What’s in a Name?

© 2017 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.

Naming. The final frontier.

Either Marketing has identified a brilliant long-range strategic opening that will revolutionize everything or Sales has won their argument and we’ll be producing a “me-too” fast-tracked defensive response product to counter our biggest competitor’s latest gizmo.

Either way, Industrial Design comes up with some pretty concepts of what it might look like, Engineering designs the actual thing so it will perform the way it needs to, and finally, Mechanical Engineering makes sure it all fits together and the factory can actually manufacture it.

Marketing decides how much it will sell for (based on the material and labor cost and market conditions), Sales gives their forecasts (it would have been more but Marketing priced it a little too high), and Purchasing places the order with the overseas factory, telling them to put a ‘rush’ on it (as if that will really make a difference, as if every single customer they have doesn’t tell them to ‘rush’ everything).

But….somewhere along the way, this gadget has to have a definite, hard-and-fast, unchangeable name. It’s got to be called something. Lots of things need to be molded or printed or created digitally: logo badges, names on the product’s chassis, boxes, user manuals (ok, no one reads them, but still), price lists, web pages, ads….lots of stuff.

A name. We need a name.

How do you name something? How important is the name? Does the name really affect the sales and market acceptance of a product one way or the other? Naming is a difficult thing. People have wildly differing views on the topic, based on their own experiences and their perception of their own expertise.

Product naming falls into a few major categories, so we’ll look at each one. Bear in mind that everyone is a bloody expert on the subject, with ironclad, unimpeachable reasons, examples and logic as to why their thoughts and opinions are beyond any second-guessing whatsoever. Really. There are lots of very smart, insightful people involved in this, and none of them can possibly be wrong. It’s very important to understand that from the get-go. There’s only one certainty: Everyone thinks their own ideas about product naming are correct. Just roll with it.

Here are the naming categories:

Alpha/Numeric

(Audi) A4

(Atlantic) IWTS-30 LCR

(Sony) XBR-49X900E

(Acoustic Research) AR-3

(Honda) CR-V

This is the model number approach. The simple method is to use easily-remembered, short model numbers that can take on an identity of their own. Audi’s A4 is a perfect example. Acoustic Research, the famous stereo speaker company from the 1960’s-70’s, used their own company initials (“AR”) and a short model number.

Audi and AR illustrate two different ways a company can go about creating model numbers: Either in ascending/descending order of price/performance (the Audi A3, A4, A5, A6 etc. go up in price/performance as the model number increases) or in time/sequential order: the AR-1 came out first, followed by the AR-2, AR-3, AR-4, etc. This was not a price or performance order: the AR-4 was the least expensive of them all, followed by the AR-2. If a product is truly excellent and garners great critical acclaim from reviewers and strong word-of-mouth from consumers, then the model numbers take on a life of their own, without even having to mention the company name. If a car aficionado asks what you’re driving and you say, “An A4,” they’ll know what you’re talking about. Ditto the Honda (although this is neither sequential or price ascending): Say, “I have a CR-V and I love it,” and people know exactly what you’re talking about. No mention of “Honda” is necessary.

Then, given the brilliant insight and unquestionable logic and expertise of certain senior business executives one has been privileged enough to work with over lo, these many years, you learn that there are certain so-called “heroic” model numbers that must be reserved for very special products and circumstances: 1, One, 10, 20, 50, 100, 1000. Don’t waste those on ordinary products. At the same token, don’t miss the opportunity to bestow upon your ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering invention the heroic model number it so richly deserves. Who knew?

There’s another category of alpha/numeric model numbers. These are created when the company doesn’t expect the model number itself to be a consumer-facing bit of information. Usually, it’s just a series of numbers and letters that make sense mostly to order-placers and inventory-takers. In these cases, the company’s general category description carries the weight for the consumer, not the actual model number. The Sony XBR-49X900E is a perfect example. It’s a Sony (well-recognized as being a good TV), it’s in the XBR family (Sony’s ‘better’ TVs), but that long number is not intended for the end user. It’s not a marketing device.

In this alpha/numeric model number category, there are often instances where the model number itself is somewhat descriptive of the product. Panasonic, for example, had a series of color televisions some years ago that were very precisely described by their model numbers:

CT-25R stood for Color Television 25-inch, Remote control. The CT-19R and the CT-19 were the 19-inch models and one of them had remote control. Guess which one….

Another major category is the Proper Name category. In this naming convention, the product is given an actual name. Not “John,” but a proper name nonetheless. Like these:

Proper Name

(Honda car) Accord

(Toyota car) Camry

(ION speaker) Block Rocker

(Diamondback mountain bike) Cobra

(Boston Acoustics radio) Receptor

 

Cars seem to go back and forth between Proper Names and Alpha/Numeric model numbers:

Buick LaCrosse

Cadillac Eldorado

Cadillac CT6

Toyota Corolla

Toyota RAV4

Chrysler Pacifica

Chrysler 300C

Mazda Millenia

Mazda CX-9

Honda Civic

Honda CR-H

BMW 330i

Mercedes-Benz C300

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Then there is a naming category that combines a Proper Name with an alpha/numeric number. In these cases, the Proper Name is usually the name for a category of products, and that is the name by which the product is best known.

