Aug 09

The not-so-simple art of naming

3GS? 3G S? 3G-box-S? Make up your mind!

3GS? 3G S? 3G-box-S? Make up your mind!

You’d think that by now, most companies would understand that it’s a consumer’s world, and being normal folk, we like things clean and simple — starting with the names of the products we buy. I will be the first to admit that it is getting better. Slowly. Now we have Pre, Slingbox, even Zune (though it hurts to utter the word) that give us a name we can hang onto. But then there’s always the Samsung HT-BD7200 to bring us back down to earth (no kidding, it was one of the “best in show” at CES this year). And every so often, a company that really knows better gets caught up in its own nomenclature. Just so you don’t think I’m an unrelenting Apple apologist, take a look at what they’ve done with the new iPhone 3GS. Or is it the iPhone 3G S. Or the iPhone 3G S-in-a-box. Hard to tell even by reading Apple’s own website. See Exhibit A above: they can’t even get it straight between headline and copy.

What surprised me about this is that Apple normally employs terrific common sense about such things. When the super-thin iPod nano radically changed to the “fat” iPod nano a couple of years ago, the new name was: iPod nano. And when it dramatically changed form yet again last year, the new name was: iPod nano. Apple has always believed it’s kind of like buying a car. Every year, Audi makes a different A4, but it’s always called the Audi A4. We’re all smart enough to figure out that when we go to the showroom, we’ll get the newest model. This logic does fly in the face of some stone-etched laws of retailing, but Apple has never cared much for those laws. Of course there are times when the new product has a distinguishing feature that really sets it apart or would add some great value if it were to appear in the name — like iPod touch. That’s nice and easy. So why the S on top of the 3G? Apple says it stands for “speed” — which, strangely, has not been a big part of the advertising, and I doubt that more than a small handful of people will ever make the connection. But I suspect people would get it in a nanosecond if it were called it the iPhone video — since that feature opens up an incredibly huge new world to iPhone users. Somehow, I think we’d all have quickly “gotten it” if Apple told me that the newest iPhone was also the fastest. And we wouldn’t be left to decipher meaningless letters and numbers in a decidedly non-Apple way.

You might say I’m splitting hairs here. And I certainly am, in the sense that when your product is white-hot and the industry’s #1 object of lust, it’s hardly an issue. But principles are principles, and even the master of product naming can stumble from time to time. Fortunately, it’s easy to forgive a company that does so much cool and smart stuff, which only goes to prove the power of a great brand. You get a hell of a lot more leeway as long as you keep making us happy.

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  • The TV model numbers thing only makes sense to me because having worked for [a major CE mfgr], their models, like a 50″ BrightView (fake name) LCD is sold globally but differences in things like input panels (No one in the US would know what an SCART plug would be for) force the long string of a model code to change. That said, the “name” should really be this years Bright View 50″ and not sold as TVLCD-US50ST.

    TV makers like Samsung have the ranges like the 7 Series, 6 Series, 5 Series (you see where this is going) but even as a CE nerd, I have to look at the product matrix to see the differentiation. Even without the cryptic, region/option/rev specific model code as the primary name, the size and series tells me little. I like my Samsung 7 series but why did I get it over the 6? I was in the store and the 7 was the same price as the 6 so I said why not, 7 is obviously a superior number. Was it? I found out later that the screen is exactly the same and the 7 had some other interactive options I probably wouldn’t use. My only solace was in that i didn’t pay more for the privilege of having and not using.

    I’ve always felt that CE companies were obsessed with providing a breadth of offerings rather than a caring, thoughtful handful of amazing ones. Make one 50″ TV, make it great and price it well. Perhaps make 2. But don’t end up with 30 TVs, it serves no one and everyone ends up confused.

    There are a small number of companies who understand that their identity is intertwined with the purity, simplicity, unadulterated obsession with making and selling that caring handful of excellent things.

  • ken segall

    Hi Lionel, thanks for all that detail on CE naming. You make a great point about the “product grid” that most of these companies offer. It’s insane. Though I’m sure they have all kinds of statistics to support the need to operate this way, I can’t believe they wouldn’t make more money in the end if they gave customers the simplicity they crave. And you hit it right on the head with your last paragraph. Only a few really get it — and as a result they do really well for themselves. It’s the ones who get caught up in all this matrixy gobbly-gook that will cause the end of civilization!

  • Lou Fink

    Make no mistake about it. I’ve always been an ” ad person wanna be ” and Ken knows this well. Admittedly [ or should I say ” Ad-mittedly ” ] my inane comments and observations are just that. Be that as it may and tongue firmly buried in cheek, I’d like to offer the following: Change in nomenclature suggestion to Ken……………..Apple apologist…………..now known as ” Ap-ologist ”

    Think simple……….and different

  • Great blog. One small point on naming though. Apple most often uses the same name of a product for the new version, such as iPod nano, when the new model replaces and ends-of-life the old one. In the case of iPhone, Apple is keeping the older model around. As you state, maybe S is not the best way to differentiate the models, but it seems to address one of the biggest criticisms of the previous model. To your point, Apple also cleaned up some confusion by renaming the 13-inch aluminum MacBook, MacBook Pro. It was confusing to have both plastic and aluminum-cased models called MacBook.

  • ken segall

    Hi Oren, and thanks. Good point about it being easier to keep the same name going forward if you’ve killed the previous version, which did not happen in the case of the iPhone 3GS. But as you say, “S” probably wasn’t the best differentiator they could come up with. (Maybe it would have been had they pumped that meaning up in their marketing. I would also still argue that the addition of video was the giant leap forward in this model, not speed — and video was a big part of their marketing). Then again, this is all nit-picking to a degree, and for that I should get 40 lashes. When you create a product that soars like this one, such details hardly matter :)

  • Ken, what a handsome, personable, well-focused blog. Congratulations.
    As a fellow (though less storied) naming warrior – I shudder at the seemingly endless strings of numbers and letters being used as product names or name modifiers. It only ever communicates a certain shiftiness: The XJ567Ae will be replaced with the XJ567Av next month, and a few months from now, a search on the download/support site for your old-fashioned ‘e’ will come up blank.
    Y’know, given how important naming is, isn’t it amazing that none of the communications schools have a naming class in their curriculum?

  • ken segall

    Thanks Dion. What a handsome, personable, well-focused man you are. And I think you make a terrific point about naming being a missing part of marketing curricula. Does anyone know if any of the better schools get into this?

  • Agreed, 3GS is not a winner in the naming department. I’ve also read that the Apple brand police have requested of the tech blogs that they refrain from calling it the 3Gs. The rule-book says the “S” should always be capitalized, neither lowercase nor superscript.

    I have my own theory for the naming convention. The obvious name would have been the iPhone 3. But they named the second model the iPhone 3G (for 3G network), so they couldn’t call the new phone the “3” because it would sound like a downgrade from a “3G” to the “3”. I suppose they could have gone with “3Gv” for video but is that really any better? Especially since I don’t think video is going to define this model.

    Though you wouldn’t know it from Apple’s current marketing, I believe the defining feature of the iPhone 3GS will turn out to be the compass (or “magnetometer” for the more technically inclined).

    In about another 4 to 6 weeks now people may be calling it the iPhone AR.

    Kudos on the new blog, and welcome to the conversation.

  • EDIT:
    “…will turn out not to be the compass…”
    “…will turn out to be the compass…”