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 extra-thick...in 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.Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON