"What am I?"

Every invention begs this essential question of identity.

The answer is found in the product’s descriptor. A descriptor defines a thing, categorizing it, framing it, positioning it and signaling its intended future.

A product that doesn’t claim to break new ground adopts its category’s standard convention. For example, a new, run-of-the-mill digital camera would be marketed as a "digital camera".

A revolutionary product, on the other hand, deserves an innovative product descriptor. And, sometimes, a me-too product benefits from one, too.

The trouble is, innovation is easier done than said.

I wrote in this article about the "brander’s paradox": Human instincts make us wary of unfamiliar and different things, yet differentiation is essential to a product’s success.

By definition, an innovation is unfamiliar. How can its product descriptor differentiate without triggering people’s fear of the unknown?

The New York Times gives us an idea in this recent article about product descriptors,

"When people encounter something they don’t recognize, they make sense of it by associating it with something familiar."

The most effective new descriptors combine familiar terms in unfamiliar ways. They make product function or form clearly understood, even upon first exposure. Novel descriptors insufficiently informative should at the very least pique interest.

Descriptors that differ

The products shown below the jump illustrate different approaches:

Starbucks VIA ready brew

It’s a me-too product but you can’t tell from its descriptor. This is really instant coffee, a product designator unbecoming Starbucks. "Ready brew" emphasizes the chief benefit of saving time by using current, casual vernacular.

Dreyer’s Slow Churned ice cream

Food scientists have a name for everything, but that name isn’t always appetizing. The dessert wizards at Dreyer’s, for example, had perfected a new way to blend low-fat ice cream so it acquires the texture and richness of full-fat ice cream. In precise but dry science lingo, they called the process "low-temperature extrusion". Doesn’t exactly make the mouth water, does it?

Dreyer’s isn’t dumb. They knew "extrusion" had no place on a quart of mint chip. They needed a term that had immediate appetite appeal. The words of their final, market-facing descriptor, "Slow Churned", taps into the semiotics of yesteryear, when food was simpler, unprocessed, and naturally indulgent. "Churned" evokes hand-mixed barrels of butter, hinting at the product’s creamy richness. "Slow" connotes food that’s unprocessed and handcrafted.

On the heels of Slow Churned ice cream’s astounding success, Breyer’s flattered Dreyer’s with their imitative descriptor, Double Churned ice cream.

Disclaimer: I led the naming of Dreyer’s Slow Churned ice cream as Global Director of Naming and Writing at Landor Associates.

Bing decision engine

Can’t fault Microsoft for trying. Bing is a search engine, pure and simple. Although "decision engine" will never become part of the vernacular, it does suggest how Bing is different: Giving relevant information to help make a informed decision, instead of overwhelming with googlebytes of information.

Noah’s Stuffed Saladwich

Coined words are hard to get right. This inventive, efficient descriptor gets mixed results. At a glance, "saladwich" looks like a real word because it begins and ends with the same letters as "sandwich" (a phenomenon cheekily called, "typoglycemia"). But "Saladwich" sounds clunky because "-wich" is not a productive suffix and doesn’t normally combine with other words (unlike the "-tini" of "martini" that gives us "chocotini" and "apple-tini"). "Saladwich" will sound less contrived as it becomes more familiar.

Blackberry wireless email solution

Technology products that blend hardware, software and services are tough to describe. More often than not, catch-all words like "solution" or "system" are employed. Though vague, these words avoid long descriptors that specify all key product dimensions. "Wireless email solution" is a lot shorter than "phone, PDA, email, internet, software and services." To its credit (and my alma mater’s, Lexicon), the differentiation in Blackberry is borne primarily by the Blackberry name itself, not its ho-hum descriptor.

Segway personal transporter

This NYT article discusses the difficulty of categorizing the Segway, a product that’s really unlike anything else. Although the article touches on the brand name, it doesn’t mention Segway’s official descriptor. "Personal transporter" suggests who the product is for and what it does at a basic level, but it doesn’t capture how revolutionary the product is, what it looks like or even whether it’s motorized.

But a descriptor can’t do everything. Like most products visibly inventive, a photo of the Segway speaks volumes. And messaging, mostly communicated through PR, does the heavy lifting of describing Segway technology and its applications.

Describing technology convergence

Each of the products above fit, more or less, into one functional category. But in electronic devices, disparate functions inevitably converge. Over time, we’ve seen phones integrate video cameras, music players evolve into movie players, and televisions that browse the Web.

Technology convergence presents a naming quandary: How do you categorize a product that merges others?

There are five approaches a marketer can take when describing one device that does the work of many:

  • List all of the converged technologies (e.g. "all-in-one printer, fax, scanner") Long but accurate, clear and communicative. Needs to change as new functions are added. Generic and not protectable.
  • Cite one function only (e.g. "mobile phone" [the built-in camera is not referenced in the descriptor]) Short; relies on copy and imagery to tout other functions. Doesn’t suggest "new". Generic, not protectable.
  • Use one of the technology descriptors as the focus but modify it (e.g. "smartphone") Short; borrows from the familiar to aid understanding. These descriptors can take a long time to be adopted by industry and customers. It helps if the modifier is already understood from other categories and retains that meaning. May or may not be protectable.
  • Come up with something totally new (e.g. "media center") In naming, unfamiliarity is friction. Descriptors like these resist widespread adoption. They typically require a lot of time and money to gain traction. May or may not be protectable.
  • Use no descriptor at all (e.g. "iPod") This is a risky approach and is only viable when the device marketer has (1) control over all communications, distribution and sales and (2) a lot of money.

Apple has conspicuously avoided using a product descriptor per se for iPod. It turns out, they didn’t need one. No distributors or resellers could tinker with Apple’s disciplined and exacting messaging. At launch, the ad headline, "1000 songs in your pocket" made it clear the iPod was a portable music player.

Today, the iPod has grown in function and familiarity. So confident is Apple, they answer "What is iPod touch?" with "A great iPod. A great pocket computer. A great portable game player." When you can recursively describe your product and people get it, you’ve transcended product descriptors and become a category unto yourself.

The iPod answers "What am I?" with the most basic statement of identity, "I am me".

I guess if you’re iPod, that’s all you need to know.

Anthony Shore, Operative Words

Take the innovation descriptor challenge!

Innovations are easier done than said. See if you can come up with better product descriptors than these:

  • Segway personal transporter
  • Blackberry wireless email solution
  • The Internet global network
  • Onstar in-vehicle safety and security system
  • Wii console

Post your best ideas in the comments section.