The following is an excerpt from Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success by Ken Segall (Penguin Portfolio).
The lump on the table was truly mysterious and held everyone’s rapt attention. Hidden under a gray sheet it was impossible to discern any detail from it. We were going to have to wait for the big reveal when the meeting was called to order. This would definitely not be our typical product briefing. Beneath that sheet was the home computer that was going to save Apple.
Not to get overly dramatic about it, but that’s exactly how it was billed by Steve himself. This was the product that Steve had alluded to back when we had first started on the Think Different campaign. He had told us that the first product out the door was going to be a rethinking of the home computer. He had given his engineers and designers the challenge to do something great, and now at long last we were going to see it.
There would be no saving Apple by churning out more beige boxes that failed to distinguish themselves, by looks or function, from the hundreds of PC models out there. Steve wanted this first product to open people’s eyes and serve notice that Apple was back.
It was the spring of 1998, and we’d been summoned up to Cupertino for our first viewing of this new computer, code-named C1. The “C” stood for “consumer.” Apple didn’t use a lot of creative firepower on code names back then. By this time we felt like we were already well along a journey, having developed the Think Different campaign and placed it strategically on TV, billboards, and magazine back covers around the world. That was the brand-building part, and this was the real thing–a product that would prove that our brand campaign wasn’t just a lot of advertising fluff.
Now we were sitting just a few feet from C1, anxious to see the results of all this reimagining. If Steve really was betting the company on this computer, it had to be brilliant. Apple was out of time, and this was the one shot it had to turn things around. The agency delegation numbered five or six, consisting of creative people and account managers. There were two Apple product managers there to guide us. After some introductions and opening remarks, it was time to get down to business.
One product manager reached for the sheet and revealed C1.
There it was–the computer you’d come to know as iMac–looking like it came right out of The Jetsons. The group let out a collective “holy cow” and simply tried to absorb and appreciate what we were seeing–because it shattered every idea of what computers were supposed to look like. It was a colorful one-piece computer that showed off its inner circuitry through a semitransparent shell.
I’d like to believe we were all so smart that within seconds we were convinced that we were witnessing the start of a miracle resurgence. But it wasn’t quite like that. Later, when the agency team was alone and able to share the thoughts we felt at that moment of reveal, we found that we all had pretty much the same feeling. It was part shock, part excitement, and part hope that Steve Jobs really knew what he was doing–because there was a real chance that this revolutionary computer might just be too shocking for its own good.
But the shape and design of C1 were only part of what was revealed that day. Along with C1 came an amazing new mouse. Just as the computer didn’t look like anything we’d seen before, neither did the mouse. It was designed in the same friendly colors of the iMac, and it was round. “That’s wild,” we thought. It also turned out to be very dumb–but let’s save that story for later. And sitting on a table along one wall of the room was still another computer under wraps. We were so wowed by the one before us, it never even dawned on us that there might be a sibling.
This turned out to be the pro tower model that would be announced soon after C1, the new Power Mac G3. It wasn’t translucent, but it shared many of the C1 design features. It had lots of plasticky curves, including large handles on the front and back edges of the top. The Power Mac G3 came with a large stand-alone display that was cut from the same cloth. Because it was also a CRT model requiring a ton of room in the back, this display was huge and bulbous, all decked out in blue and white plastic. More Jetsons. And decidedly less attractive. And it would ship with the same round mouse designed for C1.
We had similar “wows” upon the first reveal of the Power Mac G3, but this one made us a bit more nervous. Though it was aimed at pros, it looked very much like a consumer machine. The blue was gaudy. Clearly, design chief Jony Ive and his team had gotten superexcited about this new iMac design theme and were maxing out on it. Once again, that “Sure hope Steve knows what he’s doing” thought popped into our heads. It turns out, of course, that Steve really, really knew what he was doing. He didn’t get it all exactly right, but he got so much of it right that he made computer history.
