The other day I was researching printers. After narrowing my search based on the features that mattered, I landed on the Canon’s LBP623Cdw. I’m familiar with Canon from the cameras, the rest of the name might as well have been written in cuneiform. After some sleuthing, I discovered that LBP stands for Laser Beam Printer, 623 is the model line, C is for color, and dw means duplex wireless. As a brand naming architecture, I’m sure this name makes perfect sense to the product manager who approved it. But for consumers who need a reason to connect with a product as they consider a purchase, the name falls flat on its face.
Brand Naming Architecture
Naming architecture is one of the hardest things for a brand to get right, because the very need for an architecture means that you’re trying to solve for complexity. When we think of naming architecture, we start with our brand architecture. If your brand architecture is a House of Brands like Johnson & Johnson, then Band-Aid, Tylenol, Listerine, and Aveeno are names that live under the same roof but don’t need to be synchronized. They’re more collegial than connected. But for a Branded House architecture like Google’s, Google Docs, Google Earth, and Google Cloud all exist to support the Google Master Brand by communicating shared values and affinities. Similarly, internal naming (where there’s often less governance and more chaos) should lean into a Branded House naming architecture. That way, everything from how to brand your SKO to intranet, internal functions, and conference rooms all feel like they belong to the same family.
For the Branded House, naming architecture is a must for helping people navigate your products or offerings to locate what they need, engage with the appropriate product, and evangelize it. When we go back to Canon’s LBP623Cdw, we find an alphanumeric architecture that sits at the lowest rung of naming approaches. While the masterbrand (Canon) is the beacon that attracts consumers, the product name does very little to help people locate the right model, and because the name doesn’t tell a story, it’s not memorable and won’t help drive loyalty. Car manufacturers fall into this habit as well: Honda’s CR-V and HR-V don’t fit the automaker’s otherwise evocative architecture of city cars (Civic, Insight, Accord) and country cars (Ridgeline) and don’t build any emotional connection to the model.
While alphanumeric architectures offer the ability to provide more detail and are infinitely scalable (like the Dewey Decimal system), they represent codes more than evocative names, which falls short in terms of building awareness and driving engagement with people who aren’t brand loyalists.
As we move up the spectrum of how names become more human and relatable, a values-based architecture that communicates a Good-Better-Best gradation is the most popular naming strategy. We’ve seen our share of Bronze-Silver-Gold builds in naming (think airline loyalty programs, or Standard-Premium-Luxury editions in the auto industry). Here the job of the naming architecture is to set expectations in terms of both functionality, experience, and price. Apple gives us a clear example in how they approach their tablet naming, where the iPad (standard), iPad Air (lighter), and iPad Pro (more powerful) give consumers an easy path for understanding the increasing value that these different models deliver. And because these names are easy to understand, intuitive, and memorable, customers are better equipped to act as evangelists.
At the pinnacle of naming architectures are strategies that deliver on being functional, consistent, and evocative all at once. A great example comes from a surprising place: IKEA. English speakers might be åstönishëd, but the furniture giant’s product naming makes complete sense in its native Swedish. Each product has a unique, evocative name that falls within a category. Bathroom products, for example, are all bodies of water. Desks and chairs are named after boys, with fabrics and curtains named after girls. Garden furniture takes its name from Scandinavian islands.
The IKEA model isn’t entirely consistent, and names don’t have any obvious connection to the product category. But for a massive company with thousands of products, it’s a refreshing model and a remarkable achievement. And it works at both ends of the customer journey: there’s a whimsical pleasure in stumbling upon a bath mat called the Alpine Lake, and if someone asks you to pick one up, you’ll know which section to find it in.
Which approach to choose
We won’t say that Canon’s (and other tech companies’) use of alphanumeric naming is wrong. They’re simply following an industry standard and their business doesn’t seem to be suffering from it. But if they wanted to choose to compete differently and redefine their category, they would need to also adapt their approach to naming.
For most brands, a good-better-best approach achieves the important goal of creating clarity for consumers. The less confusion a person encounters in navigating your offerings, the more quickly they’ll find what they need and be able to engage with it.
But for the companies that aspire to turn their names into advertisements that tell stories through their offerings, emotional-based architectures give them the opportunity to use naming to elevate the brand.
The most important consideration is ,of course, the audience you want to connect with. How has the category set their expectations? What do their awareness and customer journeys entail? What type of loyalties do you want to build? And how do you see them playing the role of evangelist? Answering these questions will help you identify the best naming architecture for connecting your offering with customers, and driving the differentiation that sets your brand apart.