How to name things

Stupid Product Names

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Technology product names are a rich vein of terrible writing.

For example, what are the following products from one well-known manufacturer: dv8000z, PSC 2350, vp6300? One is a printer, one is a laptop computer and one is a projector. How can you tell? How can you differentiate one product in a given range from another? The answer is, quite simply, that you can't. Come on, HP, you can do better than that.

Even if you go to HP's product ranges, can you (without looking at a website) tell the difference between a Pressario, a ProLiant and a PhotoSmart? One is a range of laptops, the next a range of servers and the last is a range of printers. To a Martian with a degree in English these names would be interchangeable. A Pressario printer: "sounds good" he'd murmur. A PhotoSmart projector: "good for PowerPoint."

HP's only good name, the iPaq came from Compaq where the name made more sense. I'd be interested to know if iPaq predated iPod or vice versa.

(As an aside, I once had an HP PR person tell me with awe in his voice that the new iPaq was made from plastics that were almost as good as a BMW dashboard. As if this was the best thing about the product. I remember when the HP name was synonymous with good engineering and incredible industrial design. My HP200LX palmtop from the mid-nineties is still working fine, was incredibly powerful and advanced for its day and is made from plastics that are better than a BMW dashboard. It shows that the naming problem goes back a few years, though.)

Good product names take effort and the positioning around them takes good writing. The car industry has done this very well for a long time. For example, BMW's 3-Series is divided into levels that relate to engine size: 325, 330 etc. Contrast this with HP's top-of-the-line workstation (itself a category description that belies the underlying product), the xw9300. What does it mean?

Part of the problem is the marketing and, in my opinion, the copywriting underneath the product names. Contrast BMW's "The ultimate driving machine" with HP's headline description of this ultra-powerful workstation:

Intelligently engineered in close collaboration with hardware and software partners, the HP xw9300 Workstation delivers the ultimate 64-bit personal workstation performance and visualization for compute intensive environments.

Even a prosaic, descriptive name is better than alphabet soup. Product names are the result of overlaps between company brand, range descriptions and individual line item names. Each of these requires careful writing, as well as branding and marketing input, to get right.

You would have thought that after developing these astonishingly sophisticated devices that would have astounded Edison and Einstein coming up with a good name would be the easy part.

Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.