I have a rule about product naming and, since I came up with it, I call in the Enderle Rule (creative, huh?). That rule is: "When it comes to product naming, the only thing everyone will agree on is the person who came up with the name is an idiot." I thought of this rule as I watched the coverage of the iPad, which has an uncomfortable connection to a woman's hygiene product (I think Apple needs more women in high management positions), and the Windows Phone Series 7 name which, when turned into an acronym, WPS, sounds like "Whoops."
Let's talk about why naming is a real bi, er, problem and why, when someone is looking for a person to come up with a name, you should start running and not look back until you are in a country without an extradition treaty.
My Naming Experience
One of the jobs I've held was in marketing for IBM. I shared responsibility for a product that had been in development for years. It had no name. This was becoming a problem because we were getting close to launch and it is pretty hard to do a launch if the thing you're launching doesn't have a name. Now at IBM back then, and I'm sure at other companies, there was an unwritten rule that you didn't volunteer for anything. Apparently, I missed the meeting on that because I volunteered to take the responsibility for getting the name done. This remains one of the worst decisions I've ever made in my life.
You see, there had been an internal contest to select a name for the product. The thousands of folks who worked in and around the product had some interesting ideas. Unfortunately, in this "contest," the only name most seemed to like was the one they came up with themselves. On top of that, as in a lot of big companies, executive management felt that these folks got a vote since they worked on the offering.
Cost of Vetting
It takes about $10,000 to $20,000 to vet a name. Given that this was to be an international product, the cost typically drifted to the high side. IBM didn't want any litigation, so vetting had to be aggressive. This meant that any name that looked even remotely attractive was already taken or meant something really nasty in a foreign language. After burning through a lot of money, I came up with three names that passed and were memorable. These names had to be vetted with the engineers who, remember, only liked the names they came up with and thought the names I had come up with reminded them of diseases or medical products.
I knew I was trapped so I took what the product did -- distributed storage management -- and turned it into an acronym, DSM, which was not pronounceable. Nobody loved it but nobody hated it. After the first naming pass, folks were already thinking I was mentally challenged. Think of Peterbilt, a very successful truck company, going through this naming process: "OMG, doesn't that imply you are building with your .... ?!?"
Just One More Letter (for the CEO)
At the time, we were planning to spin the division out and the name for the new company was AdStar. Believe me, I had sympathy for the poor fool who came up with that name, which coincidentally had the same first letter as the General Manager's last name. So I added the A to the front and the product name became ADSM. We launched. As some of you know, there is no AdStar company and the division never spun out. Sigh
At IBM, we did a lot of studies. One of them was on acronyms and it clearly showed that customers hated them, they were really a problem to market, they were hard to remember, and you could have several divisions and companies using the same acronym for different things. Also, some acronyms, when spoken, make unfortunate words, which makes you feel sorry for the folks that make the Field Change Kit or FCK. Takeaway: Acronyms suck. However, they are vastly easier to get through internal and external approval processes, which is why big companies have so many of them.
One of the big problems with branding in particular and marketing in general is that it often seems that everyone thinks they are better at it than the folks doing the job. This gives you an amazing number of critics and a rather pitiful number of supporters. So just remember that when you see something stupid in a product name, life could be worse. You could be the idiot blamed for coming up with it.
Also remember: If someone asks you to come up with a product name, run away.