A Rose by Any Other Name?

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Remember when computer systems were known by their acronyms? S/360, S/3, S/34, S/36, S/38, AS/400--IBM had a penchant for taking the most advanced technology of the era and transforming it into a name that no one was likely to remember. Like "the Integrated PC Server," or IPCS. Now there's a product name that rolls right off the tongue and straight into spell-checking limbo!

Ah, but IBM listened to its customer's complaints when it brought out the eServers! After spending millions researching what to name its eServer products, IBM's market researchers came up with iSeries, pSeries, xSeries, zSeries--names that any catalog salesman could love. It makes you wonder what happened to all those other lowercase "Series Servers" that didn't make it into IBM's alphabet.

The Invasion of the Market Researchers

Well, those busy IBM market researchers have been at it again, only this time--having successfully "spruced up" the product lines in Somers--they've been shipped off to Cambridge, Massachusetts. How come? They've been turned loose on IBM's Lotus software division! That's right! According to a recent PartnerWorld press announcement, the Lotus product line needed a bit of "image adjustment," and IBM knew just who it should send. The result is a rebranding campaign called "Product Name Brand Simplification." Watch out!

Hardware and Software Branding Sells

Now, before the hate mail starts, let me say that I'm all for better branding of software and hardware products. One doesn't need to look far to see what great product names have done for Microsoft. Microsoft is the unexcelled leader in turning a catchy phrase into a very descriptive branding strategy. Consider this: Even the name "Microsoft" tells a prospective customer what the company does and where its products work, (Software for the micro-computer) while the name imparts a bit of pizzazz about the company's product philosophy (It's "soft" and "microscopic"). You need only to look at the "Microsoft Windows" brand name to understand why--despite its technical flaws--it has succeeded in the public's imagination while IBM's OS/2 languished and faded into obscurity. What does an "OS/2" do?

Microsoft has always had a strategy about its brand names: A product name has to reach the public's ear as a heady message in the common vernacular that imparts an unexpected utility. Windows, Outlook, Office, Word, Internet Explorer--these are all names that have separate meanings in the "real world" but are translatable to a "virtual world" of microchips. In fact, of all Microsoft's product brand names, only "Excel" and "Access" really grate on my sensibilities. To me, those two product names seem at odds with the basic outlines from the invisible Microsoft branding iron.

The Apple of Your "iMac"

But Microsoft isn't the only organization designing psychological product names. Over the years, Apple has taken product branding in a variety of directions that were designed to confound the stiff-backed computing industry while simultaneously titillating its loyal users. Brand names like "Lisa" and the original "Macintosh" are names that seemed aimed at customers who might be more interested in dating their computers than actually using them. And what about the "iMac": Does the "i" stand for Internet, or is it short for "little me, myself, and i"? Should it have been called the "meMac," since connecting it to a business computing environment seems to be pretty low on Apple's priority list?

However, of all Apple's computer name brands, the "PowerBook" stands out. It tells the customer so much about the personality, the size, and the performance of this ultra-thin laptop that the brand still has tremendous "oomph" in the marketplace years after it was introduced. This brand name just seems to go on forever, and indeed, the PowerBook remains Apple's most popular corporate brand name jewel today.

The 1-2-3s of Product Naming

Lotus, on the other hand, has always been a renegade with brand names. Starting with Lotus 1-2-3 (a brand name that bespeaks simplicity in working with numbers), the company's brand philosophy seems to constantly minimize what its products do. For instance, the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet was always more powerful than a calculator, just as Lotus Agenda was more versatile than a computerized meeting agenda or just as Lotus Freelance was a more compelling way to display a presentation chart. Lotus, instead of telling people what the products did--or how they make your work become easier--hid the products' power and functionality behind simple names so that people wouldn't be intimidated by using the PC. Meanwhile, deep inside--once a customer got through the monstrous documentation--there were mechanisms that were actually revolutionizing the manner by which we could perform our jobs. Consider: Before the success of 1-2-3, spreadsheets were only toys; before Freelance, there were only whiteboards and printed charts. Lotus' products and their product names helped fuel that revolution, and they capitalized upon their success.

