Good luck naming your phones, Nokia

By now you've probably seen the news that Nokia is going to start naming its phones just like the Razr, rather than assigning them numbers.

I'm tempted to make an unkind comment about Nokia once again playing catch-up to others in the industry – first camera phones, then flip phones (or clamshells, as some parts of the world call them), then ultra-thin phones, and now named phones. There's a pattern here, and it's not very comfortable for a company that wants to be seen as a market leader.

But actually I sympathize with Nokia's situation, and I think they are making a noble effort in this case. I also think it won't be fully successful, and I'd like to explain why.

In many years of work at various tech companies, I've been through dozens of naming exercises. Every company that has half a brain somewhere in its marketing department wants to use real names for its products rather than numbers. Names are easier to communicate, and easier for customers to remember. A good name will also have some emotional resonance to it, meaning you need to spend less money marketing it.

But there are several huge problems with using real words as product names.

First, most of the good names are already taken. The situation is a lot like trying to find an interesting and unique URL for a website. Years ago, companies grabbed virtually every interesting name, and a lot of the ugly ones too. When I was at Apple, for example, we tried to secure rights to the names of every prominent variety of apple. Fuji was already taken by the Japanese film company, but we bagged several others. Pippin was one of the big prizes. Because it sounded cute, and we saved it for years before finally blowing it on a multimedia console.

When a company looks for a product name, typically what you'll do is brainstorm a couple of dozen possible names that sound right and maybe have some sort of link to the way you want the product to be perceived. There are always a couple of favorites on the list, and the rest are backups. You then turn the list over to the lawyers to check for conflicts with existing trademarks. When the list comes back a couple of weeks later, the lawyers have inevitably crossed off all the names you liked and also most of the ones you were lukewarm about. Of the four that are left, two will turn out to be either unpronounceable or pornographic in Japanese. You end up looking at the two remaining possibilities and trying to convince yourself that you can live with something that made you want to puke a couple of weeks ago.

This is how one version of Palm OS ended up with the name "Garnet," by the way.

After going through this process a few times, you realize that you're spending far too much money and time on lawyers and naming consultants. So you decide it would be much more convenient and efficient to use numbers or letters instead. You come up with a clever numbering and lettering scheme. Maybe you name your product after the year in which it's released (Windows 95). Or you come up with a clever letter scheme using macho letters like "x," "z," and "f" (Macintosh IIfx). You spend a lot of time explaining the new scheme to the press and customers.

Even though this reduces your trademark search fees, there are still problems to watch out for. Different cultures are afraid of different numbers. In much of Europe and the US, the number 13 is not welcome. You'll terrify some Christians if you use three sixes in a product name, because they see that as the sign of the devil. In Japan and China, the word for "4" sounds a lot like the word for "death," so you can't use that (supposedly, the fear is so strong that the death rate in Asia is higher on days that have a four in them). Is it the fear that's killing people, or does the number itself do them in? Hard to say for sure. If you check out Nokia's product list you'll see that the company is very aware of these issues – there is no four series, there are no products with three sixes in the name, and I could find no 13s at all.

Within 18 months, any numbering and lettering scheme that you choose will start to break down. Maybe you'll still be selling Windows 95 in 1997 and everyone will laugh at you. Or as you come up with new products, you'll have to figure out how to fit them into the existing scheme. You run out of numbers, or have to add more letters to the mix. One day you find yourself trying to explain to a roomful of press people the difference between the 2253xt and the 2253xz. They're all staring at you completely blank-faced, and you wonder why you're wasting your life working on garbage like this. You resolve that the next generation of products will have real names. And the process begins again.

The full cycle from name to numbers and back to names usually takes about six years. Almost every tech company that sells to consumers goes through it. The main exception I'm aware of is Apple. Steve Jobs insists on real names, and is willing to spend what it takes to get them. But he also produces many fewer new products every year than Nokia does.

Motorola was brilliant to use common words with most of the vowels removed from them; you get the image associated with the name, without the trademark fight. But now that's been done, and I doubt Nokia will be able to come up with a similar brainstorm. It produces so many products that it'll be extremely difficult to name all of them, especially if the name searches start to delay product launches. So instead I think Nokia is likely to name families of products, with letters and numbers indicating the actual models. That will work for a while, but some day Nokia will be trying to name a new product family, and the lawyers will report that the only two names they can get clearance for are RinGo and n-Gage. At that point pure numbers will start to look mighty attractive again.


