What we can learn from the world’s best technology name

“In the positioning era, the single most important marketing decision you can make is what to name the product.”  – Al Ries and Jack Trout, in Positioning

The name you choose for a product, service, feature, technology, ideology, company, or anything else, has an enormous impact on whether or not you are successful “selling” it to your audience. The right name can help a product overcome all sorts of actual deficiencies; the wrong name will doom even the best product in the market. By studying effective names, we can learn and apply valuable lessons in our own activities. In this post, I present to you the world’s best technology name, and explain what we can learn from it.

My job requires that every so often I have to weigh in on a name; sometimes I’m determining the name myself, sometimes I’m just participating while someone else leads. Inevitably, during these exercises my mind drifts to a name that I consider to be the best technology name in the world: Apple’s Retina display.

I’ve spent a bit of time considering exactly why this name works so well, and I’ve arrived at seven reasons.

Reason #1: It is vaguely scientific

People trust scientific-sounding things (if you don’t believe me, then just ask this scientician), and “retina” is obviously a book-learning word. Wikipedia tells me that the retina “is a light-sensitive layer of tissue, lining the inner surface of the eye”. Light? Tissue? Surface? Science!!

Science justifiably gives credibility to things because actual science involves rigourous study and extensive peer review; unfortunately, marketers abuse our gullibility to a tremendous degree, and our society just doesn’t have enough scientific literacy¹ to separate science from marketing.

Reason #2: It is accessible

Despite its “scientific” basis, “retina” is a very recognizable term: pretty much everyone knows that it’s a part of the eye. It’s not so scientific that it’s arrogant, outrageously nerdy, or requires specialized domain knowledge. We recognize it, we know what it means (e.g., “part of the eye”), and we can say it without getting weird looks from our peers.

Reason #3: It is memorable

Be honest: you never forgot it once you heard it.

Reason #4: It means many different things

This is a truly beautiful aspect of the name: it isn’t restricted to any single meaning. It isn’t a single metric, like display resolution or display size; rather, “Retina display” refers to a threshold of pixel density (expressed in pixels per inch) that corresponds to the maximum pixel density resolvable by the human eye (see Reason #4). This definition has the convenient characteristic that it varies based on the distance between the eye and the display, so the required density is different for different devices (based on how far away you typically hold/use them – check out this table if you want to see for yourself).

Why is this an important characteristic? It can be relatively easy to challenge a very precise definition…but how do you challenge one that means so many different things? The counterargument that a competitor would have to make to undermine Retina display would be so complex as to completely lose the audience.

Reason #5: But it always means the same thing

As a fun exercise, ask a bunch of friends what Retina display really means. I’d bet (1) that many of them will know what you’re talking about (Reason #3), and (2) that they’ll say something like “It’s the highest resolution that the eye can see”. Technically, this definition is incorrect (to be correct, they’d need to talk about pixel density), but that doesn’t even matter – what matters is that people are equating Retina display with a single, consistent meaning: kick-ass display.

Reason #6: It has neutered the competition

Apple has managed to put a ceiling on a technology, which is an astounding achievement. By getting people to believe that Retina display is the highest density that the human eye can see, they’ve made any higher resolution or density claims by the competition irrelevant. Who cares if someone else produces a display with a higher density, if my eye can’t see it? To stand out, competitors will have to go off in other directions (colour, frequency, contrast, etc.), none of which are as powerful as density.

Apple has guaranteed at least a draw on the subject of display quality, likely in perpetuity.

Reason #7: It got people talking

There was some debate, when Retina display was revealed, as to whether or not Apple’s claims were true (again, you can turn to Wikipedia for a summary). This debate played out a little bit in the media, and I actually overheard many conversations in which people debated the merits of the claims. The real impact of these discussions was likely just to build awareness, rather than actually harm Apple in any way.

It’s not very often that the name of a product, and the story behind it, get people talking…and for the seller it’s almost always a good thing when this happens. I can only think of one other contemporary name that led to similar conversations: Sharp’s Quattron (Sharp added a yellow sub-pixel to their displays and claim that this increases the range of display colours; naturally, this claim was also met with skepticism…once again Wikipedia has the story).

Summary

Apple really hit a home run with Retina display, and by understanding the reasons why it works we can make our own naming exercises more effective. We’ll hardly ever be able to get a checkmark on all seven of the reasons I’ve listed above, but chances of marketing success increase in tandem with the number of checkmarks that we do manage to achieve.

If you have some favourite names of your own, I’d love to hear them and the reasons why you think they work!

¹If you want to learn gobs about the scientific process and science through the ages (as well as a whole host of incredibly obscure words), then check out Carl Sagan’s great book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

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Posted in Advertising, Marketing
One comment on “What we can learn from the world’s best technology name
  1. […] say this at work every so often, that good names just work…it’s so obvious when you find the right one. The context here was a trading tool; from p51: “The tool was always just Thor. ‘I knew […]

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