siri vs speaktoit: a perspective on modern brand names

My curiosity was piqued by the headline of a recent article comparing Siri, the personal assistant application on new iPhones, to Speaktoit, currently available on Android phones – but not because I wanted to understand the differences between the apps.  I was struck by how different the two names are – Siri:  short, cute, a person’s name, vs. Speaktoit:  longer, cumbersome, a function.

I got to thinking about what makes a brand name effective and how that’s changed over time.  As I’ve dug into the trends, I’ve discovered how brand names reflect the business climates they’re developed in – and how understanding the relationship between the two can help people develop effective brand names in these modern times.

In the past, brand names have served as labels for companies, products, or services.  The role of name-as-label is description and the purpose is primarily to instill confidence.  That’s why founders’ names (e.g., Disney, McDonald’s, Hewlett-Packard) and functional names (e.g., Burger King, IBM, Weight Watchers) have been popular.  The names tell people either what the company/product/service is, or what it does, or who’s behind it.  Names as labels are about consumer risk-reduction.

But in today’s marketplace, it seems brand names need to do more than that.  Modern names need to stand out, draw people in, and inspire their imaginations.  These days the most effective brand names don’t serve as labels – they’re more like identities.  They declare instead of describe, convey personality instead of confidence.  That’s why we see names like Jack for radio stations, Freebirds for restaurants, and Zappos for e-tailers.  These names as identities are about consumer attraction.

Which brings me back to Siri vs. Speaktoit.  The name Siri is derived from the SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center which developed the technology that powers the application.  Fortunately the founders were prescient enough to understand the technology’s potential and adapted the center’s name into woman’s name instead of forming it as an acronym.  An actual person’s name makes the application seem personal and approachable — the precise attributes the technology needs to attract people and generate trial.

The name Speaktoit Assistant, however, seems pedantic.  While the name clearly describes the technology, its descriptive nature genericizes the product.  It emphasizes what the user can do vs. suggests how the user will feel.  The potential of the technology seems more limited with a functional name and the name almost begs for copycats (I’m sure plans for Talktome, SayIt, and JustSpeak are already in the works.)

And that’s really the point.  An effective brand name conveys – or at least evokes – differentiation.  And while differentiation has long been an important part of brand-building, in most categories today, differentiation is achieved less with features and functions and more through values and personality.  The former are easily and quickly copied and commoditized; the latter, less so.  Modern brand names need to tap into the differentiating power of values and personality.

An effective brand name also supports the primary marketing task, so modern brand names should facilitate the marketing task of today’s market.  Companies have and always will need to assure customers of the brand quality in order to reduce the perceived risks of purchase – but now that is achieved less by promotion and more by identification.  Modern consumers trust brands that demonstrate interest in them and the things they care about – they’re attracted by the sense of affinity.  So marketers should select names that facilitate this connection through identity.

There are two other factors to consider. First, salience. With the growing number of competitors and the shrinking size of screens – not to mention attention spans – the need for salient brand names is greater now than ever before.  Short, pithy names stand out quickly.

Second, if ICANN’s push to add as many as 1,000 new top-level domains is accepted (and it’s looking increasingly like it will), descriptive names will become even less important.  No longer will a company need to spell out that it’s an eating establishment if it can use the “.restaurant”  or “.eat” domain.  So marketers will enjoy more freedom when selecting modern brand names.

Brand names are an interesting sign of the times.  And it’s clear, it’s a brand new world out there (pun intended.)

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