Anonymous said...

correct me if i'm wrong but nokia 7610 was one of the first cameraphones on the western market...

Dr. Cunillingus said...

you're wrong... it was the 7650.

this is an absolutely brilliant article. Very well written and with a good insight of the marketing world. thanks

Ilium Software said...

No kidding about how hard it is to find a good name and get a URL for it. After getting emails about Lingo and Cingo in the same day, I tried all 26 possible letters with - every one was taken. I started trying, but got bored; I'd bet on the same result.

Albert said...

Excellent post, as usual, Mike. By the way, Nokia is not the only mobile company currently switching to names from numbers: RIM did just that by launching the BlackBerry Pearl.

GoodSw3de said...

Nokia should use names of Finnish lakes for their phones. It's one thing they'll never run out of.

Michael Mace said...

Anonymous wrote:

>>correct me if i'm wrong but nokia 7610 was one of the first cameraphones on the western market

You are completely, utterly, 100% correct and I want to thank you for straightening me out. Nokia was late with color screen phones (that's what I should have referenced), but was at the front of the move to cameraphones in Europe. The Wall Street Journal wrote in 2003:

"The next global trend was brewing anyway: Phones with built-in cameras. They first appeared in Japan in 2001; now they account for 80% of the cellphones sold there....This time, Nokia anticipated the speed with which these phones would catch on world-wide. In 2002, it introduced a camera phone in Europe and has brought out several more."

Thanks again, Anonymous, whoever you are.

Ilium wrote:

>>After getting emails about Lingo and Cingo in the same day, I tried all 26 possible letters with


My favorite current example is community websites ending in "-ster" (as in Napster). I was at a conference this week where one of the speakers referred to them collectively as "the sters."

Anonymous said...

Even number schemes can end-up in legal battle. Some years ago, a fight occurs between Peugeot and others about the central '0' in the mames. This is why the is no Porsche 901 but 911. Even the Boeing 707 required to get a clearance

So even a numbereing scheme can give work for layers

Avi Greengart said...


I led a naming/branding exercise at Intel what seems like a million years ago, and you left out two parts to your narrative:

1. With the understanding of how important the naming process is, you decide to work with a naming consultancy, which costs $10K and up, but helps you run focus groups and often does have interesting insights into the emotional resonance behind potential names. These names are then summarily shot down by the lawyers. So the next time around you skip the consultants and do an employee email contest (usually the prize is a $100 gift certificate somewhere). The same percentage of names are shot down by the lawyers, but you have an additional $10 - 50K in your budget to market the name you end up with and hope it sticks. I've seen this cycle occur at least three times in my career.

2. You choose a more generic word as a name, but attach it to your existing brand ("Research in Motion BlackBerry Pearl"). This can make for uncomfortably long product names, but is usually a lot easier to get approved than a name on its own, though you can't necessarily prevent a competitor from calling its product the exact same thing.*

As for Nokia, anything is better than their current scheme. I cover this stuff for a living, and I've had it explained to me more than once, and I *still* couldn't tell you why a 6600 is a smartphone and a 6101 is a basic cameraphone. The move to "series" such as the Nseries high-end multimedia smartphone and Eseries productivity smartphones makes a lot of sense. But even that fails to give any sense of the product itself for fashion-oriented phones, which Nokia needs to counter the Motorola's RAZR, LG's Chocolate, and Samsung's SCH-t809. Oh, wait -- Samsung is actually in worse shape than Nokia in this regard (though that may be changing - I just got invited to the launch party for the Samsung "Trace").


*INAL - TTYCL2BS (I'm Not A Lawyer - Talk To Your Corporate Lawyer To Be Sure)

Anonymous said...

Yep you are right. You has just pinpointed the exact time where NOKIA lost there passion to be the leader in new technology and design. I still remember the time where Motorola and Eriksson were miles behind NOKIA. Still think Nokia leads in UI/software I hope the don't screw that to.

Anonymous said...

There is a simple solution (OK, maybe an American one) to this problem. Nokia should sell the naming rights for its phones! :-)

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the story, Avi -- you're right on.

Then there's the process of designing a logo, which is ten times more difficult than finding a name. That's why so many logos are just the name of the company written in some funky typestyle.

Anonymous wrote:

>>Nokia should sell the naming rights for its phones!

Hmmmmm, very interesting.

