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What Goes into Naming a Consumer Product?

by August 14, 2017

Naming. The final frontier.

Either Marketing has identified a brilliant long-range strategic opening that will revolutionize everything or Sales has won their argument and we’ll be producing a “me-too” fast-tracked defensive response product to counter our biggest competitor’s latest gizmo.

Everyone thinks their own ideas about product naming are correct.

Either way, Industrial Design comes up with some pretty concepts of what it might look like, Engineering designs the actual thing so it will perform the way it needs to, and finally, Mechanical Engineering makes sure it all fits together and the factory can actually manufacture it.

Marketing decides how much it will sell for (based on the material and labor cost and market conditions), Sales gives their forecasts (it would have been more but Marketing priced it a little too high), and Purchasing places the order with the overseas factory, telling them to put a ‘rush’ on it (as if that will really make a difference, as if every single customer the factory has doesn’t tell them to ‘rush’ everything).

But....somewhere along the way, this gadget has to have a definite, hard-and-fast, unchangeable name. It’s got to be called something. Lots of things need to be molded or printed or created digitally: logo badges, names on the product’s chassis, boxes, user manuals (ok, no one reads them, but still), price lists, web pages, ads....lots of stuff.

A name. We need a name.

How do you name something? How important is the name? Does the name really affect the sales and market acceptance of a product one way or the other? Naming is a difficult thing. People have wildly differing views on the topic, based on their own experiences and their perception of their own expertise.

Product naming falls into a few major categories, so we’ll look at each one. Bear in mind that everyone is a bloody expert on the subject, with ironclad, unimpeachable reasons, examples and logic as to why their thoughts and opinions are beyond any second-guessing whatsoever. Really. There are lots of very smart, insightful people involved in this, and none of them can possibly be wrong. It’s very important to understand that from the get-go. There’s only one certainty: Everyone thinks their own ideas about product naming are correct. Just roll with it.

Here are the naming categories:

Alpha/Numeric

(Audi) A4

(Atlantic Technology) IWTS-30 LCR

(Sony) XBR-49X900E

(Acoustic Research) AR-3

(Honda) CR-V

(Triumph) TR7

This is the model number approach. The simple method is to use easily-remembered, short model numbers that can take on an identity of their own. Audi’s A4 is a perfect example. Acoustic Research, the famous stereo speaker company from the 1960’s-70’s, used their own company initials (“AR”) and a short model number. 

 ar_3_1965_teak_tyson_collec.jpeg

Famous AR-3 speaker from Acoustic Research (image courtesy of Tom Tyson)

Audi and AR illustrate two different ways a company can go about creating model numbers: Either in ascending/descending order of price/performance (the Audi A3, A4, A5, A6 etc. go up in price/performance as the model number increases) or in time/sequential order: the AR-1 came out first, followed by the AR-2, AR-3, AR-4, etc. This was not a price or performance order: the AR-4 was the least expensive of them all, followed by the AR-2. 

Oftentimes, when a company uses the price-ascending model numbering approach, they’ll pick numbers that lend themselves to being upgraded to “next year’s line,” such as Pioneer’s SX-424 and SX-525 becoming the SX-434 and SX-535, or Kenwood’s KR-6200 and KR-7200 becoming the KR-6400 and KR-7400, etc. Companies really do that.

PioneerSX-535.jpg 

Pioneer SX-535 receiver, the successor to the SX-525

If a product is truly excellent and garners great critical acclaim from reviewers and strong word-of-mouth from consumers, then the model numbers take on a life of their own, without even having to mention the company name. If a car aficionado asks what you’re driving and you say, “An A4,” they’ll know what you’re talking about. Ditto the Honda CR-V (although this is neither sequential or price ascending): Say, “I have a CR-V and I love it,” and people know exactly what you’re talking about. No mention of “Honda” is necessary. And, is there anyone with even the slightest awareness of sports cars who doesn’t immediately know what a ‘TR7’ is? 

 tr7-2.jpg

The memorable Triumph TR7 

Now for a different take: Given the brilliant insight and unquestionable logic and expertise of certain senior business executives one has been privileged enough to work with over lo, these many years, you learn that there are certain so-called “heroic” model numbers that must be reserved for very special products and circumstances: 1, One, 10, 20, 50, 100, 1000. Don’t waste those on ordinary products. At the same token, don’t miss the opportunity to bestow upon your ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering invention the heroic model number it so richly deserves. Who knew?

There’s another category of alpha/numeric model numbers. These are created when the company doesn’t expect the model number itself to be a consumer-facing bit of information. Usually, it’s just a series of numbers and letters that make sense mostly to order-placers and inventory-takers. In these cases, the company’s general category description carries the weight for the consumer, not the actual model number. The Sony XBR-49X900E is a perfect example. It’s a Sony (well-recognized as being a good TV), it’s in the XBR family (Sony’s ‘good’ TVs), but that long number is not really intended for the end user. It’s not a marketing device. 

