The Microsoft Whoops Phone and iPad: The Danger of Naming

Rob Enderle

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

 

Acronyms Suck

 

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.

 

Wrapping Up

 

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.



Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Feb 19, 2010 10:00 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says:

Everyone seemed to think it was going to be named iTablet, but iTablet is trademarked.

http://tarr.uspto.gov/servlet/tarr?regser=serial&entry=76526787

"everyone thinks they are better at it than the folks doing the job. "

Speaking of which, I think there is a more obvious tablet concept that people are not seeing (or maybe it's so obvious that it's obviously wrong). So I've been doing a little research on my concept and it seems to be patented by a Fortune 500 company, yet they don't even make consumer devices and I don't see any tablets that use the patent. So, I've been trying to figure out if there is any way to develop the concept further, but I don't see any way to discuss it with any parties that might be interested without hitting policies like this. http://www.apple.com/legal/policies/ideas.html Any ideas? (Feel free to ignore if you wish, way off topic)

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Feb 19, 2010 11:29 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

Can hardly blame Apple for the policy as it is rather common for folks to think big companies steal their ideas when the reality is big companies seldom listen to outside ideas at all.   There is that risk especially if someone else has patented the idea already.  You could approach the company with the patent and see if you can get an exclusive license to it or buy it given it isn't in their area of interest.   But you'd likely have to flesh out the idea yourself or find a partner.   Just remember what happened to the Crunchpad.  http://techcrunch.com/2009/11/30/crunchpad-end/

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Feb 20, 2010 10:22 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

The Crunchpad debacle doesn't make much sense to me. You would think Arrington, who "practiced corporate and securities law", would have a working contract with Fusion Garage so that they can't just throw him out of his own company without huge penalties.

As for corporations stealing ideas, it's not unheard of. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_of_Genius_%28film%29

And for trying to get a exclusive license of the patent, it's worth trying, but I doubt they'll even humor me with a price quote unless I'm representing a company listed on some stock exchange. Even if I do get a nice quote, it's worthless unless I can show a prototype to a company like Apple, which I don't see how. Back to square one.

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Feb 20, 2010 10:26 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

The iPod was successfully pitched to Apple but that's the only time I've seen that work there and they were willing to listen to anything back then.   Better to pull a team together and find an ODM and see if you can get a prototype built.  

On Arrington, we'll see how the litigation goes but you're right that sure didn't look like it was well planned.

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Feb 20, 2010 11:00 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

I don't see an issue in prototyping, I can put together a rough prototype within a month. The concept is either something that some company out there is already selling (and not very successfully) and I haven't seen it, OR, everyone has considered it but it's impractical for some technical or other reasons unknown to me, OR, I'm ahead of everybody else, less the necessary intellectual property. The concept is so simple, its almost stupid, if I posted the patent number, you could probably figure out what I'm getting at in less than 5 minutes.

In any case, without showing a prototype or pitching the concept to someone big, its all for naught. I don't see an option of going at it alone. (By the way, thanks for your input so far)

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Feb 20, 2010 11:17 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

Another issue is that companies might not see the potential in the idea, or the wrong people would evaluate it. I remember way back, I was trying to pitch Bank of America in doing a cash back program for online purchases. This was before all the credit card companies had such programs, there were a few small guys like FatWallet, but no one major. The guy was trying to explain to me that online merchants would be opposed to such an idea, that it would be cash back for something that people were already in the process of purchasing. I was trying to explain that if Fatwallet had a such program, they couldn't stop BoA from implementing it. The guy practically hanged up, and that was the end of that. And a few years later, after Chase, Discover started their cash back programs....

https://additup.bankofamerica.com/

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Feb 20, 2010 11:47 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to a. asdf

Wrapping up, I guess the question is if there is some company that specializes in selling concepts or prototypes, that is trusted and can get access to large companies to show concepts to. That I can just say here, sell this, and send me a check. Is there such a thing? If not, I wonder how one would start one.

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Feb 22, 2010 1:46 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

If there is a company that will do this for you (that wouldn't charge you an arm and leg) I don't know of them.   The combination of someone else owning the patent and it being a simple idea would likely have me considering something else to do with my time anyway.  

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Feb 22, 2010 9:12 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

It is possible that I'm drunk on my own kool-aid. lol.

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