Friday, November 20, 2009

My Droid Can Blow Your Frackin' iPhone Away

Motorola recently introduced the Droid handheld device into a very crowded cellphone/PDA space in which the iPhone owns the mindshare of consumers. The name Droid resonates perfectly with the industrial design of the new phone and with the market positioning Motorola intends. Plus, it's fun to say, short, easy to remember, and spelled fairly unambiguously. Of course the name is derived from Google's Android operating system, which is in turn derived from some Google hacker's idea of the perfect from science fiction. The name and domain had to be licensed/acquired, from Lucas Films I believe-- a luxury little companies don't have. Apparently the original prototypes had no radiuses at all on the edges; just a hard, sharp black brick of a phone. This bad boy could hurt you. (Cool...danger in the cubicle.) The team dialed back a notch on that approach, but softened the edges only slightly.

Can you imagine a positioning of this product more distant from that of the iPhone, while still basically delivering the same functionality of an iPhone? The message is clearly "Go ahead and buy an iPhone if you're worried about breaking your manicured nails or harmonizing with the decor of your Prius, but buy the frackin' Droid if you are one bad ass dude who does real work...Director of Enterprise B2B Solutions or something.

In some ways it's easier to name a product when a dominant player has staked out such a clear position. You need to be different. You construct a product that is as different as possible, hopefully in some useful way. Then, you name the product to support that opposite positioning. Well done.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Yellow Snow Ice Cream

Continuing this ice cream thread...

I was recently in Park City, Utah and came upon this establishment named Yellow Snow Ice Cream, complete with an image of a doggie squatting over an ice cream cone.

Doesn't anyone remember Frank Zappa's admonition "Watch out where the huskies go and don't you eat that yellow snow"?

My normal advice when naming a product or company is to try to evoke positive brand associations. This name clearly violates that guideline. But, is it nevertheless effective?

I doubt the name really works well on balance (way too icky), but it does have a high level of what psychologists call arousal. It gets your attention and it heightens your consideration of the establishment. That's good. On the other, this arousal comes at the expense of really awful brand associations.

It's possible that in a resort town with a transient snowboarder population that what you need is a name that gets attention at all costs. It is also possible that if your market is 11-year-old boys that "eeew" and "ick" are exactly the reactions you want from your brand.

I'm raising these possibilities out of generosity. I'm guessing Yellow Snow Ice Cream won't be there next Summer. I'll check and report back.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Which Ice Cream Tastes Better: Frish or Frosh?

College students eating ice cream called Frosh find it significantly richer, smoother and creamier than do students eating the same ice cream called Frish. This is the finding of Eric Yorkston and Geeta Menon in their 2004 article in the Journal of Consumer Research. Both "frish" and "frosh" evoke positive and negative associations at about the same rates when tested as standalone words, so what explains their effect on perceptions of ice cream?

Consumers are forced to make judgments about products with very little information. The brand name itself is one piece of information that is often available and, no surprise, consumers make inferences from that name. It would be no surprise if ice cream branded Rich 'n Creamy were found to be richer and creamier than ice cream branded Lite 'n Tart. What's interesting is that the manipulation of a single phoneme with no difference in the semantics of the words can affect perception. Yorkston and Menon call this phonetic symbolism, arguing that the smoother sound of the phoneme ah in frosh invokes a perception of smoother taste. This effect is grounded in the onomatopoetic (always wanted to use that word) theory of language: words sound the way the things they represent sound (or behave) in the dog BARKED or the ice cream tasted frosh.

What are the implications for namers? Consider carefully the few attributes you most want to emphasize or evoke in your product, service, or organization. Then, select or construct words that automatically evoke those attributes. Yes, of course, use the descriptive power of words to do this-- when naming your new super-sharp knives you're better off calling them Sharpmaster Knives instead of Boston Knives. But also consider the symbolic meanings of the phonemes themselves-- you're also better off calling them Kiki Blades rather than Swup Blades.

Every time I buy ice cream in Philadelphia, I just can't bring myself to choose Turkey Hill brand. (Really...what were they thinking?) Turkey has both the wrong semantics (how about some gizzards with your ice cream?) and the wrong phonetic symbolism. Turkey Hill is all tuh and kuh, exactly the wrong phonemes for something you want smooth, creamy, and rich.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The eBay Effect -- Names that Grow on You

"eBay" is an extraordinarily valuable brand, yet it's not an intrinsically wonderful name. It's not really evocative of the service offered. It isn't that fun to say. It incorporates a cliché-ed use of "e-". (On the plus side, it is short and has unambiguous spelling.)

Names do grow on you. More precisely, with time and investment of marketing resources, a name can acquire meaning and associations, and usually grows in attractiveness.

Acela now seems inspired.
Freakonomics is now a valuable franchise.
Prius is nearly synonomous with hybrid cars.

(Although the hydronic heating company Wirsbo recently changed its name to Uponor...and I'm not sure either name would grow on anyone.)

There are two practical implications for naming and branding a product, service, or organization.

1. If your name exhibits some basic positive attributes (some combination of short, easy to say, evocative of the right brand associations, and unambiguously spellable) it will eventually seem natural and appropriate.

