Tag Archives | marketing

The Weird World of Tech Product Names

If breakfast cereals were named like technology products, there would be no Cocoa Krispies or Cheerios.

Instead, we’d have Kellogg’s C-KR1200 and General Mills’ Third-Generation CheerZero. (The futuristic-sounding Crispix might still exist). People would still devour these products as part of a balanced breakfast, but I doubt they’d understand why they had the names they had. They might not even be able to remember them.

In tech, we tolerate the names of our beloved gadgets no matter how indecipherable or convoluted. We can be happy with our laptops, digital cameras and GPS devices even if we struggle to recall them by name. I’d love to recommend my Sharp HDTV, but I couldn’t help you find the same model without consulting my purchase records. (Okay fine, it’s an LC40E77U.)

How do tech products get such wacky names? What’s the process that leads to an obscure model number or imaginary word? Come along, and we’ll explore the bizarre, confusing, and frustrating christenings of tech products famous and obscure.

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Got Any Questions for John Battelle?

John Battelle is an interesting guy: the author of The Search, an excellent book on Google and its predecessors and rivals; the proprietor of the indispensable Searchblog, one of the sites that inspired me to blog; the coproducer and cohost of the Web 2.0 Summit and Web 2.0 Expo conferences; the founder of the old original Industry Standard and one of the first editors at Wired before that; and the founder, chairman, and CEO of Federated Media, the company that sells advertising and other marketing programs for scads of blogs, one of which is–full disclosure!–Technologizer.

He’s also being interviewed on Thursday, April 29th at 4pm ET in a live Webcast. The topic: “New Marketing in the New Normal.”

As with earlier Webcasts in this series, I’ve been invited to watch and tweet my thoughts as I do. You can do the same if you like–the Webcast interface has a built-in Twitter interface. And if you have any questions for John right now, you can leave them here as comments (or tweet them, using the hashtag #HPIO). We’ll round them up for the event.

(Further full disclosure: The Webcast is sponsored by HP and hosted at its site–hence the @HPIO hashtag. Photo of John Battelle by me, taken at last week’s Chirp conference.)


When Tech Products Go Pro, It’s…Utterly Meaningless!

Crest ProYou may think you’re a pretty adept user of technology, but are you ready for the next level? Do you have the guts, the determination, and the penchant for arbitrary naming conventions to go pro?

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference this month, keynote presenter Phil Schiller explained that what had formerly been the 13″ aluminum MacBook now had what it took–FireWire 800, higher RAM capacities, and longer battery life–to be considered a MacBook Pro alongside larger-screened siblings. (The 13″ MacBook Pro also has a slot for Secure Digital cards which, unlike their Memory Stick rivals, never turned “Pro”) That leaves the entry-level white Macbook and the svelte MacBook Air as Apple’s “non-Pro” notebooks, although the MacBook Air is clearly targeted toward that user group often called “mobile professionals.” The lines are more clearly drawn between the pros and the no’s in Apple’s desktop line, where the pricey Mac Pro maintains high configurability and a high price, and the consumer line includes the LCD-based iMac and the hanger-on Mac mini.

But long before Apple renamed the PowerMacs and PowerBooks with the Pro label, the company used it on the software side. Back in 1993, Apple followed up its System 7 operating system with System 7 Pro. Quaintly touted in its press release as “the on ramp to the information superhighway,” it marked the debut of the PowerTalk messaging system, one of the company’s failed system software initiatives of the era along with OpenDoc and QuickDraw GX. On the other hand, System 7 Pro also featured two smash software hits that thrive in Mac OS toda, AppleScript and QuickTime.

Some of the Mac’s earliest applications also eventually went pro, as Apple’s Claris subsidiary churned out products such as MacDraw Pro and MacWrite Pro. But Claris was never spun out as had once been the plan, leaving its pro developers back at Apple. Even today, Apple continues to own FileMaker, Inc., the eponymous product of which is still called FileMaker Pro. (FileMaker Pro is the most basic version of the product–the more advanced one is known as FileMaker Pro Advanced.)

