Why You Never Want To Name A Product And How To Do I Right  

There is one golden rule I have when it comes to naming a product and that is let someone else do it. This is because the effort looks deceptively easy and seems to convey a certain amount of status when instead it is incredibly difficult, involves a lot of luck, and to ensure the outcome requires a significant marketing budget you generally don’t get. That is why, generally, the only thing people will all agree on what it comes to a new name is that the person who came up with it was an idiot. It short you generally don’t get a reward for doing this, you get something you hope folks will eventually forget you did.

Having said that there are a lot of folks that will miss this meeting and there is an art to naming. Since I learned this lesson the hard way myself and sadly did the research on how to do this right after I accepted the task, a task I might add that my co-worker who had done it before advised I run from, I’ll share what I learned.

You Have To Think Strategically

It is easy to think tactically and move for the easy name. Common items in the public domain are very easy to get through the process because they are difficult to copywrite but, this means, that if your product is successful others have an equally easy path to create offerings that sound a lot like your own and your path to defense can be very difficult. This means a company with Microsoft’s resources can create and defend a name like Windows even though their cost would have been, over time, massively lower had they used a name they could more effectively Copywrite and protect.

Iteration: Dates Vs. Numbers

Thinking strategically is particularly true if you are going to iterate a product name to differentiate it over time from older offerings. Numbers are the easiest in this regard which is why you have offerings like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad that all, at least initially, iterated. Perhaps the most powerful was the old Intel Pentium because that one product set the cadence for the PC industry when it had a far higher product refresh rate than it currently enjoys. Years can be better and worse. Better in that they even more clearly showcase progression and you can have new product lines next to old product lines with the same number and it isn’t confusing.

So, while folks might get confused with an iPhone 7 and an iPad 3, they wouldn’t with a 2015 iPhone and iPad. However, years have their own difficulty in that to do them right you need to set an annual refresh cadence as people tend to feel a product with the earlier date designator is out of date once the year it is named after passes. Microsoft generally did this wrong as they tended to use the year the product was released and then released at the end of the year so it immediately seemed old, the car industry, which has been doing this for around a century releases with the next year designator so the 2018 cars will be coming out shortly. Even after the 2019 cars come out in 2018, 2018 cars will still feel current in 2018.

Strategic Iteration

And there are a significant number of people who do replace their cars every year though most that buy new are on more of a 3-year cycle. Each of these methods can last indefinitely but an example of thinking tactically is to iterate a product with a modifier. For instance, by naming the new offering Pro to delineate it from the old offering. When you take this path, you are boxed in because it makes each successive step harder. Where do you take it after Pro? So, you get one step and then either you have to iterate both the old and the new, or let your successor fix the mess you created.

Getting Rid Of A Cadence

You are seeing this with the iPad now and it clearly is having an additional adverse impact on sales. Apple decided that given the market for tablets was already soft they would remove the number designator both because it was increasingly clear Apple wasn’t iterating the product timely and, particularly in contrast with the iPhone, the new products seemed to increasingly be out of date.

To solve that Apple stopped iterating the iPad but, when you do that, you have to remove the older iterated products from market. Second now you have to take a buying audience used to iteration, and retrain them to differentiate old from new products in other ways or you’ll substantially reduce your replacement cycle because the “new” aspect of the product becomes muted and now requires a much higher marketing effort focused on calling out specifically what is new.

Products like cars and Smartphones which live on iteration tend to be more successful with a naming strategy that calls this iteration out (number or date), products that replaced because of wear (appliances for instance) tend to work better just by calling out what is new and using halo offerings to bring people to the brand. Samsung doesn’t have a 2017 refrigerator, they do have a 4-door product with a huge display which most don’t buy but makes Samsung appear more cutting edge and attractive as a refrigerator manufacturer.

iPhone Example

For instance, if you have an iPhone 7 and see an iPhone 8, without knowing what is in the product, you have an immediate interest in it. But if you have an iPhone and just seen an iPhone, unless the differences are pointed out or obvious you’ll assume that product is the same as the one you have an are not only not interested in buying it, you aren’t really that interested in exploring it either because you think you already have one.

Now, as noted, if you have an iPhone 7 and see an iPhone you might assume it not only isn’t new but it is an older model pushing you farther back from the purchase experience. This is partially why when Apple stopped iterating the iPad sales, which should have stabilized at a replacement rate, continued to decline. My iPad 4 sounds better than an iPad without a number. This makes transitioning away from iteration very difficult because it could collapse demand if the move isn’t offset by an adequate budget in demand generation to offset the natural tendency to prefer a product with a number over one without.

Pentium Example

Another example is the nearly institutional replacement cycle we had for PCs in the 1990s with the Pentium. Even though the PC OEMs didn’t iterate their product and Microsoft decoupled their operating system iterations from hardware (which should have confused buyers) Intel’s iteration of Pentium told them which PCs were new and made them feel that lower numbered Pentium machines were out of date and needed to be replaced. For a time, all Intel needed to do was market the new number.

Intel then moved to Core where the numbers instead were modeled after BMW and were line designators and replacement cycles plummeted. A 5-year-old Core i7 sounds just like a new one so there is no obvious indicator what the consumer, or employee, had was obsolete. There was a status associated with having a current Pentium which, even though the switching cost to the user was incredibly high at the time, still drove them to prioritize a new machine.

So, losing the regular Pentium naming iteration shifted PCs from a high churn cycle based on the name of the processor to more of an appliance like replacement cycle (from 3+ to 8+ years) costing the industry and Intel billions largely because Intel didn’t offset this move with a marketing program that restored a reason to continue to cycle PCs relatively quickly.

To Iterate Or Not Iterate That Is The Question

Places where you don’t want to iterate is in areas like Printing, Consoles, and Cable TV where they the profit is in the service and supplies and the cost, to the vendor, is in the hardware. In those markets, you want the customer to keep the product as long as possible while consuming the service or supplies to maximize profits.

But, if you live on product churn, getting rid of the method that currently convinces people that they are dissatisfied with what they have will likely reduce dramatically your ability to churn your base and just as dramatically reduce sales unless you do something else that effectively replaces the number or date as a driver.

Wrapping Up:

Naming is more of an art than a science largely because its success depends on the investment in the name and manipulating consumers of the brand to prefer it. Doing it well often depends on luck and when something is working one of the biggest mistakes any vendor can make is changing it because, odds are, they’ll do more damage than good. Even Apple, who does this relatively well (or did under Jobs) recently showcased this with the iPad.

Sadly, because so much in a name has to do with the marketing that surrounds it surveys and focus groups are only good at determining the status of an existing name and generally are nearly worthless in determining whether a new name would work. Steve Jobs thought Focus Groups were stupid and thus used a name that would have tested badly. iPad (which was very similar to a feminine hygiene product-there was a funny spoof on this long before the iPad launched), yet was far more successful than the Apple Watch name that Tim Cook’s Apple came out with.

So, other than not taking responsibility for naming in the first place, don’t mess with an existing naming convention unless you first understand what works about it and are really, really comfortable you won’t make things a lot worse.