As new technologies fundamentally change the way we live – from autonomous vehicles to surgical robotics – it’s good to look back at how far we’ve come. That was precisely the point of Time Magazine’s recent retrospective on “The 50 Most Influential Gadgets of All Time.” As a branding company, we thought such impactful inventions would likely have compelling names. After all, life-changing, culture-shifting concepts spring from fresh thinking, and it’s helpful for consumers to see that impressive thinking reflected in a product’s identity in the marketplace.
We analyzed the list with a brand-naming lens and discovered, not shockingly, that a lot of the appellations of these iconic consumer goods possess three characteristics of great brand names:
Seemingly Simple Yet Powerfully New These compound names draw on basic English vocabulary – words that are recognizable and easy to learn, even in areas of the world where English is not well known. However, what makes these names so memorable is that they fuse commonality to create a fresh context. Before Sony enabled cassettes to be played on the go, on-demand portable music was not part of the consumer conversation. What a stroke of genius to put that idea in the marketplace with two easy words, never before seen together in the electronics space: walk for portability and man for a companion we could relate to. Sony was so pleased, it repeated this stunningly simple strategy with Discman and Play Station, both of which also made Time’s top 50 list.
DeskJet, FitBit and Palm Pilot are also profoundly effective and simple in construction. Through a little bit of poetry – a near rhyme with repeating e’s – HP introduced the first true desktop printer to the world. The poetry of FitBit is even more transparent, supporting a discreet companion that can measure your wellness goals. And Palm Pilot compels you to imagine the first computer-in-hand experience, with the device as your captain.
Takeaway: Simplicity can be pithy when the proposition is truly novel.
Economy: Small Names, Big Ideas Huge changes to entertainment came from these four devices with names as compact as their dimensions. Roku means ‘six’ in Japanese and was chosen because it’s the sixth company that its CEO was engaged in starting. The meaning hardly matters when the form and function tell us that this device is different from anything else on the market. However, the name’s effortlessness, length, syllable patterning, and pronunciation all work in perfect harmony to position a product that is simply, intuitively, and efficiently designed.
Wii is another one of those short, sweet names that invites speculation and garners consumer interest: do the two “i’s” stand for people sitting together, gaming? Does the name refer to its English sound-alike “we”? Is the name a corruption of the spelling of the onomatopoeia “wee”? Regardless, its buoyant nature makes it feel meaningfully different than the harsh sounds of Xbox and PlayStation – which helps support its differentiated proposition.
TiVo merely says “TV” with some an full “o” sound; and the near-blandness of the word iPod almost seems like an undersell for a device that all of a sudden put a 1,000 of your favorite songs in your pocket. The lesson is that the name does not have to communicate such grand meaning, as long as it feels different and the product that comes in tow is meaningfully different, too.
Metaphorically Speaking As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes it’s enough just to suggest a picture. All of these names take us on an excursion from the bland and predictable by associating a product with an image that seemingly lacks any logical connection—and yet that stimulates and rewards our imagination. Better still, this technique helps us remember the names, as we know from popular memory-training exercises that pair an unexpected image with the thing to be remembered
Two of these names are based on physical resemblances. The BlackBerry has little black buttons shaped like the drupelets of the fruit, and the Brownie is a playful nod to the vivid and whimsical cartoons of Palmer Cox. The way Rift deals with the cutthroat gaming console market is to announce a complete break with the competition. The Nest collapses two images—comfort and home—into one.
These metaphors are original yet accessible, and they don’t exhaust what these winning names communicate. Every word has unique powers of suggestion. Kindle sounds thin and light—due to its particular consonants and vowels as well as to the ending it shares with spindle. BlackBerry sounds friendly. Rift sounds quick and strong.
These gadgets display inventiveness on the part of their creators and enable inventiveness on the part of their users. But the ultimate invention is language itself. Having evolved over eons, it’s equipped with unlimited subtlety and power. Language is totally up to communicating what’s great about a product, even a product the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
—Will Leben and Michael Quinn