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Thursday, February 23, 2006

And Now, For Something Completely Serious....

Having written the two satirical pieces below ("Harmellack Confused by Lack of 'D' " and "How Canon Chooses Camera Names"), it's probably worthwhile to give the matter a serious word or two.

I've been impressed by the degree to which names no longer function in our society. For instance, let's say I asked you to go to the grocery store and get me some Oreos. Or some Kleenex. Or you go to a restaurant and say, "I'll have a Coke, please."

"Coke" just does not begin to cover it. Diet or regular? Caffeinated or no caffeine? Cherry flavored? Vanilla flavored? Manufacturers like to a) leverage well-known brand names by tacking them on to many products and b) poach on the success of other manufacturers' products by offering their own versions.

The result is often confusion. My son likes little fish-shaped crackers called "Goldfish," and there are times when I am just unable to buy him any—I stand in front of store shelves groaning with proliferating varieties of Goldfish, and I just cannot figure out which ones are the regular, ordinary Goldfish that he likes. I have to leave the store with none. Even though I've learned the telltales of many of the ones he doesn't prefer (he doesn't like the giant ones or the low-fat ones or the rainbow-colored ones, and I've learned it has to say "Cheddar" on the front)—but they also put all manner of transient visual bits on the package, to throw me off.

Recent consumer studies have shown that people prefer choices, but not too many choices. In experiments, when there were three varieties of a type of product on store shelves, people bought many more individual units than they did when they were limited to only one choice. But when there were thirty choices, buying again dropped below the level of when there were only three.

A comical but true story: I once went to the grocery store to attempt to buy "Oscar Meyer Baloney." Well, that is not a product name; it is a category. But I had learned the ropes. I knew to avoid the beef baloney, and to buy the kind made with pork and chicken. But when I got my baloney home, I discovered I'd bought the wrong kind: across the top was a tiny band that said "Thin Deli Slices!" that I hadn't noticed. Otherwise, the package was identical to the regular-thickness ones. Well, we wanted (and when I say "we," I mean a strong-willed six-year-old, and me) the regular old baloney, so I went back to the grocery store and tried again, this time hyper-aware of the tiny band that said "Thin Deli Slices." So I got home again only to find I had purchased...extra-thick slices. Inspecting the package, I finally found the part where it told me that the slices were a different spot altogether than where the wee bit about the slices being thin had been. The packages of all three kinds were nearly identical, visually. Have we gotten to the point where we have to read everything on the package down to the level of the manufacturer's address to be sure we've sorted out what's inside?

It seems to me that only software manufacturers have this truly figured out, although I may be ignorant because I buy very little software. Different versions are given different numbers (there are many numbers available, after all), large revisions are given successive numbers behind a decimal point, and small revisions are given a number behind two decimal points. Thus, version 3.0.2 is the second small revision of the third version of the software. No confusion.

I am probably going to hear it from people who are aware of many exceptions to this rule. Still, the principle is sound.

I almost wish Coca-Cola, Kleenex, and Nabisco would just emblazon each product with a serial number, which would be guaranteed to be identical in every way to any other product ever bought with that same serial number. That way, when I want a regular old Coke, or regular old Kleenex, or regular old Oreos, I could find them.

Anyway, when the Goldfish people recently put a giant army-green blob on the cover of normal, ordinary Goldfish, naturally I was frightened off. I knew I had not mastered the intricacies of Goldfish packaging, but I was certain that the kind my son liked did not have a giant army-green blob on the front. But that turned out to be nothing. It was only an advertisement for a movie or a television show. (Probably called "The Blob!") It had nothing to do with the package contents. After a few more trips to the supermarket I figured this out, and began cautiously to buy the Goldfish again, green blob and all—and was not too badly thrown when the blob went away again.

My point is that, in a sea of identical packaging and nearly identical names, it is not always easy to find what you know you want. It is there, probably, but it is hiding.

These products need names. That's what they need. That would be the solution.