But once customers began looking for yet more powerful tools, did Lotus change its product names to reflect the new computer customer's needs? Of course not! Instead, Lotus built more powerful products, but hid that power under simpler monikers.

The Ugliest Brand: Lotus Notes

The worse case in point was the brand name "Lotus Notes." Here was a workflow product so revolutionary that almost no one understood it. Its functionality and potential in the workplace was transcendental. But Lotus named it simply "Notes."

Executives were invited to lengthy and expensive seminars, just to hear Notes' capabilities described; videos and books and countless articles were created to tout its potential; entire third-party application suites were built around its engine; terms like "Knowledge Management" were coined to explain its potential impact on the workplace. Even after the product was extended across the entire breadth of server architectures and operating systems--while it was simultaneously expanded to embrace the global Internet community--Lotus claimed it was only creating "Notes." But, as one confused executive asked me after a seminar, "If these are just the notes, when are we going to get the real thing?"

In response to its burgeoning success, Lotus management then went into a flurry of branding insanity. Lotus unbundled and rebundled the Notes product a thousand times, finally creating a true brand-name zombie called "Lotus Domino." Now what were Lotus customers to think?

To this day, if someone mentions a Domino application, they almost invariably call it "Notes/Domino." What is a Notes/Domino? Is it a set of black and white spotted blocks ready to topple? Or is it a call for late-night pizza after a long day scribbling notes in the office? Back then, when the product was really hot, giving an elevator speech on Notes/Domino required a skyscraper of 60 stories, just to give you enough time to explain the concept of the product.

IBM to the Rescue

Subsequently, IBM purchased the company, and the new Lotus execs began churning out product names that seemed more bent on confounding the spell-checkers than communicating with customers. Consider Lotus Sametime, QuickPlace, and LearningSpace: All great products, but what exactly--in 30 words or less--do they do? What do their names actually tell us?

Indeed, last year, one frustrated foreign IBM Business Partner attending PartnerWorld (another IBM brand spell-check red-liner) gave each Lotus product his own personal pet-name: Sametime became his "Sometime," QuickPlace became his "SomePlace," and LearningSpace became his "SomeSpace." He couldn't understand how he would sell them to his customers back home.

Name Simplification, IBM Style

It's against this history of brand-name marketing abuse that IBM market researchers have finally stepped in. In its announcement on January 13, IBM said, "IBM Lotus software will adopt new names for many of its existing products during 2003, based on customer-based research indicating it should simplify its product branding to be more clear and recognizable by customers." At last!

But wait! What, dare we ask, will those new product names be?

  • "Lotus Sametime (IM/awareness)" will become "IBM Lotus Instant Messaging."
  • "Lotus Sametime (e-meetings)" will become "IBM Lotus Web Conferencing."
  • "Lotus QuickPlace" will become "IBM Lotus Team Workplace."
  • "Lotus LearningSpace" (virtual classrooms) will become "IBM Lotus Virtual Classroom."

Meanwhile, a number of other products, including iNotes, EveryPlace, and MindSpan, will get similarly boring and descriptive--though yet to be announced--monikers.

Sort of takes your breath away, doesn't it? Sort of makes you want to do SomeThing to SomeBody SomeWhere. But it's already TooLate ToDo AnyGood AnyWay. With marketing like this, can the return of IBM acronyms and the IPCS be far behind?

Thomas M. Stockwell is the Editor in Chief of MC Press, LLC. He has written extensively about program development, project management, IT management, and IT consulting and has been a frequent contributor to many midrange periodicals. He has authored numerous white papers for iSeries solutions providers. His most recent consulting assignments have been as a Senior Industry Analyst working with IBM on the iSeries, on the mid-market, and specifically on WebSphere brand positioning. He welcomes your comments about this or other articles and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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