At our next meeting with Steve, he was eager to hear what we thought of C1. He was like a proud father. This was the main focus of Apple, and clearly Steve had poured his heart into its creation. He loved every detail and was eager to share it with the world. “The back of our computer looks better than the front of their computers,” he said, a line he would repeat often. At this point, we’d had time to digest what we’d seen. Once the shock of our first sighting had worn off, we understood how revolutionary C1 was going to be. We were believers. We couldn’t wait to start developing a campaign for it.
First, however, Steve gave us a challenge: We needed a name for this thing. C1 was on a fast track to production, and the name had to be decided quickly to accommodate the manufacturing and package design process. “We already have a name we like a lot, but I want you guys to see if you can beat it,” said Steve. “The name is ‘MacMan.’ “
While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I’d like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming. Because of all the things in this world that cry out for Simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like “iPhone.” From others you see names like “Casio G’zOne Commando” or the “Sony DVP SR200P/B” DVD player. (No exaggeration, those are real names.)
Though you might think that the lessons of product naming apply only to companies that create products, that’s not true at all. Everyone who communicates, in any organization, would benefit from understanding and applying the principles of good product naming. Maybe it’s how you title a report. Or how you theme a conference. In the end, it’s all about getting people’s attention and making sure they get the feeling you want them to get.
Product naming is the ultimate exercise in simplicity. It requires one to capture in a single word, possibly two, the essence of a product or company–or in some cases create a personality for it. While simplicity enjoys a challenge like this, unfortunately so does complexity. In fact, if you look around at product names, you’ll realize that complexity is doing a fine job of winning this particular war.
Now let us return to the tale of C1. Or should I say, MacMan. The agency team was heartbroken to learn that Steve had fallen in love with such a disappointing name as “MacMan.” Unlike C1 itself, for which our feelings had evolved from shock to love, there could be no love for “MacMan.” Ever. It had so many things wrong with it, we didn’t know where to start. Phil Schiller, Apple’s worldwide marketing manager, was in the room, and Steve revealed that “MacMan” was Phil’s contribution.
“I think it’s sort of reminiscent of Sony,” said Steve, referring of course to Sony’s legendary Walkman line of personal music players. “But I have to tell you, I don’t mind a little rub-off from Sony. They’re a famous consumer company, and if MacMan seems like a Sony kind of consumer product, that might be a good thing.” It was hard to know where to start picking at that argument. It seemed that Apple, more than any company in the world, stood for originality. Having a name that so blatantly echoed another company’s style couldn’t be the right way to go. We were also disturbed by the “man” part of “Mac-Man,” with its obvious gender bias. And then there was the fact that the name just gave us hives, but we’d need to be a bit more tactful on that one.
This is a common problem dealing with any client. Once they’ve fallen in love with something you don’t like, the only way to really move them off of it is to show them something better. Steve was inviting us to beat “Mac-Man,” so it wasn’t a terrible problem. Yet. Before we left the premises, Steve threw out some guidelines for our naming development. “First of all, you have to know it’s a Mac,” he said. “So I think it has to have the ‘Mac’ word in it.” This was priority number one, because looks aside, it was a Mac through and through, running all the same software. “Second, everybody wants to get on the Internet, and this is the easiest way to get there,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.” An EarthLink installer would be built into the system, so you’d just turn on the computer, fill out the application, and you’d become a full citizen of the Internet–complete with your very own email address. (This was a big deal in those days, I swear.)
Steve had two warnings for us, though–two traps he didn’t want us to fall into. “This is a full-powered Mac, but some people are going to look at it and think it’s a toy. So the name shouldn’t sound too frivolous,” he said. “There’s also a danger people might think it’s a portable, because it’s got this big handle on the top. But this thing is heavy. That handle is just there to make it easier to move around in the house. So don’t make it sound portable,” he said.