What are the properties of a good name? Two things:

1. It should be distinctive, and specific to the thing it is attached to. Like "Eolake Stobblehouse." There is only one Eolake Stobblehouse. Not like "Mike Johnston." There are actually three of us in the small Midwestern town where I live.

2. It should be memorable. As in, rememberable. Normal people cannot remember "SP AF17-50mm ƒ/2.8 XR Di II LD Aspherical [IF]" (although I can).

For instance, I would be very happy if ordinary regular Goldfish turned up in a brown bag that looked nothing like all the other bags of Goldfish, and had nothing more printed on it than "REGULAR OLD GOLDFISH" in big letters. I would sail by with my cart and grab two, and not have to stand there perplexed.

Well, a good name actually needs three things, nowadays. I wrote a serious letter to both Cosina in Japan and Zeiss in Germany about the forthcoming new "Zeiss Ikon" rangefinder. I suggested that it needed some other designation to make it distinct from all the other Zeiss Ikons in history. I didn't hear from Japan; Germany sent me a little note saying that no one would be confused, because only one has been made recently.

Even if people know that, however, search engines don't. With the advent of the web, we need names that are not only specific, not only memorable, but searchable, too. For instance, there is a new electronics company called Outlaw. This is not a good name, web-wise. The British speaker manufacturer Spendor (a combination of Spencer and Dorothy, the names of the company's founder and his wife) is a great web-name, even though it was invented many years before the web existed, because it is neither a word nor a name. Type "outlaw" into a search engine and you will get all manner of things. Type in "Spendor" and you will get links mainly to Spendor speakers. I live in a good web-town; it's called Waukesha. There is only one Waukesha. Type it into a search engine and you will get my town. Now try "Springfield."

Anyway, maybe the day will come when I can buy Oscar Meyer Baloney 6.4.2—and leave the store serene in the knowledge that for once, I have not screwed up.



Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

"The result is often confusion."

I was buying something (I forget what) online a few days ago, and there was like nine varieties, and I wanted to scream to Them: "Which one is the Normal one?!"

Another example: I got a big box of comics from England's best store, Page 45, and I got a Justice League of America book I had not ordered. They had sent me the list beforehand, but there are just so many titles with "JLA" and similar in it that I had no way of noticing that this one was not one I had wanted and ordered at one point.

12:15 AM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

"we need names that are not only specific, not only memorable, but searchable"

Here luck came to my aid (or maybe it was egotism) back in the eighties when I made my pseudonym "Eolake Stobblehouse"!

12:27 AM  
Blogger Lars K. Christensen said...

I think you have just given a brilliant elaboration of the concept of marketing. BTW, wasn't this concept in fact not invented over at your place?
The same place, where someone once said: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time". I guess your cracker experience is just an example of that...
And not to be offensive, but IMHO: People who voluntarily pay for and consume a mixture of water, acid, sugar and artificial colour and flavouring, has just asked for the consequences - no matter what colour or flavour or brand name....


2:57 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Software manufacturers aren't much better. Look at Photoshop. If you don't watch the screen when it loads, you probably wouldn't guess that Photoshop CS2 is also (apparently) Photoshop 9. Can you tell from the name that it's a newer version of Photoshop 7? Then there's Photoshop Elements--and Adobe is far from the worst at this.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Dave New said...

Believe it or not, at least one manufacturer has taken steps to eliminate some consumer confusion. There is a brand of tampons that has about 12 different versions (sizes, heavy/light, wings/no wings, etc. in all combinations). It's enough to make a grown man cry when he has been instructed to get some for his wife, only to be faced with deciphering all the various labels, to choose the right one (and you *do* want to get the right one, don't you know?). Anyway, this particular manufacturer (Always) has hit on putting little symbols on their packages, in the corners, like a small ace of spaces or similar. Now, if you can remember which funny little symbol you are looking for, you can 'grab and go'. If you are lucky, you won't be spotted standing in front of the display for any length of time 8-).

Anyway, now the game is reduced to symbol recognition. In this particular case, it is made more difficult because there doesn't seem to be any clear relationship between a symbol and the type/size of the enclosed product, but at least it's a start.

2:04 PM  

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