Sloppy naming

If you’ve got more than one product or service, you have a problem. You need to decide if there’s going to be an architecture to the way you name things. General Motors has a division, Chevrolet. Chevrolet makes cars, and each car has a name (Corvette, Impala). They have an architecture in place that makes some things clear very quickly.

It’s easy for the brand managers at GM to figure out the steps to go through before naming a car. It’s easy for consumers to subconsciously figure out the hierarchy of how it all fits together.

This architecture isn’t a cure-all. Sometimes it leads to internal navel gazing that prevents great stuff from happening. (I remember sitting in long meetings at Spinnaker, where I was a brand manager in the 80s, arguing about what color the little logo banner should be on a particular product–teal meant educational, but siena meant family…)

The alternative, which is to make stuff up as you go along, can lead to chaos. Check out the chart of Apple products through the ages. Apple’s sloppiness has cost them millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements, not to mention making it hard for the team to keep up with the engineers.

First, Apple was a brand that modified a noun. Apple Computer, Apple II, Apple III. Then Macintosh was a brand that was modified by a brand that modified a noun. Apple Macintosh computer. Then Apple Mac IIfx computer, etc.

Then Apple was a brand that modified a brand that modified no noun at all. Apple Newton.

Then Apple modified its own subbrand by adding the letter "i" in front of it. Apple iMac.

Then they went back to the Newton strategy, with a twist: Apple iPod. The thing is, the "i" in Mac modified something we knew what it was (a Mac). But what’s a "pod"?

Wait, it gets a lot worse.

Now that Apple had two successful "i" products in a row, they got giddy and tried to own one of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Which you can’t do. So iHome isn’t made by Apple, but iLife is. The more equity Apple puts into the i, the more they waste, because others can just leverage it for free and people get confused.

Apple made the same mistake with the Powerbook (a third sub brand, the Apple, Macintosh, Powerbook laptop). They had to give up the word "Power" when they switched to the Intel chip from the PowerPC chip. A multi-billion dollar brand name, shredded.

Apple had to pay a million dollars for, because the brand managers didn’t see it coming years ago. Same thing with Cisco’s phone.  They even paid a million dollars for permission to use the word ‘classic’ for one of the Macs years ago. Did I mention the hassles with podcasting?

When a newer, more integrated version of the iPhone comes out, what do they call it?

My guess is that everyone waits to see what Steve likes.

It’s absolutely true to argue that a naming architecture is no replacement for amazing products that people choose to talk about. But if you’re going to pay all those lawyers and marketing suits to work on the names, they might as well be encouraged to lead, not to follow.

Brand names aren’t brands, not by a long shot. But they are valuable clues to consumers, as well as assets you own.