Susan Cantor and Kristen Nozell
It is a well-documented theory that successful innovation occurs at the intersection of familiarity and newness. A disruptive technology is all well and good, but unless it’s adopted by your intended audience, it doesn’t create much impact. All but the most eager early adopters need a compelling reason to incorporate a new product or service into their lives – and that reason is much stronger if it falls within a context that is already understood. E-readers are more convenient versions of physical books. PCs are digitized versions of your entire desktop. Smartphones are more powerful mobile phones. Seamless is takeout 2.0. Segway, on the other hand? Exactly.
While that context, the bridge between foreign and familiar, can be designed with visual cues (e.g., skeumorphism), innovators have another tool at their disposal as well: brand language. In particular, names and descriptors are a tool to ground ground-breaking technology in familiar territory and consequently ease its adoption by the masses.
Descriptors are an obvious way to provide a frame of reference. By definition, this short line of text provides context to consumers, instructing them how to categorize the product or service. The classic example is Red Bull’s descriptor “Energy Drink”, which not only helped to establish Red Bull’s product, but also established an entire category.
Descriptors, by their very nature, use terms with which consumers are already familiar. The success of the first automobiles is attributed to their classification as a “horseless carriage” – this concept was easy to intuit in the late 1800s. Fast forward to today, and “self-driving car” is becoming a common descriptor. The technology could just as easily be called “robotic transporter”, but framing it in the context of a familiar concept (cars, which are driven) paves the way for its adoption.
Brand and product names may be a less intuitive way to help consumers contextualize a new product or service, but they can be just as powerful in establishing familiarity. Airbnb isn’t a service to crash with strangers for the night: it’s the equivalent of staying at a local bed and breakfast. The Apple Watch isn’t just a fitness tracker (which are proving to have high rates of abandonment) – it’s a fashion accessory that takes the place of your everyday timepiece.
This tactic isn’t limited to descriptive names: an abstract name can just as effectively place a product or service in an understandable context. We even see entire categories develop naming conventions around a specific metaphor. For example, virtual reality as a trip: a Jaunt, perhaps, or maybe a Magic Leap. In this context, the technology makes sense. Sure, strapping on a headset is a different format from our usual travels, but it gives us a frame of reference for thinking about the role it plays in our lives.
Similarly, think of tech-driven service brands. There may be a perception that services operated through digital platforms are cold and sterile, distinctly foreign from what we think of as good service. But what happens if you give that service a human name? Oscar, or Alfred perhaps? Suddenly, our perspective shifts and a digitally operated platform feels comfortingly human. Of course, this metaphor is in play with artificial intelligence as well. Siri, Alexa and Watson are introducing the masses to artificial intelligence and making it familiar through their human names. Just think if Alexa were called Robot 012, or C3PO. We may not feel quite as comfortable inviting her into our homes.
Consider the power of words. Names and descriptors are more than just the terms consumers use to talk about and reference a product or service – they’re the terms in which consumers think about it. The context that brand language provides can turn the new into the known, and ultimately pave the way for its success.
About the Authors
Susan Cantor is CEO of Red Peak, a brand strategy and design agency in New York City. Kristen Nozell leads Red Peak's verbal identity and naming practice. Red Peak has named brands and products for clients including Paymit, a peer-to-peer payment app for UBS, Bridgeforth, an EB-5 focused private equity firm, and cable network MTV.
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