Excellent examples of this are the iPhone and the Galaxy. The model number denotes the variant, the size, how much memory it may have, screen dimension, etc.

Combination Proper Name-Alpha/Numeric

(Samsung) Galaxy S8+

(Apple) iPhone 7S

MacBook Pro 13-inch

MacBook Pro 15-inch

“I have a Galaxy. I used to have an iPhone but I think the camera’s better on the new Galaxies.”

“Which one? The one with the exploding battery? Ha!”

“No, the new one, with the big screen. What is that—the 8?”

See how that conversation works? They never mention ‘Samsung’ or ‘Apple’ because “Galaxy” and “iPhone” carry the weight of identifying what they’re talking about. The Samsung owner didn’t say “8+,” they just said “8” with ‘the big screen.’ That’s enough.

So those are the general categories that product names fall into. Does the name really make a difference to the success or failure of a product?

No.

Sorry, but the bottom line is no, it doesn’t really matter, howls of violent protest to the contrary notwithstanding.

Here’s a story for you old-timers, you close observers of political history. This is a political truism, but it applies perfectly to product marketing also.

Back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for President, he hired two incredibly insightful people as political strategists and operatives: James Carville and Paul Begala.

Smart cookies, they were. They set up a nerve center that became known as the War Room. Here, Carville and Begala would sift through all the news reports, press releases, headline stories, reports from their field personnel, etc. every day, and then they’d respond immediately to anything that was negative. Clinton’s team would answer even the slightest negative story with full force and quash it before it could get a head of steam.

They were a brilliant, aggressive, proactive political team. They had their eyes and ears open, their finger on the pulse. They knew what was really important to voters and what was just so much noise, to be ignored and swept aside. They identified what the hottest issues were and they had Clinton speak to those issues and not waste time with minor distractions.

Carville came up with one of the most memorable lines in the history of political campaigning:

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

That’s what the voters were most interested in. Did they have a job? If they had one, did they feel secure and did they have a good feeling about their future prospects? Would the economy stay strong and expand? Would their kids get jobs? That was the big issue leading up to the November 1992 election.

Remember, we’d just defeated Saddam Hussein in February 1991 in Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. The U.S. military had performed magnificently and came home in well-deserved glory, to great adulation. But by the summer of 1992—with the country just pulling out of a mild economic recession—the Gulf War 18 months earlier might as well have been 18 years earlier, for all the difference it made in the 1992 Presidential Election.

Carville and Begala recognized this: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Key in on the economy. Speak about that, first, last and in between.

Good lesson. No, great lesson. For people in product marketing, it translates to this:

“It’s the product, stupid.”

The product. That’s what matters. Eventually, everything else will fall by the wayside if the product itself isn’t right: The price, the name, the color, where it’s available, everything—sooner or later—becomes meaningless if the product itself doesn’t do its job.

Let’s look at the Honda Accord and Honda Civic. Fine cars, well-built, competitively priced, great resale value, good fuel economy, peppy, roomy, reliable, nice handling, pretty good-looking. Perennial best sellers, deservedly so.

Would there be any difference whatsoever in their sales performance if the names were switched and the smaller car was the Accord and the larger car was the Civic? Nope, no difference. Know why? It’s the product, stupid. These are great products. They do exactly what great automotive products are supposed to do. They have a great reputation because they’ve earned it.

(By the way, a “product” doesn’t have to be a physical thing: It can be an insurance policy, a vacation package, an investment mutual fund, anything. Those are all products.)

There are some common-sense guidelines for product naming.

  • Make sure the name doesn’t have a double slang meaning that renders it a laughing stock or have some cultural/religious connotation that might be inappropriate to a meaningful portion of your market (like a model 666).
  • If it’s going to sold internationally, make sure the name doesn’t translate or read as something nonsensical or offensive in another language.
  • Make sure it’s not a resurrection of a famous failed product from the past. I doubt Ford will ever come out with another “Edsel,” but they could come out with a new “Thunderbird.”
  • If it’s alpha/numeric and you want people to remember it, keep it short and, well, memorable. BMW’s 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series do that well.

Get over the idea of “heroic” model numbers. There’s no such thing. The product makes the name or number, not the other way around. If you come out with this terrific gizmo that performs great, looks great, is a real value, makes everyone feel great about owning one and it never breaks, then people will remember the name, whether it’s “2” or “Spitfire” or “EPI-100.”

In point of fact, far too many people assign far too much importance to the subject of product naming. Products make their name memorable when they hit their intended market spot-on and score a bulls-eye, not the other way around. No clever product name ever rescued a bad product. Ever.

When someone in your company or organization gets on their high horse and starts pontificating about the vital life-and-death importance of the correct product name, do your best to just listen and smile. You know better. The most valuable thing you can do is don’t let the naming process bog down the development/introduction timeline. Pick a name and move on. Just don’t let any “666’s” get out the door

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