The Nokia 500: Lessons in Avoiding Utterly Forgettable Product Names

Last Updated Aug 2, 2011 12:31 PM EDT

This week Nokia announced that it was returning to a numbers-only system for identifying its phone handsets, saying that names, letters, or letter/number combinations were too confusing, and that an organized numbering convention would help customers better understand the hierarchy of the products. Logical? Perhaps. Smart marketing? Methinks not.

Product naming has become an art, science, and industry unto itself, with naming agencies often charging tens of thousands of dollars to create a product or company moniker. It happens to be one of my favorite subjects, and one of the things on which we spend a good amount of time when developing Skooba products. We've also created product names for other companies, and we think we're pretty good at it. So I took an informal poll of myself, and here's where I come out on the naming/numbering of products (note that this refers mainly to consumer-oriented products):

The "relevant" number approach: This is the convention to which Nokia is returning. The company says that people easily relate to the concept of ascending numbers representing more advanced products. Nokia says the first digit will indicate the technical level and "accessibility" (a.k.a. price stratum) of the model. Makes sense at the point of purchase, but what about before and after the sale, and for all posterity? Is someone as likely to jump in the car to see the new Nokia 500 as she is to check out an iPhone 5 or HTC Thunderbolt?

Fifteen years ago I had a Motorola StarTAC -- to this day I think the best mobile phone ever made. Did I have the model 7868, 7797, or 7890? Hell if I know; there were over 20 model numbers, all with some meaning (at least to Motorola and its retailers). I only know I had had a StarTAC tri-mode with 3-color LED display, and I loved it. It's the StarTAC, not the 7890, that will go down in history as a breakthrough technology product.

The most notable exceptions are some car companies (most often imports, with numbers designating engine/chassis type -- think BMW, Mercedes), but even then, the brand/marque speaks volumes before you even get to the number.

The "irrelevant" number approach: Some companies use numbers that seem to have some meaning but actually don't. It would be natural to assume that Boeing's legendary 7­x7 aircraft numbering system has some cool technical legacy, but it doesn't. The company just picked "7" for starters and kept counting from there. Same with most military aircraft. In fact, the aviation sector is one of the few examples I can think of where "irrelevant" numbering works across an entire industry: Most people who pay any attention to planes refer to them by number (787, F-16, B-52) and not by their slick names (Dreamliner, Fighting Falcon, Stratofortress, respectively).

The "real" name approach: I just don't think there is any way to beat a good name when trying to build a memorable -- much less iconic -- product, brand, or company. If you Google just about any list of great products, it will invariably be a list of names, and that's not an accident. Names -- good names, attached to good products -- burn in your memory and into our culture. Doesn't even have to be a real word, just one you can't forget, one that snaps your brain into the right place. Do you crave an iPad, or would it be just as cool to you if it were called... I don't know... an Apple 6275? Harley Davidson insiders and true enthusiasts know what an FLSTF is, but its unforgettable "street name" -- Fatboy -- is what turns heads (and ears) roaring down the road.

One final variant is a name with an alpha or numerical modifier after it. This is considered by many to be the most effective of all, and I tend to agree. It has the benefit of name imagery and recognition, with the practicality of a modifier signifying generation, power, trim package, etc. "You've only got an iPad 1? I've got an iPad 2." "Yeah, I drive a Mustang too... but mine's the GT with the 5 liter." Nah, nah-nah-nah-nah...

There are exceptions to all of these examples, of course, so no need to jump down my throat with the pioneering IBM System 36 or the horrible trends in pharmaceutical names. But if you're not convinced that product names trump numbers, do this simple self-test: Without any hesitation, start rattling off great or favorite products, any products, rapid-fire. How long before you get to a number-only product? For me it was the Porsche 911, and that took a while. After that, I didn't hit numbers until I got to airplanes. And I love airplanes.

So is Nokia making the right move going the straight, pocket-protector-friendly, numbered product route, or are they letting perceived logic get in the way of good branding and marketing? I say they're moving in the wrong direction, or my name isn't M3679-9A.

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(Flickr Image By Beige Alert)
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    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at