it before;
b.       Make sure it can be pronounced in English;
c.        Make it memorable.