Great innovations deserve great names

Sep 01 2011 by Max McKeown Print This Article

In 1939, two physicists announced what they called a 'gravitationally completely collapsed object'. The world yawned. Forty years later, when a lecturer commented that it deserved a better name, a member of the audience suggested renaming it a 'Black Hole'. The name stuck. This time the world woke up and the name became part of our working vocabulary.

The name given to an innovation matters. A great innovation may survive without a great name but the name helps. Particularly if the innovation is also a product, a service, something you will be trying to sell, something that needs a brand.

Names are valuable. Dell bought Alienware, a high-end PC producer popular with gamers. Dell could have designed high-end computers but people don't associate Dell with high performance. No one wears Dell t-shirts. People buy Alienware clothing. It's cool.

Instead of calling its new processor the '586', Intel named it the Pentium. It turned the microprocessor from an invisible component into a visible difference between computers. It also made its competitors look old-fashioned.

Apple adds one letter to any product and instantly owns the category from iPhone to iPad to iCloud. Imagine having to compete against the iPad with the generic-sounding HP TouchPad. Or the Blackberry tablet aimed at serious business users but called Ė in a curiously dissonant flourish - the PlayBook.

Having a memorable name for your innovation doesn't guarantee of success. Calling Sega's games console Dreamcast didn't stop it losing to Sony's Playstation. Zune is a good name for a media player but Microsoft still hasn't overtaken the iPod. The same was true of Segway, Motorola's Rokr, Apple's Newton, and Nokia's N-Gage. Yet Amazon's Kindle is such a beautifully conceived name that it surely reflecting careful thought in every stage of it's design in a way that Microsoft's 'Kin mobile phone for teenagers did not.

A next-generation product gives you a choice. Should you continue with an existing name? Or choose a new name? Customers have a soft spot for innovation but they are also suspicious. They are concerned about the effort in learning to use something new. They are also wary about problems found in new products.

New names promote newness. For the majority of customers, this triggers different assumptions about the risks and rewards of buying the new product. Customers may the newness of the product on the newness of the name not on other information available. If a product has changed radically to appeal to noncustomers then a new name may be the only way to get across the message.

Hard-core gamers reacted angrily to the Wii console name, but Nintendo successfully targeted people who did not use consoles. Many criticized the name but the company gained valuable attention from non-gamers. Nintendo had two powerful stories ready to explain the new brand. First, that Wii meant gaming for groups, as in 'we are all included'. Second, that Wii meant 'overthrow of the gods" (as in Sony and Microsoft) in ancient Japanese.

Understanding probable customer reactions allows you to design marketing to manage those reactions. Products with new names, particularly bizarre new names, benefit from extended guarantees or trial periods rather than price discounts.

Kia, the Korean car manufacturer, called its new hatchback the C'eed and sells it with a seven-year warrantee. The message is "our cars are surprising in a good way".

The GM Volt makes it clear that GM has a new electric car. Coke Zero clarifies it's calorie and sugar levels. Facebook provides a book of faces and builds on its university heritage. Twitter allows people to twitter about minutiae yet was also taken seriously by revolutionaries throughout the Arab Spring. The Renault Espace highlighted both it's French origin and it's key selling point.

Existing names promote continuity. Customers expect the new product to be easy to learn, to have no problems, and to be 'better' than the old version. Noncustomers are less likely to notice the new features and customers may be unhappy if the new product is a radical innovation hiding under an old name.

When the taste of Coke was changed, many customers were shocked. They did not want a radically different taste when they brought their traditional favorite. Coke brought back the old taste just three months later. The new taste was not the problem Ė the problem was putting the new taste in bottles with an old name.

Some of the best names for new products have come from unlikely sources. A freelancer working at Apple proposed the iPod name after the prototype reminded him of the white pods from the spaceship in 2001: Space Odyssey.

Naming consultancies can ensure that names are available as trademarks, websites, and that they don't mean anything rude in another country. They can market test different names but they cannot guarantee the name will help the product. There are other ways of sending the message that a product is innovative. In fact, the message and packaging can be the innovation that seems useful. We know the Mini and Beetle are new because they look new Ė a name change would be wasteful.

Making a product look innovative is the single best way of getting the message across. That's why the Dyson vacuum cleaner looks like a science fiction rifle. The name becomes innovative because it is associated with the design.

There are four critical issues with names.

1. Character: What is this new thing like? How does it work? What does it solve? Does it do what the name suggests? Egg is a bank that provides safety for your 'nest egg'. Facebook puts friends into an electronic version of a university facebook. Blu-ray DVD highlights the use of blue lasers to create bigger capacity discs.

2. Customers: Who are they? Why will they buy? What attracts them? Digg is a web site that allows bloggers to post up, and vote on, articles. The name appeals to people who want others to 'dig' their expertise. Alligator Poo is a crystalline sweet that appeals to its teen audience and causes a reaction from their parents!

3. Competition: What other names are there? How can you be different? How can you avoid a generic name? EasyJet and JetBlue both offered innovative low-cost air travel, when they launched their names were distinctive compared to traditional airlines with their national and regional names.

4. Communication: How can you tell the story? How can you deliver the message? Sometimes the story behind the naming process is what matters. Starbucks combined the name of the first mate in Moby Dick, with the name of a mining camp near Seattle, with a mermaid in its logo. It has very little directly to do with the concept of a 'third place' coffee shop and yet somehow evokes just such a feeling of literature and exotic products from far off places.

Sadly, there is no certain way of picking a winning name for an innovation. The best names often only seem smart after they are successful. Ebay got its name when the web address its founder wanted, 'Echo Bay', was unavailable. Apple got its name because its founder thought it was the perfect fruit. Even so, putting effort to pick a good name and expertise to avoid a bad name is worthwhile. With a great name, an okay innovation can rise to become a great brand.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.