How Important is the Product Name?

How much time, money and effort have we spent naming our products and companies?  Is it worth it?  Does a name really matter?

Last week, I had set out to write an article about the importance of nailing the name of your product/company/feature.  I held a firm position and a perfect title for the article (“Is the URL Available?”).  Simply, I felt that naming means very little, especially in comparison to other product success factors like customer value, market, brand experience and price.

Then, news broke last week that IHOP (International House of Pancakes, but you knew that) rebranded to International House of Burgers (IHOB, but you knew that too) and the internet went ahead and blew up.  So, wait, does naming matter?  Was I willing to reverse my stance based on a seismic event that seemingly changed the entire breakfast (and lunch I suppose) landscape?

Just as I was doubting myself, I attended an eight-person meeting at work to finalize the name of a new product promotion we were about to roll out in a week.  Let’s call it “Project Thesaurus”.   We traversed a jungle of words connected to the underlying products.  By the end, we had exhausted the English language, our brains and our patience and left the decision to a vote.  While I appreciate the democratic process, the winning entry wasn’t all that much better than the others.  Was it worth it?

I’m a hypocrite, really.  Two weeks ago, I rebranded this very blog.  After years of calling my site “Growth and Grit”, I decided the name was too vague.  Instead, I changed it to “Build It, Ship It”.  I wanted a blog hyper-focused on product management, and a name that told the story accordingly.

I decided to review larger technology companies.  How important were their naming decisions?  Let’s run through the list of FAANG, as its commonly known.

  • Facebook actually started out as “FaceMesh” and was created for folks to compare two students by physical appearance. Wow – That idea hasn’t aged well at all.  Then, founder Mark Zuckerberg and friends pivoted and became a bonified social network for college campuses.  What was thefacebook.com was shortened to Facebook and the rest is history.  Category: On the nose.
  • Amazon was first named “Cadabra”, as in “abracadabra”. When Jeff Bezos came to his senses, he converted the name to Amazon, to signify scale and – more tactically – because web sites in the 90’s were often listed alphabetically.  This is further proof that Bezos never takes a play off.  Category: Functional.
  • Steve Jobs named his company Apple after returning from an apple farm. He thought the name was “fun, spirited and not intimidating” according to Walter Isaacson’s book.  Category: On-brand.
  • Netflix was very prescient in its naming. Of course, when it was founded in 1997, Netflix’s model was to rent movies (flicks, or flix) over the internet (the net).  Twenty years later, they’ve evolved to streaming their own original content directly over the web.  Category: On the nose.
  • Sergey Brine and Larry Page named its search engine Google as a variation of Googol, which is a mathematical term for the number one followed by one hundred zeroes. Category: Non-sensical.

Each of the names above tell a story around what, how or why the company exists.  Effectively, these companies build the brand right from the first time you hear the words that make up the name.  Michael Rader, founder of Brandroot, a marketplace for .com domain names, explains for the Huffington Post: “Brand names are words, too,” he says. “So the first time we hear a brand name, we have no preconceived conceptions about it.”

In the event of Apple, their brand has no literal connection to their products, but accomplishes something different; It elicits positive feelings. Rader concisely sums up the importance of this: “If somebody automatically associates your brand name with positive emotions, you’ve earned yourself a customer for life.”  Perhaps no better example exists outside of The Honest Co., a consumer goods company that provides household goods under high ethical standards.  Of course, if you’re going to assign such a moniker to what you do, you’ll be held to that standard.  In the case of Honest, this backfired.

Another naming trend is utilizing intellectual luminaries.  Salesforce named its artificial intelligence product “Einstein”, IBM did the same with “Watson” and then there’s Tesla, named after the famous Serbian inventor, Nikola Tesla who invented the induction motor and alternating-current power transmission.  What do folks think of when they hear these brands?  Smart and/or inventive.  Not a bad way for a brand to make a first impression.

The common denominator here is that while some names were better than others, none did harm to the branding.  The easiest way to harm the brand?  Confused your audience.  Drift is a conversational marketing platform.  Their naming convention means very little to me as a business consumer, yet it’s easy to remember and find.  However, they started out as Driftt which was found to be very confusing.  Imagine being recommended this product at a party and then searching for Drift the following day.  Is it Drft, Drfft, Drift or Driftt?  I’m now four google searches into my exploration and my experience with the brand subconsciously elicits confusion.

My stance on naming has changed slightly from when I started.  I still feel that naming is a small matter in the grand scheme of things.  Like most things in life, simplicity typically wins out.  The ideal name is one that describes why, how or what you do without introducing any confusion for your audience.

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