We scratched our heads at these instructions, given that Steve had just professed love for the name “MacMan.” That one name managed to violate both of these instructions simultaneously. “MacMan” sounded both game-like (Pac-Man) and portable (Walkman). But we’d save that argument for a time when we were equipped with better names. Potential disagreement aside, naming C1 was a terrifically cool opportunity, and the agency team leaped at the chance. A week later, we returned to Cupertino with a portfolio case containing our C1 naming recommendations. We’d gone through a long list of candidates, trimmed it down to five favorites, and created a single poster board for each. Each board presented a name in big, juicy type, along with a short list of bullet points that described its virtues.
Our favorite name was one that I’d come up with early in the process: “iMac.” It seemed to solve all the problems at once. It was clearly a Mac. The i conveyed that this was a Mac designed to get you onto the Internet. It was also a perfectly succinct name–just a single letter added to the word “Mac.” It didn’t sound like a toy and it didn’t sound portable. Using the word “Mac” in the product name was more of a revolution than you might realize. At that time, “Macintosh” had yet to be shortened to a more colloquial “Mac” in the name of any Apple computer. For Simplicity and minimalism, “iMac” seemed to be perfect.
And of course, there was also one other small advantage that came with the name “iMac.” It created an interesting foundation upon which Apple could name future consumer products. Maybe, possibly, somehow, some¬time, Apple would see fit to create another “i” product?
One by one, I took Steve through our five finalist names. I quickly moved through such also-rans as “MiniMac” (this was long before the Mac mini) and ended with a flourish on “iMac.” I made the case that not only was “iMac” concise and easy to remember, but the “i” could stand for other things. There was the obvious association with the Internet, but it could also stand for “individual” and “imagination.” Unfortunately, that ending flourish didn’t have the desired effect on Steve.
“I hate them all. ‘MacMan’ is better.”
Talk about disheartening. We had expected to be going home heroes, but instead we would be going home to lick our wounds and start up the naming engine once again. “Now you’ve only got one week left to come up with a better name, or it’s going to be ‘MacMan,’ ” Steve said. A week later, we’d generated another batch of names. We threw out all the previous names but left “iMac” in the mix, despite the fact that Steve had used the “hate” word. In this presentation, I relied on a philosophy I learned long ago from a wise man in advertising. It was “As long as you’ve got new ideas to share, you are free to re-present the old one.”
Back in Cupertino for presentation number two, I walked Steve through the new names first. After I’d gone through the new list, he still didn’t like any. That’s when I pulled out “iMac” again and told him we still had a lot of heart for that one. Steve gave it the courtesy of a fresh look. “Well, I don’t hate it this week,” he said. “But I still don’t love it. Now we’ve only got a couple days left, and I still think ‘MacMan’ is the best name we have.” Depressing as that was, there was at least a shred of hope this time around. Steve had said he didn’t hate “iMac” anymore. Felt like positive energy to me.
I’d like to say that there was some big turnaround after this point, one moment of glory that had us all high-fiving one another, but there was not. The very next day, while talking to one of my Apple clients, I learned that there was action on the naming front. Steve was making the rounds asking people what they thought of “iMac.” He’d had the name silk- screened onto a model to see how it looked.
I never heard another peep about this decision. Steve basically took it and ran. Obviously he liked what he saw when he got the model back, and he must have received positive reactions from his inner circle. And so, “iMac” it was. This, of course, says an interesting thing about the way Steve Jobs worked. He had an opinion. A very strong opinion. The kind of opinion that might knock you over and kick you a few times. But that’s not to say he wasn’t reasonable or wouldn’t ultimately change his mind if confronted with heartfelt opinions presented with passion.
This was a key moment for Apple, when its love of Simplicity won the day and set it on a course it follows to this very day. Steve was unrelenting in his desire to give this great product a great name. He appreciated the power of words. In this case, he appreciated the power of a single letter. And that little letter “i” became one of the most important parts of the Apple brand.
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