In the spirit of outsourcing, what if they had a "name our product lines" contest on the Web? It would be a lot of fun and produce a lot of publicity.

I think the main downside (and the reason Nokia would not do it) is damage to corporate ego. It would be just too humiliating for the company to admit that it couldn't come up with good names on its own.

Unfortunately, by pre-announcing the move to names, Nokia has now raised expectations that will be difficult to meet. So it has made its own job harder.

teknogreek said...

In relation to what Avi Greengart:

It's not a satisfactory explanation (and you may have just been simplifying for your post) But the naming tradition with their phones revolved around the fluidity of calling it XY10 eg 6110(the ten at the end).

As they grew, they realised the convention was ill-suited and then switched to XY00 eg 6100 (no ten but the two zeros at the end).

Which is why when you see that a 6110 is a crude basic phone compared to the 6110 when it should be at least the other way round.

As for the naming idea, might make it more manageable but think it will be a tag like the 5500 sport phone they have, and that way localisation can occur very easily.

They are also running out of sensible numbers!!!

Bryan D said...

Great article.. I'd always felt that number names were a bad idea, but I'd never given much thought to how difficult it is to use dictionary words. And I'd never realized why the Razr wasn't the Razor.

Although I well understand the pain of getting good domain names ;)

Fascinating stuff.

voip phone said...

voip international phone

Good article.Nokia has no more number on his sea and they come to river (name) when name over they moved to lake but they will never down himself in the market.

Kammy said...

Great article!

The point you made about Nokia playing catchup is being echoed a lot in these last few years - it no longer feels like the leader as it was at one time...

I like the way you compared to the situation in finding a good url - I can relate to that...:-)

Mobile Phone Deals said...

Nice article...

But has this change actually happened or when will it happen?

I cannot recall any notable Nokia phones that have names. I know Samsung and Motorola, LG, seem to do it an awful lot.

I have to agree with the poster above though, Nokia are not ahead of the game anymore...and that is a GOOD thing.

Anonymous said...

Great article Micheal... you must check out this related story (and video). It sheds a bit of humor on the ongoing Nokia debacle regarding the naming of its phones:

Michael Mace said...

Thanks. That video is very funny, and it made the point a lot faster than my blog post did.

Bad Credit Phones said...

I feel like Nokia are on a bit of revival right now (although they were playing catch up when this post was written)

But I don't think it's a bad thing if phones have names - afterall its easier than learning stupid random numbers...

The approach nowdays of a name and a number seems fine

name99 said...

"The main exception I'm aware of is Apple. Steve Jobs insists on real names, and is willing to spend what it takes to get them. But he also produces many fewer new products every year than Nokia does."

I think this is missing the point. The real point is this: what is the name FOR?
Most companies seem unable to tell the difference between the name of a product and an SKU number. Hence every minute variation has to get a new identifier.

Apple DOES make fewer products than Nokia (and the value of that is another issue) but look at the way the handle the names they have.

When you buy an iPad2, you buy an iPad2. It may be black or white. It may have 16, 32 or 64GB or flash. It may or may not have 3G connectivity. But you don't look at a chart and decide I want to buy a iPad2561 rather than an iPad2564 --- you choose a product category, then from some selection of features. OF COURSE Apple has different SKU IDs for each model --- but that's not of relevance to the customer.

And it's not just iPads. What's an iMac? iMacs have ranged from the first model (remember that --- Bondi Blue in color, rounded, size of a very fat baby) through the various upgrades (better specs, and different colors) to the Luxo Jr model with LCD on a rounded base, to the flat screen --- but with white bevel --- to a number of generations of the current flat screen with aluminum/black bevel.
Apple has not felt a need to rename ANY of these. And at each generation, you buy an iMac. There are a list of features you can choose from when you buy your iMac --- at different times these have been different screen sizes, different amounts of RAM, different storage configs. But always an iMac.

Nokia's problem isn't that it's hard to find a good naming strategy. Nokia's problem is that they are incapable of applying intelligence to what they are doing. It's really not hard --- you figure out each type of device you are selling (iPod, iPhone, Mac Mini, etc), you promote the hell out of the brand, and you STICK WITH THAT. As technology changes, you make minor adjustments as necessary --- ipOd to iPod mini to iPod nano, shuffle, touch. But you don't keep changing naming just because some middle manager feels that his ego will be stroked by given him and his derivative product a whole new public name/number.