 Sony-XBR49X900E.jpg

The “catchy” Sony XBR-49X900E

In this alpha/numeric model number category, there are often instances where the model number itself is somewhat descriptive of the product. Panasonic, for example, had a series of color televisions some years ago that were very precisely described by their model numbers:

CT-25R stood for Color Television 25-inch, Remote control. The CT-19R and the CT-19 were the 19-inch models and one of them had a remote control. Guess which one.... 

A derivative of this category is when a company assigns an “internal” model number based on an alpha/numeric organizational scheme for ordering and inventory purposes, but gives the product a Proper Name (see below) for “public consumption.” This is fairly common. As an example, the consumer electronics company ION has a portable karaoke speaker known as Star Power to the customer but it’s called the “iSP70” internally.

StarPower_Angle2.jpg 

ION Audio’s Star Power (iSP70)

Another major category is the Proper Name category. In this naming convention, the product is given an actual name. Not “John,” but a proper name nonetheless. Like these: 

Proper Name

(Honda car) Accord

(Toyota car) Camry

(ION speaker) Block Rocker

(Diamondback mountain bike) Cobra

(Boston Acoustics radio) Receptor

 diamondback cobra.jpg

Diamondback Cobra mountain bike 

Cars seem to go back and forth between Proper Names and Alpha/Numeric model numbers:

Buick LaCrosse
Cadillac Eldorado
Cadillac CT6
Cadillac STS
Toyota Corolla
Toyota RAV4
Chrysler Pacifica
Chrysler 300C
Mazda Millenia
Mazda CX-9
Honda Pilot
Honda CR-H
BMW 330iMercedes-Benz C300
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Then there is a naming category that combines a Proper Name with an alpha/numeric number. In these cases, the Proper Name is usually the name for a category of products, and that is the name by which the product is best known. 

Excellent examples of this are the iPhone and the Galaxy. The model number denotes the variant, the size, how much memory it may have, screen dimension, etc.

Combination Proper Name-Alpha/Numeric:

(Samsung) Galaxy S8+
(Apple) iPhone 7S
(Apple) MacBook Pro 13-inch 

“I have a Galaxy. I used to have an iPhone but I think the camera’s better on the new Galaxies.”

“Which one? The one with the exploding battery? Ha!”

“No, the new one, with the big screen. What is that—the 8?”

See how that conversation works? They never mention ‘Samsung’ or ‘Apple’ because “Galaxy” and “iPhone” carry the weight of identifying what they’re talking about. The Samsung owner didn’t say “8+,” they just said “8” with ‘the big screen.’ That’s enough. 

In the audio business, sometimes a company will come up with a special name for their product (or even just the company name itself) to connote quality and sophistication in an effort to subliminally influence prospective customers. The cable company “Audioquest” is a good example of this, although their arch competitor “Kimber Kable” is simply named after its founder, Ray Kimber. Then of course, there’s “Monster Cable,” which is not an audio-convincing name, but merely a catchy, memorable name. The individual product names under these company names have clever proper names like Black Mamba II, Hero, Chicago, Golden Gate, Silver Streak and so on.

golden-gate-rca-to-rca_png_egdetail.jpg 

Audioquest Golden Gate cables 

So those are the general categories that product names fall into. Does the name really make a difference to the sales/marketplace success or failure of a product?

No. 

Sorry, but the bottom line is no, it doesn’t really matter, howls of violent protest to the contrary notwithstanding.

A Lesson from Politics

Here’s a story for you old-timers, you close observers of American political/social history. This is a political truism, but it applies perfectly to product marketing also. 

Back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for President, he hired two incredibly insightful people as political strategists and operatives: James Carville and Paul Begala.

Smart cookies, they were. They set up a nerve center that became known as the War Room. Here, Carville and Begala would sift through all the news reports, press releases, headline stories, reports from their field personnel, etc. every day, and then they’d respond immediately to anything that was negative. Clinton’s team would answer even the slightest negative story with full force and quash it before it could get a head of steam. 

They were a brilliant, aggressive, proactive political team. They had their eyes and ears open, their finger on the pulse. They knew what was really important to voters and what was just so much noise, to be ignored and swept aside. They identified what the hottest issues were and they had Clinton speak to those issues and not waste time with minor distractions.

Carville came up with one of the most memorable lines in the history of political campaigning: 

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

That’s what the voters were most interested in. Did they have a job? If they had one, did they feel secure and did they have a good feeling about their future prospects? Would the economy stay strong and expand? Would their kids get jobs? That was the big issue leading up to the November 1992 election. 

Remember, we’d just defeated Saddam Hussein in February 1991 in Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. The U.S. military had performed magnificently and came home in well-deserved glory, to great adulation. But by the summer of 1992—with the country just pulling out of a mild economic recession—the Gulf War 18 months earlier might as well have been 18 years earlier, for all the difference it made in the 1992 Presidential Election.

Carville and Begala recognized this: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Key in on the economy. Speak about that, first, last and in between. 

Good lesson. No, great lesson. For people in product marketing, it translates to this:

“It’s the product, stupid.” 

