July 17, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Microsoft looks to improve its name game
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Some of the perceived missteps are more intentional than they might seem. When Microsoft finally added BlackBerry-style push e-mail to its Windows Mobile phones, it did so with the Messaging and Security Feature Pack.
Webster notes that the phone software was actually an example of improved naming. Although the product's name was cumbersome, it gave IT managers and phone carriers a good understanding of the product. Plus, he said, Microsoft also coined the term Direct Push technology to describe it to consumers.
Thinking about the audience is key for good product naming, says branding expert Karl Barnhart, a managing director at CoreBrand in New York. When it comes to selling technology to businesses, for example, the Microsoft brand is a tremendous asset.
But, he said, when Microsoft sought to enter the game console business several years ago, he said the company made a smart choice in creating an entirely new brand--the Xbox. They had similar needs with the Zune, he said, noting that Apple's strong presence meant Microsoft couldn't really come out with the "Microsoft Portable MP3 Player."
"They needed to come out with something...snappy and short and memorable," he said. "They also needed to distance themselves from (the) Microsoft" brand.
Microsoft, and all other tech companies, face an increasing challenge when they try to create catchy names, rather than descriptive terms for their products. Besides needing to secure a trademark for the term of choice, companies also typically want the ".com" Web address associated with the term. And while there are dozens of classes of trademarks, there is only one .com domain for each name.
"The Web is making naming even harder," Barnhart said.
Not all products call out for striking one-word names, either. For instance, when Microsoft announced the name for its new server operating system, it was the expected Windows Server 2008, something Microsoft had signaled it would do for some time.
In general, the branding problem is trying to promote a sense of predictability and have names that are easily understandable. Although Microsoft maintains four separate ERP (enterprise resource planning) programs, it unified its Microsoft Business Solutions products, at least in name, rebranding them each as part of the "Dynamics" family of products. Its new effort in security software, meanwhile, comes under the "Forefront" banner.
Webster noted that the latter was a departure, saying that the company wanted something that sounded proactive.
"Traditionally, names in the security space have been more defensive," he said.
One thing Microsoft has on its side, Barnhart said, is lots of money to spend on whatever names it settles on. And money can forgive a lot of sins.
"They are able to outspend their mistakes," Barnhart said. "They are almost like the Yankees."
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