Microsoft has also associated databases with pros, making Access one of the applications included in Office Professional 2007, but its best-known pro product has been Windows XP Professional. XP Pro had a number of security and management enhancements beyond Windows XP Home, as well as multprocessor support, dynamic disk support, a personal Web server, and fax capabilities.

At its debut, Windows XP Professional boldly advertised its presence as a PC was starting up, but Service Pack 2 did away with that bit of vanity and all XP startup screens simply said “Windows XP”. With Windows Vista, Microsoft stopped focusing on “professional”-ism and instead gave users the business, Windows Vista Business, that is. And Windows 7 Business will arrive in the fall, where it will compete with a Mac OS X Leopard update that has added not “pro” but “snow”.

Microsoft has also developed a pro version of Windows Mobile optimized for touch-screen devices as opposed to the Windows Mobile Standard offering aimed at products such as the Motorola Q and Samsung BlackJack. But in what could be interpreted as a part of the image problem of Windows Mobile, AT&T has latched on to the “Pro” suffix to designate handsets that run Windows Mobile, period. The first example of this was with the Pantech Matrix Pro. a dual slider differentiated from the vanilla Pantech Matrix dual slider feature phone by running Windows Mobile. But the Matrix itself came after the Pantech Duo, which also ran Windows Mobile but lacked the “Pro” designation. More recently, AT&T followed up its successful Samsung Propel QWERTY vertical slider with the Propel Pro, the most “pro” phone on the market by dint of it having “pro” twice in its name. And yet, like the Matrix Pro, it doesn’t use the “pro” version of Windows Mobile.

Over at Sprint, HTC followed up on its launch with the HTC Touch, Sprint’s first touchscreen smartphone answering the iPhone, with the Touch Pro, which included a horizontal QWERTY keyboard; both phones ran Windows Mobile Professional. But how do you do the Touch Pro better? HTC added a larger screen and some spiffy call management and user interface features. The result is the Touch Pro2. Pro-“Pro” AT&T also carried the Touch Pro, but it called it the Fuze (which may be short for “con-Fuze-ing”). Now, of course, Sprint is answering the iPhone with the Pre, which we can only hope will never be followed by a Pre Pro.

In the end, “Pro” has become a tech product modifier  so dependent on context that it has become meaningless. The flames aimed at it can be fueled by only one thing: “pro”-pain.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research firm The NPD Group. He maintains his own blog at Out of the Box and you can follow him on Twitter at @rossrubin. Views expressed in Technoloizer are his own.


Real, Not Lame, Twitter Viral Marketing

Twitter logoOver the last few days, Twitterers — mostly writerly types, I’m guessing — were treated to the inner workings of the New Yorker thanks to Dan Baum, a one-time staff writer for the magazine who was canned in 2007.

For reasons unexplained, Baum told his story through a series of tweets, starting last Friday and concluding today (the whole thing can be read in the proper order at Baum’s Web site). Perhaps the 140-character limit is a symbol for Baum’s short career at the magazine, but I think what we’ve got here is a bona fide Twitter viral marketing campaign — intentional or not — for his latest book.

The story begins inconspicuously enough. Baum explains that he’ll be tweeting about getting fired, and immediately cuts to the juicy details. We now know how much he got paid ($90,000 per year), what benefits he received (none) and how secure the gig was (up for review annually). Later, we hear about the “creepy” atmosphere of the New Yorker office and how he butted heads with editor David Remnick.

The narrative is also sprinkled with self promotion. At every mention of an article or pitch, accepted or rejected, Baum includes a link, so it’s easy to investigate his writing beyond the boundaries of Twitter.

Baum delivers the subtle pitch towards the story’s conclusion. He talks about how the end of his New Yorker job led to his book, Nine Lives, a collection of stories about New Orleans. He mentions how his final columns allowed him to stay in New Orleans and research the book, and how the pressure of finding daily stories turned up valuable information that few locals even knew. Even though he doesn’t explicitly try to sell the book, he succeeded in getting the word out.