2. An existing name that has been in use by you or a competitor will almost always test more positively in market research than its intrinsic attributes would warrant. Indeed, the status-quo bias is so strong that "working names" for products and companies often stick and are hard to displace.

I serve on the advisory board of an interesting company that scans, stores, and organizes paper documents. The working name of the company was Pixily. We agonized over alternative names. We had concerns about ease of pronunciation, spelling ambiguity, and about associations with "pixels." Yet, we could never displace the working name with anything that seemed better. It's now grown on us, and customers now seem to think it's pretty natural. So, on the one hand, be careful with working names as they are likely to end up your permanent name. On the other hand, most names will eventually seem just right.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Is the word "Saturn" worth billions?

With the bankruptcy of General Motors, several brands will be sold off, including Hummer, Saab, and Saturn. The sale of Hummer may include hard assets like facilities, tooling, equipment, and inventory, in addition to intellectual property like product designs and patents. However, some brands are likely to fetch the majority of their value solely from the brand name itself. 

On June 5 (2009) General Motors announced it had agreed to sell the Saturn brand and dealer network to Roger Penske. Some have speculated that the brand name Saturn is worth more than a billion dollars (although I'm guessing a sale price of hundreds of millions). That's a billion for the right to use six particular letters in association with the manufacture or sale of automobiles. How can brands be so valuable?

A brand has positive equity if consumers react more favorably to the branded product than they do to the same product when it is attributed to a fictitiously named or unnamed version of the product. Penske's plan is almost certainly to source vehicles from manufacturers who make very good products, but who have not established significant brand equity. (How anxious are you to buy a Samsung car? How about a Magna?)

Are consumers stupid? Don't they know that a Samsung car is still a Samsung car even if it has a Saturn brand on it? In part, yes...really not so much stupid, as overwhelmed with information and not able to keep up with exactly who makes what. (Recall that GM's version of the Toyota Corolla-- made by Toyota in the same plant, with the same design as other Corollas-- sold for $2000 less than the Toyota-branded car.) 

But even savvy consumers may be willing to pay more for a Saturn-branded Samsung than the same car sold directly by Samsung. This is economically rational because the purchase of Saturn by Penske is what we academics call an honest signal, a commitment by Penske to deliver on the brand promise. Penske was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "For nearly 20 years, Saturn has focused on treating the customer right. We share that philosophy, and we want to build on those strengths." Penske is unlikely to have paid a billion or even 100 million for the Saturn brand unless he planned to take actions that are consistent with the associations of that brand in the mind of its customers.

An interesting twist on this particular deal is the value that the brand Penske brings to Saturn, and indeed to the seller GM. Penske's reputation is solid gold, both in the business world and in the minds of consumers. Consumers may have increased confidence in buying a Saturn car, knowing that Penske is behind the company, and selling Saturn to Penske may make other suitors think again about the value that may be latent in some of GM's other brands. Consider how different this reciprocal effect is from that of Fiat's purchase of Chrysler, which if anything, further tarnished perception of value in Chrysler's assets.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Verbing Up

With the announcement of Microsoft's new search tool Bing, CEO Steve Ballmer coined an interesting phrase related to naming and branding. In response to a question from the audience at the D7 conference about his thoughts on the qualities in a good name, he said:

“I am not what you would call the creative side of life. Short matters. Being able to verb up can be helpful.”

Being able to verb up.

I suppose his response verbed up the word verb. Although the best names just verb; they don't verb up.

As in "I googled that guy and turns out he's the VP of biz dev at Nanodyne."

The general principle for naming and branding is that an organization wishing to inject its brand into popular use benefits from the ease and utility of adopting the brand as an element in everyday language. If people find the brand useful and if the brand is easy to incorporate into language, then it will be mentioned more frequently, thus enhancing brand awareness.

What makes a brand useful in language?
  • Efficiently describes an emerging activity or thing like Twittering (or, close enough, tweeting).
  • Provides a useful brand association for the communicator. By saying I googled someone, I am gently branding myself a googler.
What makes a brand easy to incorporate into language?
  • Requires few syllables, like eBay not Commission Junction.
  • Rolls off of tongue, like Apple not Prilosec.
  • Is fun to say, like Snapple not Fruitopia.
Some good names don't verb up. You don't blackberry someone, do you? (Too long, right?) And you don't eBay an item ("ebay" evokes a place not an action, right?) But, if a name that otherwise works well can also verb up, that's a good thing. (Incidentally, nouning up is much more common-- Where did I put my blackberry?)

Will Bing verb up? I doubt it. It does not really describe an emerging activity. I do not believe it will be cool enough to provide brand benefits to the user of the term. It is easy to incorporate into language, but that's probably not enough.

Some brands that have verbed up:

Did you tivo Grey's Anatomy?
I googled him.
Billy fedexed the contract.
Skype me at 3.

Finally, while verbing up is a start-up's dream, it can in rare cases be a behemoth's nightmare. If in the very unlikely event you are so successful verbing up your brand that it veers towards becoming a generic term (Kleenex, Xerox, Hoover, Bandaid, Aspirin, Nylon), you risk the loss of trademark. You'll be long dead before that happens, so I wouldn't worry about it.