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About the brand names of globally rolled-out products and services

Products that roll out globally have certain aspects about their name that are noteworthy. And we all know the cases of product names that have not been tested for double meaning in all markets. However, one thing seldomly talked about is how a name is actually spelled out in different languages.

Let’s talk about pronunciation.

I see three aspects:

  1. Consistency across languages
  2. Learnability, esp. regarding children
  3. Similarity and metaphors

CONSISTENCY


When launching new products across the globe, a significant amount of time and money goes into legal work like trade mark registration and patenting. A product gets its name after research shows that a certain name is, firstly, untaken and free; and secondly has some sort of a meaning that fits the product. Hard enough, a name can have double meaning in different markets, but more often is a meaning something that refers not to the consumer but the company.

A good example are companies that name their product lines following a particular pattern, like alphabethic or numeric — something that makes sense foremost to them. This results in cryptic names that often don’t speak for themselves. Think of products like the BMW X1, an Audi A4, a Canon D300 or the Nokia N8.

Through advertising, of course, we know and relate to these names. But imagine three friends talk about these products. Let’s say one is from Switzerland (to be neutral), one is Italian and one French — neighbouring countries — and they do not mention the product in a web chat or mail (the problem doesn’t lie in the written name) but pronounce it in a conversation in their own languages.

The Italian says »a quattro«, the French »a katre« and the one from Switzerland in German »a vier«, compared to the English »ay four«.

The BMW they call »ex uno«, »ex un« and »ix eins«, in English »ex one«.

Finally, the Nokia product is pronounced »en otto«, »en wuit« and »en acht«, being »en eight« in English.

Go further with Nintendo’s »tre de es«, »troi de es«, »drei de es« or »three di es« — and you’ve got four different sounding names without even thinking of all the other European languages or Russian or Chinese.

So, who did a great job naming a product with consistent pronunciation in most languages?

Microsoft with their operating system Windows, for example. Or Apple with iPhone (only the prototypes have Nokia-like names, only mystery is the ‘S’), iPod, iPad and iMac. Both of them however weaken this approach using numbers and cryptic letter combinations to distinct updates to the product (Windows 95, Windows CE, Windows 7, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad 2). Apple certainly didn’t value consistent pronunciation of Mac OS X (Steve Jobs’ idol Sony did — see #41 here). BMW have a hard time with their whole brand name, respectively.

So, why could this be important? To find out someone is talking about your phone in a foreign radio show you can not understand — this won’t be the use case. But as it is with a global product launch, you want your product name to be in everybody’s mouth. You want thriving word of mouth. You want everybody to talk about your product, to tell everyone. You want them to learn how to spell it.


LEARNABILITY


When Apple introduced touch screens to the mobile phone market in 2007, early adopters quickly began testing the device with their children. Some of them recorded the first touch points their kids had with the gadget on video and put in on YouTube. It was fascinating to see how rapidly children got familiar with the new technology and quickly adopted certain gestures.

In some of the videos, the fanboy daddy asked the kid not only to say “hi” but also to say the name of the product they were testing. And all the kids said “iPhone” without hesitating.

The MIT in Boston (so we learned) did some studies with Apple during the development of the iPhone and found that the intuitive user interface of a touch screen was something especially children can easily learn and connect to. It’s obviously also a significant long-term strategic asset for a company like Apple, who wants to design the post-PC era, to build interfaces that one starts building relationships with at the youngest age.

And some of the groundwork for this approach was done by giving a whole product line names that children can easily pronounce: iPod, iPhone, iPad.

Digging deeper, it’s noteworthy that the sounds in these three names are actually amongst the very first sounds a newborn can pronounce (source in German). The vowels of course come first (»i«, »o«, »a«). But right next in line are »p« sounds (plosives).


SIMILARITY & METAPHORS


Finally, let’s talk about how a product name depicts what the product is about and how it fits into its own product line.

Again Microsoft: Windows actually shows windows. You’ll be confronted with windows running Windows. The basis metaphor of the OS is already explained in the name. Besides that, it’seasy to pronounce.

There’s another aspect of metaphor: the iPhone says it’s an internet-connected phone, but it also says its »the only phone« or as Apple would put it »the best phone«. Other companies build many different phones and can not put this kind of exclusive and straightforward naming on all of them.

The Macintosh is an example of a company-centered naming rather than a describing metaphor. If it was the latter, it would be called »computer«. Instead, the Macintosh was born when Steve Jobs was put off the Lisa team and wanted to go back to developing a »real« Apple product, something that Apple was all about — itself and him. The macintosh of course is a special variety of apples, and the name was chosen by Jef Raskin, originally.

But the interesting thing is how the current naming of Apple products support cross-selling. Today’s flagship Mac is the iMac, the one who — like the original Macintosh — is an all-in-one machine. And the two-silbling names go troughout the iOS-devices we discussed earlier. To the point: Who can say iPod, can also say iMac. Apple actively advertised this in an iMac print ad with the copy »from the makers of the iPod«.

Both Apple and Microsoft are — besides interfaces — transferring metaphors from their mobile divisions (iOS, Windows Phone) to their desktop systems and ultimately hoping to upsell satisfied mobile customers to their high end product lines.

Let’s see what happens.


Update October 6th 2011: I learned from Stephen Wolfram remembering Steve Jobs that »his theory for a name was to start from the generic term for something, then romanticize it«.


Update September 9th 2012: In the frenzy before the announce,ent of the next iPhone, everybody is wondering what it will be called, and what Apple’s naming strategy is, after all: Marko Savic, Jeremy Herrman and the fantastic Horace Dediu