How you name products matters

Clowns-as-a-Service is gonna be huge.

At more than one company, I have been called “the namer of things” or “He who names things.” (Okay, I capitalized “H” myself.)

In a recent conversation with a product colleague, we discussed an idea that he and several others had been touting for almost a year. Let’s call it “Clowns-as-a-Service.”

Can’t you just hear the ads already?: “You ain’t got ClaaS.”

A big part of the reason for our chat was that it wasn’t clear at all what ClaaS was supposed to be. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that the vision for the ClaaS’ features exactly matched the roadmap for an existing internal product we already had: the Jesters and Nominal Klutzes Interface (JANKI). The only difference is that more customers would use JANKI, so some work needed to be done to make the current product more scalable, generalized, and exposed via an API. [1]

Interestingly, this PM had already been seeking additional customers, and we had recently onboarded customer #2. So the only new ‘things’ would be ones that customers would never see.

Another problem was that it wouldn’t be clear to a customer what ClaaS did or did not do. For instance, maybe you could use ClaaS to produce digital clowns in video and images at scale, but you wouldn’t be able to generate jokes for yourself, learn how to juggle, or book a clown for a birthday party. (Let’s set aside why someone in the post-1980s era would actually want to do the last one.)

Hypothetically the product could expand into other features, but the fact was that another internal team had already claimed these features for its roadmap. So such novel ideas wouldn’t be part of ClaaS.

Better to pick a name that is simpler and more aspirational (e.g. “Carnival”). You might have to educate customers about what it means, but, counterintuitively, they’re less likely to be confused. [2]

I have personally always thought that the phrase SaaS was dumb.[3] Here are just a few reasons:

  • SaaS is a wonky term invented by and for other wonks.
  • Back in 2008 when everyone in tech and business was dropping the term in conversation, almost no one could succinctly explain what SaaS was.
  • It’s overly grandiose once you find out exactly what it means (basically just “pay us a subscription forever until you cancel”). Not just grandiose, smarmy.
  • SaaS is an acronym that became a marketing slogan. Unless the acronym is the name of the company itself (not the case here), it is hard to come up with examples of acronyms that are compelling in a marketing sense.
  • Although web and mobile applications are technically software, software itself is a superset. And because software was a much wider superset back when SaaS became a thing, most people didn’t think of software that way. (I’d argue that the average person now on Planet Real World still doesn’t immediately recognize a website as software.)
  • Don’t even get me started on the word “service.” My dry cleaner performs a service for me, but I don’t pay them a monthly subscription. Meanwhile, routine transfer of — nor access to — goods (or tools or software) does not inherently make it a service. We all routinely get paid interest on our checking accounts, but that’s merely a transfer. The service the bank provides is maintenance of the account, handling transactions, etc.

Even if SaaS were the best term ever (it’s not), at this point way too many other things have utilized the “as-a-Service” trope. So, while I’m guessing someone thought Clowns-as-a-Service was kind of catchy, it’s actually just boring and out of date. [4]

Photo by Darius Soodmand on Unsplash

Two main reasons to name a thing are to cut through the noise and warm an audience toward said thing.

Good comedy isn’t safe. Neither is good marketing.

And boring words thrown together just form a boring phrase — a phrase that warms no one.

In case it’s not obvious, let’s review the benefits:

  • Memorable (internally and externally)
  • Shorthand in communication
  • Shared understanding (notwithstanding caveats below)
  • Exciting, fun
  • Motivating to the team

Should authors title their books? Should painters name their paintings? Most of you will reply “yes, of course!” At a minimum, the answer is “why the fuck not?”

However, I have encountered more than a few managers and executives who are staunchly anti-name.

So why do people in companies resist this?

  • People in companies are just more boring than average.
  • Executives in companies are more boring than other people in companies.
  • Clarity about what a given product or team is
  • Even if the names have clear implications, it can be hard to remember all the names.
  • Changes in team scope (e.g. started out with one use case and now it’s three products)
  • Re-orgs of people, teams, products

I argue that the main reason is most likely an underestimation of the benefits of naming things (especially those regarding team motivation and fun). The rationale of the anti-namers springs primarily from a desire to increase understanding. But it’s often only their understanding that is in question. (And this can be improved with effort and other solutions.)

Photo by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash
  • Make it relatable
  • Simple
  • Colorful
  • Easily pronounceable
  • Plays-on-words are great
  • Internal naming gives you more (not less) creative license (e.g. I could name an in-house experimentation platform “Ex-Box” without fear of getting sued)
  • Don’t name an extension of your existing product line something else, unless the existing name isn’t cutting it.
  • Have a plan for how to handle horizontal growth of your product (e.g. sub-brands, etc)
  • Think wisely about how to name teams vs. products
  • Try to keep it related to the product or service itself. Or you can choose something completely unrelated (e.g. Amazon), though I argue this option makes less sense now than it did very early in the Internet. But do not get stuck in the middle. [5]
  • Aspirational (mission) / motivating

Don’t try to do all of these things at once, though.

Let’s say you use a mobile app called “Juggle” for your current clown habit. One day you wake up, and the app is now called “Fool.” You’re going to have all sorts of questions. Do I have to pay? Did Juggle get bought by someone else? What about my personal data?

This is just a simple example. More thoughtfulness needs to be put into things like sub-branding.

If you happen to work for a large company, introducing a new name can be a double-edged sword. While you might be able to get more resources for your project under a new banner, you might face lots of questions from risk-averse executives. You might be better served by simply demonstrating how your slightly tweaked roadmap has that much more value than before.

My colleague decided to retire the ClaaS moniker and to talk about everything under the JANKI name. And he’s going to embark on a reinvigorated JANKI roadshow to see if we can get more adoption. (We know they can benefit, and JANKI is free, so yeah…?)

Meanwhile, he’s considering launching a separate, all-new solution that executes internal marketing for tech platforms. Internal biz-dev as a service, if you will.

iBDaaS

His naming is improving already.

[1] If you’re not a tech person and have no idea what these things mean, it’s not really that important. Google something else: like more artsy clown pics.

[2] Yes, cases of MRSA on Carnival cruises are not a great association, so this example is not perfect.

[3] Software-as-a-service

[4] Since the real product that inspired this fictionalized story has nothing to do with clowns, the associated “Blah-as-a-Service” name is actually more boring. The juxtaposition of clowns with a tech concept is at least ironic, and ClaaS serves as a decently witty acronym.

[5] I realize that the Amazon River, the biggest river in the world by volume and length, could represent how much product selection a customer can find on Amazon.com. But that idea has never occurred to 99.999% of Amazon’s customers. Nor was this connection applicable when it was just a book store. Meanwhile, ember makes this self-heating mug I’m drinking from right now, and the link between name and product is crystal clear.

Not Siri. Sri (shree'). Navy SEAL, podcaster, machine learning, father. Trying to understand jazz. Trying to find huevos rancheros.

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