The Product

That’s what matters. Eventually, everything else will fall by the wayside if the product itself isn’t right: The price, the name, the color, where it’s available, everything—sooner or later—becomes meaningless if the product itself doesn’t do its job. 

Let’s look at the Honda Accord and Honda Civic. Fine cars, well-built, competitively priced, great resale value, good fuel economy, peppy, roomy, reliable, nice handling, pretty good-looking. Perennial best sellers, deservedly so.

Would there be any difference whatsoever in their sales performance if the names were switched and the smaller car was the Accord and the larger car was the Civic? Nope, no difference. Know why? It’s the product, stupid. These are great products. They do exactly what great automotive products are supposed to do. They have very strong sales appeal combined with a great reputation because they’ve earned it. 

(By the way, a “product” doesn’t have to be a physical thing: It can be an insurance policy, a vacation package, an investment mutual fund, anything. Those are all products.)

There are some common-sense guidelines for product naming. 

  • Make sure the name doesn’t have a double slang meaning that renders it a laughing stock or has some cultural/religious connotation that might be inappropriate to a meaningful portion of your market (like a model 666).
  • If it’s going to be sold internationally, make sure the name doesn’t translate or read as something nonsensical or offensive in another language.
  • Make sure it’s not a resurrection of a famous failed product from the past. It’s doubtful Ford will ever come out with another “Edsel,” but they could come out with a new “Thunderbird.”
  • If it’s alpha/numeric and you want people to remember it, keep it short and, well, memorable. BMW’s 328i, the Audi A4 and the Triumph TR7 do that well.

Bottom Line on the Naming Game

666 cold productGet over the idea of “heroic” model numbers. There’s no such thing. The product makes the name or number, not the other way around. If you come out with this terrific gizmo that performs great, looks great, is a real value, makes everyone feel great about owning one and it never breaks, then people will remember the name, whether it’s “2” or “Spitfire” or “EPI-100” or “Bifocal-X.” 

In point of fact, far too many people assign far too much importance to the subject of product naming. Products make their name memorable when they hit their intended market spot-on and score a bulls-eye, not the other way around.

Always remember this: No clever product name ever rescued a bad product. Ever. 

When someone in your company or organization gets on their high horse and starts pontificating about the vital life-and-death importance of the correct product name, do your best to just listen and smile. You know better. The most valuable thing you can do is don’t let the naming process bog down the development/introduction timeline. Pick a name and move on. Just don’t let any “666’s” get out the door.

What's your favorite product name in the audio industry? Please share with us in the related forum thread below.

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About the author:

Steve Feinstein is a long-time consumer electronics professional, with extended tenures at Panasonic, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology. He has authors historical and educational articles for us as well as occasional loudspeaker reviews.

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Recent Forum Posts:

killdozzer posts on September 03, 2017 04:14
MR.MAGOO, post: 1206729, member: 77706
Audi seems to have the simplest names for their products; A1, A3, A4 etc.

Simple as long as new models don't hit the market having the same code. Then it's all like;
- I have an Audi A4.
- Yes, but which one?
- New model.
- 2 years new or this years new?

Another angle - names that try to shape the reception of a product or service. Not just by sounding nice or different but actual PR contained in the name itself. Like Plug&Play. Whether it sounds good or not is beside the point, but the intention of having customers perceive it as something that will work as simple as that is the main focus of the name. This name was meant to repair the image of Microsoft products that never reached this level of: “just plug it in and it will work”. The bad thing is, neither did Plug&Play labeled products. After this it only became more obvious that it never works.

“laptop” was also meant to shape the way you'll perceive the product, to envision the mode of use at the same time, although there's hardly anything more uncomfortable than using it in your lap. These are simply portable desktop personal computers.

It is not always the model name, or company's name, sometime it is just a type of a product like mouse.

There's a French movie called Amateur which is all about some sensitive data on a floppy disc. Throughout the movie characters say 10 time at least that it is not floppy and it is not shaped like a disc. This is when the profession decides on the name so it is sometimes unclear to the rest of us (floppy disc is encased in the hard plastic rectangular).
Pogre posts on August 29, 2017 14:00
BoredSysAdmin, post: 1207098, member: 28046
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/europe/boaty-mcboatface-what-you-get-when-you-let-the-internet-decide.html?mcubz=1
I read about that a while back! “Boaty McBoatface”. That was a good one. I woulda ran with it.
NINaudio posts on August 29, 2017 13:01
MR.MAGOO, post: 1206729, member: 77706
Audi seems to have the simplest names for their products; A1, A3, A4 etc.

Don't worry, that is all changing soon…

http://www.autoguide.com/auto-news/2017/08/audi-announces-new-confusing-naming-convention-for-its-models.html
DigitalDawn posts on August 28, 2017 06:14
Back in the mid 1980's I was friends with one of the Sanyo PR folks. There was an internal company contest to come up with a name for a new line of audio components. We came up with what we thought was a great submission, but alas, “The Clown-Hat Series” was rejected.

Our other idea was for Sanyo to change its ad tag to: “Cheap and Built to Stay That Way.”
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