Viral marketing can take different forms, and Twitter marketers can be obnoxious. Baum is not. He drew in fellow Twitterers with a fascinating story, and only mentioned the book when he had everybody’s attention. In a way, it reminds me of the ilovebees campaign for Halo 2, which drummed up interest despite a merely tangential relation to the game.

At the very least, Baum’s story was better than the hostile takeover by Skittles.


Hey! Skittles! Get Off of My Cloud!

skittlesSkittles, the venerable candy (which I tend to confuse with its Mars, Inc. stablemate Starburst Fruit Chews) is trying something hip and happening today: It’s turned its homepage over to a Twitter search feed for “skittles.” Obvious result: All of a sudden, Skittles is a hot topic on Twitter. Kind of. Actually, almost none of the conversation about the stuff has to do with any of the things that make Skittles Skittles: It’s just folks mentioning Skittles to get on the Skittles home page. Including saying disgusting, scary, and/or offensive things about Skittles.

Unlike GM’s famous backfire with its Chevy Tahoe user-generated commercial contest, the Skittles stunt, I suspect, was never about getting people to talk earnestly about the features and benefits of the product in question. I suspect that Mars knew that much of the chatter would be self-referential, strange, and obnoxious. The goal was to co-opt Twitter, period, even if it led to people theorizing that Skittles might be made in Chinese sweatshops from the blood of kittens. Call it social-media marketing nihilism.

(Actually, come to think of it, is it even possible to say positive things about Skittles beyond expressing a fondness for their taste? The damn things just don’t have much in the way of personality beyond being colorful, sweet, and vaguely fruit-flavored–by comparison, Peanut M&Ms or Three Musketeers are deep, profoundly Proustian foodstuffs. Which might be why Mars went the direction it did with this party trick: It’s hard to imagine many people talking about Skittles otherwise.)

I’m reminded of Burger King’s Whopper Sacrifice campaign from January, which had the fast-food giant doling out free hamburgers to people who unfriended compatriots on Facebook. It got people talking about Burger King for sure, but it also involved gaming somebody else’s world to promote junk food. Some people called Facebook clueless  when it quashed Burger King, but I kind of got the point.

I like Twitter. I like the fact that it’s an open, rambunctious, and honest reflection of what millions of people feel like talking about on any given day–so call me a humorless old fogy if you will, but today’s explosion of manufactured interest (aka unpaid product placement) for Skittles kind of ticks me off. I assume it’ll be brief, but I’d shed no tears if Mars came to regret the whole idea. Somehow, though, I think it would only do so if the campaign led to a sharp decline in Skittles sales–and maybe not even then. I’m guessing that other marketers will eyeball today’s prank jealously, and try to top it with even more over-the-top, obnoxious takeovers of social-media sites.

Me, I’ve bought no Skittles in this decade–actually, I don’t recall buying any in the 1990s, either–so a personal boycott wouldn’t have any effect on sales. The best I can do to protest is to buy and consume the fruit-flavored wares of a Skittles rival manufactured by someone other than Mars. Say, Jujubes. No–Chuckles. Definitely Chuckles.


Random side note as long as I’m talking about empty calories and social media: Slim Jim has its own social network that has very little to do with processed meat snacks, but does try to associate its product with having “absolutely no regard for proper conduct or state laws of any kind.” It also makes a funny about shaving the neighbor’s cat. Again, call me a boring old person if you will, but I’d love to hear Slim Jim manufacturer ConAgra reconcile this stuff with the blathering it does about corporate values and responsibility.

You gotta wonder how the company would feel about Slim Jim fans vandalizing its headquarters–a violation of both proper confuct and, I’d imagine, state law–and then impishly blaming it on their “spicy side.” And if ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin has any pets, I hope he keeps them inside.

But I’ll say this for Slim Jim’s experiment in marketing through social networking: Unlike Skittles, it created its own playground rather than taking over someone else’s…