What’s in a name? ….er, everything and nothing

Craig Bailey blogged recently about a new product, Elcom, had introduced with a name of Elcom TrainingManager.Net. In his post, he briefly mentioned they were talking about renaming it and one of the responses was from a company named Igor that talked about the importance of naming.

By now, I think everyone has seen the Microsoft iPod parody where it shows what Microsoft marketing might have done with an iPod and certainly, while it was done as a joke, the reality is Microsoft’s product naming conventions can be a bit tedious.

How many different versions of Vista are there? And they all start as Windows Vista. And don’t get me started on Microsoft Visual Studio Team System for Database Designers (they did clean this up slightly in 2008) – it’s almost as if marketing gets paid by the word when they come up with a product name.

Craig has done a nice job with his CLARITY posts that attempt to explain certain products and his post on Microsoft’s online offerings (Live=Consumer, Online=Business, Hosted=Third party) does shed some light on it (one could argue that if your product lines needs CLARITY posts, you need to rethink your naming).

But the entire naming issue got me thinking about who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong? OK – based on above discussion, we don’t need to know everyone who’s doing it wrong – a few examples suffice.

I think Apple, without a doubt, is one of the leaders in product naming. It’s not the Apple Mac, it’s simply Mac. It’s an iPod, an iPhone, an iMac – yes, they do Need to get out of the whole “i” thing soon but consider the Newton. I think the only product Apple has out now that actually says Apple is the AppleTV. And they have brand recognition. No one thinks twice about the company you are referring to when you talk about one of these devices. They *know* it. If someone started talking about a very cool and revolutionary technology product, one of the first major companies that would spring to mind would likely be Apple.

So do you really need to put your company name in your product name? Even more to the point, is it necessary for your product name to tell everyone what they are supposed to do with it? When I talk about spreadsheets, I just have to say “Excel” and people know what you are talking about (this is one case where Microsoft won the product naming issue but then lost it with the different versions of Office). PowerPoint now is the defacto word for doing presentations on a computer. iPod is the defacto word for MP3 players. Sometimes I think that “Smart Phones” or “PDAs” aren’t all the rage because someone (RIM) came up with a single word that encapsulated everything they were supposed to be (Blackberry). (and Microsoft did have a good thing with HotMail but now that’s become Windows Live HotMail or something to that effect).

Let’s look a bit further at Internet-based companies.

Both Google and Yahoo! had similar sounding names in that they were almost nonsensical names based on what they were doing (and yes, I do know that Google was supposed to be Gooogle based on the big number but that doesn’t help me make my point). AdSense is Google’s product and while some do refer to it as Google Adsense, it’s almost not needed. But here, Google is certainly falling into a trap. Almost everything Google does includes the word Google. Google Earth, GoogleDocs, GoogleMail (gMail), Google Health. They might be better off trying to take a strip from Apple and just use the letter ‘g’ instead. At least with gMail, it looked like they were doing that. And now, it’s GoogleMail for Business.

To be fair, Google does have Blogger, Picassa, SketchUp, YouTube and Orkut.

But what about the embattled Yahoo? At least they have Flickr, a term which more and more defines sharing photos but in many cases, they suffer the same problem (YahooMail, Yahoo Finance, etc)

When someone says Basecamp – I don’t think “oh that’s right, it’s 37signals Basecamp project management solution for small business” , I just think “Basecamp” and KNOW what I’m referring to. dBase was a clever way of shortening database, but FoxPro didn’t relate at all to databases, except that it became known as the way to make them faster. And while SPSS may be an acronym to do with statistics, most would be hard-pressed to descramble that acronym (it’s actually Statistical Package for the Social Sciences)

I think it’s fair to say no one would ever have thought of “Monster” as a term for job search 20 years ago but nowadays, it’s pretty common. Does Twitter actually explain what the service does?

Try to connect the products below and the market they serve. Do any of them make sense?

Quicken                 Web Site development
Freelance               Email Manager
Dreamweaver         Personal Finance
Thunderbird           Presentation Software

You know your product is a success, when your product name becomes synonymous with that market. (Heck, you may even want to change your company name to match your product as Satellite Software did with WordPerfect)

Which brings us back to the Elcom naming discussion above. Does adding .Net to your product name make it a better product? No – but it certainly endears you to the IT department in the fortune 500 company who thinks so and who may have a hand in deciding your product’s fate in that company. Do you need to put your company or other brand name in front of your product name? Only if you don’t think it can stand on its own. It’s like the companies who make a big deal about ensuring you say “Inc” or “ltd” when discussing the company as if it makes it appear more professional. When you are writing for legal purposes, it may be required but otherwise, get rid of all the crap that doesn’t make any sense. Apple did it last year when they removed Computer from their company name. It was superfluous.

I think of the poll the FoxPro community had when determining what to name the community driven VFP project. Many were torn to call it VFP.Net but I have to say VFPX was the right choice (buy this product a vowel please).

Naming your product and space is important – but it’s not necessarily about clarity. If people are confused about what your product does, it MIGHT be the name but it might also be the PRODUCT itself.