What comes after 4?

Ok, this is a rhetorical question, despite having a BA, I’m actually ok at maths.

I’m talking about Apple’s eagerly awaited iPhone 5 or possibly iPhone 4g. Or even iPhone 4S. Who knows? Well Steve Jobs probably does, but this uncertainty represents the dark art of product naming conventions.

The first ‘one’ is easy enough to name – the first iPhone was simply the iPhone. Ford’s first car was the “Model A”. But naming subsequent products can prove to be a headache. In the case of the iPhone, it’s fairly straightforward. Apple has kept the product range fairly simple, with only one or two models available at any given time. Nokia, by contrast, has a huge range of handsets. Its naming convention has varied, some are numbers (who didn’t have a Nokia 3210 at some point?), some combinations of numbers and letters, (the N95, another popular model) and others have proper names (eg the Nokia Communicator). It’s useful for companies to differentiate their product range from an auditing point of view, but this function can be achieved with any type of name. A more important factor is its meaning to the customer and what it communicates to the audience.

For companies that have a really broad product range, tiers of names are required. This can be seen in Tesco’s trio of ranges: Value, standard and Finest* (sic). It doesn’t matter what you’re looking to buy, you can make assumptions about where the product fits in the price range and quality of the product.

This type of thing works well for intangible products like bank accounts or credit cards. Here, products can be basic, premium or exclusive, bronze, silver or gold. In some cases this name can carry a lot of value. Simply calling someone a premier customer, or giving them a gold account gives the perception of importance. We’re a naturally competitive race, and being given a better product than the average punter can make you feel really good.

Now this goes for having the latest Nokia or iPhone too (if Jobs calls it that – you heard it here first), but it only works if everyone else knows you’ve got the latest and greatest model. Where Nokia falls down, is that no one knows which model was most recent.

There is another direction. Taiwanese phone manufacturer HTC names its Android products (I’ll leave Windows Phone 7 models aside for simplicity’s sake) with superlative nouns – Desire, Legend, Sensation to name a few (Where a model has been re-released, it has been given an ‘s’ suffix, presumably to denote ‘second’). This strategy has ensured that each product has a more impressive name than the last, and that products can be easily differentiated. But how long can this hyperbole be maintained? English is an expansive language, so I’m sure the company’s marketing team (now run by Jason Mackenzie) won’t run short too soon, but it does run the danger of having to choose names that are not so impressive, or changing its naming convention and confusing customers.

So back to the original question, what comes after Apple’s 5th iPhone? The iPhone 6? The iPhone 5s? My feeling is that this is straying into the vagueries of Nokia’s gargantuan range. Apple will lose caché if punters need to ask what the latest model number is.

I’ll stick my neck out and guess that Apple will move away from another numeral before too long. Whether it will look to its operating system (named after animals including Panther, Leopard etc), Roman numerals (iPhone VI anybody?) or maybe even return to plain old iPhone is anyone’s guess.

As I said, product naming is indeed a dark art.

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About Sam Elfer

Blogging about writing
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