Overusing names

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Recently Microsoft and Yahoo! launched two potentially groundbreaking products. Microsoft’s SmartGlass technology enables an enhanced, connected experience with Xbox content while Yahoo!’s Axis moves search in a more efficient, synchronized and visual direction. However, the names felt so overused that I didn’t even bother to investigate.

SmartGlass and Axis failed to get my immediate attention because words like “smart,” “ready” and “social” are overused and have become table stakes in the world of technology. What device isn’t smart and connected nowadays?

The good news is that there are ways to cut through the clutter and turn some heads. More creative names could be the “attention-grabbing” answer but first, let’s look at SmartGlass and Axis.

I assumed SmartGlass was some type of enhanced, intuitive touch-screen experience. It’s a relatively clear, hard-working name but I was far more interested in checking out Microsoft’s Surface tablet based on the name alone.

The name Axis suggests a connected experience and seems appropriate for this type of seamless search ecosystem. With the rise of apps like Pocket, jumping from laptop to tablet to phone is a need in the marketplace. The name works, but it’s not exciting.

One way to create distinction is to have a more creative name. Perhaps it’s a coined term like Zynga or arbitrary like Apple. An added benefit is that from a trademark perspective, more creative names are easier to secure. In Q1 of 2012, there were more than 1,752,424 active registrations in the U.S. and registered marks worldwide have skyrocketed. A quick search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website returns 243 uses of terms containing “Axis.” Everyone is using the same idea in more ways than one.

But wait a moment… creative names are more expensive to fill with meaning and relevant messages, right? This could be true—but not always. What if your name is descriptive or suggestive in a highly competitive category? It may be that much harder to get someone to even notice your name, let alone dive deeper. One can argue that creative names, under the right circumstances, can provide more bang for your buck because they instantly help to differentiate your product or service.

Trends come and go and there is a time and place for every type of name. Using descriptive or suggestive names is a sound strategy under the right conditions—obviously Microsoft and Yahoo know a thing or two about launching successful brands using these types of names.

But not all businesses have that kind of muscle or brand equity. Some companies need their names to do more heavy lifting on their own. Of course, this also depends on the influence of a company’s brand architecture, marketing strategy and business strategy. For example, Microsoft is a very powerful master brand, so any name attached to it is automatically endowed with equity and meaning, regardless of the name being descriptive or suggestive. And in this case, descriptive and suggestive names allow the master brand (Microsoft) to be most prominent.

The bottom line is that it’s important to choose names wisely while considering all the branding implications. But remember, there’s always a chance that a descriptive or suggestive name may have already worn out its welcome. Whether you’re a small start-up or a big company like Microsoft, the name you want might already be overused.

Jason Hall is a senior strategist in the Naming group for Siegel+Gale’s San Francisco office.

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