This last week AMD announced the brand of its new processor family, Ryzen. The acknowledgement came mostly because when AMD registered the name—along with a bunch of other fake names—folks started to realize that it was the only choice that didn’t suck. We’ve had a lot of really crappy brands over the years like Simperon, Celeron, Core, and—if you’re into cars—Nova which means “no-go” in Spanish (by the way, while this is a common example in branding it turns out to be false, just an FYI for my branding buddies-I have some better, valid, examples of this in a link below).
I did branding when I was at IBM and named one product myself, ADSM. This, thankfully, no longer exists. I got into that project thinking it was easy when my more experienced co-worker said taking it on was insane. He was right. I thought I would share with you how painful coming up with a good name is.
Securing the Name
One of the big reasons that naming something is incredibly painful is that you have to make sure no one else is using the same name for something similar in any market you ever intend to sell in. Doing this check can cost upwards of $20K for each name on a worldwide search and there is always the chance that between when you do the search and when you register the name that someone else gets into market or that your search doesn’t identify the name. If you don’t do this the individual or company that owns the name can successfully litigate against you forcing you to pay them exorbitant amounts, or worse, to change the name of an already announced product—either of which generally leads to the person who came up with the name getting fired. This is just one of the reasons why smart people avoid taking responsibility for naming like the plague.
The Only Thing…
My rule of thumb when it comes to a new name is this: “The only thing EVERYONE will agree on when it comes to a new name is that the person who came up with it is an idiot”. Different people like different names and tend to have very different opinions as to what a good name is. Look at how folks name their kids. Even when they pull from a common pool often even the parents have trouble agreeing let alone all of the relatives. Unlike people, where you can reuse a name—there can be a lot of “Michaels” pr “Alices” for instance—as noted above your name has to be unique, which makes coming up with one that people like and one you can defend particularly painful.
This generally forces folks to either pick a common name like Office or Windows that is difficult for others to claim but really hard to defend (credit to Microsoft for making that work), or a made up name that has the risk of sounding like something that you don’t want connected to your brand like Simperon sounding like it came from simpering (not a particularly positive relationship). Here is a list of brand names that got approved but clearly create the wrong image for the product (and many are pretty funny until you think of what likely happened to the poor sucker who came up with the name). I’m a particular fan of “Shito” which may put too much truth into the brand.
One of the stupidest things my management at IBM did that made my job nearly impossible sounded really logical at the start. To come up with a name IBM conducted a contest with the developers with a prize to create a good product name and any name that was selected had to be voted on by all of the developers. Virtually every brand they selected that was even remotely attractive was already taken and I think I ran up a nearly legendary bill as I went through brand after brand finding them taken. I ended up with the crappy name ADSM because it was an acronym, it was the least hated, it was unpronounceable, and no one else was stupid enough to collect this set of letters into a product we could find. And I’ve never done naming since.
One of the common mistakes that is made is not anticipating how you will progress the product. Apple used to name operating system versions after big cats but they started running out of cats and had to change that methodology even though, when it worked, it was rather cool. The easiest way to do this is to either iterate the product, Windows 1, 2, 3, 4 etc., or, like cars, use the year. Windows 1995, 98, 2000. However, switching back and forth can be a tad confusing so keeping the methodology you’ve chosen over time is really important.
Also, you need to watch out for naming conflicts, for instance if you have a base product and an advanced product naming the base “1” and the advanced “2” creates iteration issues. Will the next version of the base product be Widget 1 2 and the Advanced Product Widget 2 2? This was really problematic with Intel’s Core brand because Cores are actually a thing in a processor so you ended up with Core 2 Duo which I think was a dual core second generation part but I’ve never been really sure. What was sad about this is Intel had one of the most powerful and best regarded brands in Pentium and it effectively tossed that into the waste basket.
Ryzen, which you can pronounce, is actually a decent name and that is surprising because this was decades after I’d concluded that finding a name that was attractive was nearly impossible. It is aspirational. Given this is AMD’s return with a technology leading processor, the combination of “rising” and “Zen” into Ryzen conveys both a positive advancement and intelligence—both important in a core part of a computer be it a PC or Server.
This showcases the last part of what makes for a good product name or brand and that is it should be aspirational. It should convey what the product aspires to be because perception is always more powerful than reality. Ryzen does that and reflects some really great work, and more than a little luck, from the folks that created it.
Wrapping Up: Avoid Naming Like the Plague
If there is one thing I can leave you with it is that if anyone ever offers you the “privilege” of naming a product run. Seriously, there are two ways to learn this lesson, one is to watch someone else go through this and give them lots of support, the other is to do this yourself and kiss your career goodbye. I’d suggest the former but given I survived the latter there is a chance you could survive it as well. Congrats to AMD for choosing a brand it can be proud of and my condolences to all of those that came up with names that they will likely never live down.
One final thought, if someone tries to give you this responsibility and is experienced, you should conclude they really, really, don’t like you. Something to think about this weekend.