November 3, 2013

Rules for names

A common subject of my consulting is naming, and specifically naming the category of product or technology something goes in. Clients are well aware that no market categorization is ever precise. Still, words must be chosen, collateral must be prepared, and talks must be given to rapturous* audiences. Here are some of my go-to techniques.

*One hopes.

1. My most precise tip starts from a classic naming dilemma:

Increasingly, my advice is to pick a name that’s “half new”, usually in the form of a two-word phrase that overlaps partially with the name of an old product category the new thing sort of resembles.

In some examples from my own work:

2. A principle underlying that tip is that connotation is as important as denotation. The reactions that category names evoke can be as important as their literal meanings, especially since those literal meanings aren’t very precise anyway.

Returning to the examples above: 

Similarly, I once renamed graph-based “relational” analytics to “relationship”. Calling something “relational” is counterproductive when the main point is that it doesn’t involve a relational DBMS.

3. The naming task isn’t quite as hopeless as it might seem, because names don’t stand alone. You always put at least a couple sentences around a name, and that helps a lot with offsetting certain kinds of drawback. In particular:

4. Even so, take great care that you don’t convey a clearly wrong impression. This is of course a general rule of marcom — except for a certain amount of generally-acceptable puffery, false communication is always bad. But the rule is particularly applicable to naming. If you place yourself in the wrong category, you’re unlikely to wind up in the right deals.

5. Combining the points above, too vague is safer than too precise. E.g., part of the reason the new term is “entity-centric” event series analytics rather than “user-centric” is that, while most of the entities in question — whatever an “entity” is — are users, not all are. The other part of the reason is that “user” just sounds like it has something to do with UI, or with the users of the vendors’ technology; hence it doesn’t immediately sound like it’s about analyzing the vendors’ customers’ users (or user-like entitities).

6. At the risk of redundancy, I’ll close with a Hippocratic precept: Above all, do no harm. The best name is unlikely to do you all that much good. You have to explain it, and support the messages it conveys. But a bad name can cause a great deal of trouble, getting you into deals you will lose and keeping you out of ones you could win.

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371 Responses to “Rules for names”

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