When it comes to naming their products, PC makers exhibit about as much creativity and originality as World War I-era German U-boat commanders. There's the Toshiba Satellite U925T, the Asus Zenbook UX31A, the Lenovo IdeaPad U310—laptops branded by indecipherable strings of letters and serial numbers.
For Microsoft, the baffling product names are a bad sign. Redmond is relying on third-party hardware makers (or OEMs) to make a success of Windows 8, the company's new and refreshing operating system which launched late last week. But beyond the uphill battle these manufacturers face with skeptical consumers, who are increasingly leaning toward Apple and Google for their computing needs, OEMs are making their job even harder by introducing such perplexingly poor product names, which customers are likely to find confusing, uninspired, and easily forgettable. After all, what chance does the Acer Aspire S7-391 have against the MacBook Air?
"There are significant downsides: These PC names have no personality, no memorability, and show no attempt to communicate a point of difference," says David Placek, president of Lexicon Branding, the marketing firm behind such classic brand names as BlackBerry and Pentium. To Placek, the bland and generic branding represents a blown opportunity for PC makers to distinguish their products. With Windows 8, OEMs had the chance to push interesting new form factors, such as the hybrid PC, which functions as both a laptop and tablet, and could allow for equally as interesting branding opportunities. The hardware giants also finally could have unified families of Windows 8-based products across the different platforms—smartphones, tablets, notebooks—similar to how Apple was able to connect its own hardware branding (iPod, iPhone, iPad, iMac).
"When we're working on a new technology product, we really look to create something that says, 'Hey, we're different,'" Placek says. "You have to try to find the differentiating idea here, whether that's a form factor to call out or maybe it's just the device's personality. These companies should be taking a leap into personality—and do something that's playful."
Instead, we got the Samsung Series 5 Ultra 13 Touch and ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T, as well as the HP ElitePad 900 and Envy Sleekbook 6-1010us. "Pure confusion," Placek says. "Some of these screens can be flipped around and popped off, so calling something, say, the Microsoft PopOff is much better than having a long, lettered description followed by a number. Plus, you have to be very careful with the use of names that include 'pad' because of the performance and dominance of the iPad in the market. Otherwise, you're over-promising and under-delivering. 'Sleek' is another [bad] example. At this stage, what notebook isn't sleek? You're really not telling anybody anything new. I find names like 'Elite' and 'Sleek' troublesome."
Jeff Barney, executive VP in charge of Toshiba's PC and TV business for the Americas, also believes OEMs have created too many confusing product names. "I completely agree—we need to name our products better," Barney says. "That's what I hope to accomplish for my New Year's resolution."
Toshiba has been particularly guilty of numbered and lettered product names, from the Satellite C850 to the LX835 Touchscreen All-in-One Desktop. "Especially in this environment that's so crowded, you have to stand out—you have to tell people that something is new, and it has got to be an easy name that people [can remember]," Barney says. "You know, that's why I like [Microsoft's] Surface [tablet]. I think they did a great job with that."
But it's not simply a matter of creating simpler names. The alphabetically and numerically categorized product names are a sign that branding and marketing are often afterthoughts for PC makers. "I base this really on working with PC manufacturers and the Apple-type companies over the years," Placek says. "At Apple in particular, people working on these products have so much passion for what they're doing—for getting that product perfect—that they devote a lot more time to actually creating a name that's simple and elegant to match the product itself. The naming should not be reserved to the last couple of weeks, when you're inevitably boxed into a small space because of trademark clutter. So you're forced to do what I call a very engineering-based solution: What is this? Well, it's Notebook Computer T51."
Such names are also an indication of just how bloated the OEMs' product portfolios have become. "To be fair to the PC companies, they have more things to name—they have a broader line of goods," Placek says. "Apple, much to their credit, has kept their product lines very small and disciplined. That's what I think the difference is."
[Image: Flickr user Ian Muttoo]