Another day, another round of stories wondering what’s wrong with BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. One particular article – from PC World about how the seven new BlackBerry models promised by the company at its recent annual general meeting are just distractions – got me thinking about how companies name their products.
Huh? What? What’s with all the damn numbers? How is the average consumer supposed to remember those?
Back when I was an employee of The Man, I used to tote a BlackBerry around on occasion. When people would ask me what model it was, I’d shrug and say, “Uh, an older one?” Same goes with a bunch of Nokia phones over the past few years, which had a similar naming convention (the N8, the E71, the N64… no wait, that was a video game console). As the PC World article points out, that’s not a good similarity for RIM because it certainly doesn’t want to end up like Nokia.
The two companies are far from alone in naming their products with confusing numbers and letter combinations. Indeed, up until recently, that has been the general convention with technological products. Televisions, cameras, stereos – you name it – everything was defined by its model number. That’s mostly because the manufacturers weren’t selling to consumers – their main customers were retailers. And Best Buy et al really don’t care if a product has a sexy and easy to remember name, they’ll order it (or not) anyway.
Regular people are different. I can’t remember the last time – if ever – that I’ve walked into a store and said, “Excuse me, do you have the Sony RP786340? I simply must have it.” Most consumers are probably the same.
Apple has received a lot of praise over the years for its marketing savvy. Product names are definitely one area it excels in. For starters, everything begins with an “i” – how simple is that? (Tellingly, virtually its only product that doesn’t carry the “i” prefix – Apple TV – is not a hot seller.) But more importantly, there are no model numbers, or if there, they’re simple. The iPod, iPod Nano, iPod shuffle, iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, iPad 2 and so on. If it were RIM, the products might be named the iPad 5678 or the iPhone 2112 (in honour of the company’s Canadian roots, of course).
Apple is of course not the originator of simple product names, but it has used them very effectively. Other smartphone makers have taken notice and moved toward doing the same, away from the model numbers of Nokia and RIM. The most successful phones tend to have the simplest and easiest-to-remember names: the Motorola Droid, the Samsung Galaxy, the Sony Ericsson Xperia. Sure, some of them are adding numbers to their brand, but the manufacturers probably know they have to keep it simple.
That’s because the world has shifted. Tech makers aren’t just selling to retailers or corporate IT departments anymore. They know that if they want their product to get that “must-have” sex appeal, they need to give it a slick-sounding, easy-to-remember name. Numbers and letters won’t do.
RIM seems to be on the fence with this. On one hand, the company has moved toward the new paradigm with devices such as the Torch and the PlayBook, but if the upcoming model names are any indication, it’s still tied somewhat to the old school. Interestingly, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis used to say that the BlackBerry would never have a marketing-derived name, that they would always have model numbers. (He also used to say they’d never have cameras or MP3 players. Yikes.)
If only all electronics makers could follow this trend. It would certainly make for some creatively named products. I, for one, think it would be great to walk into a store and ask for the latest Samsung Awesome plasma TV, the Panasonic Ass-Kicker camera or the HTC Chick Magnet smartphone. Okay, maybe not the last one. Anyone else have any suggestions?