Smartphones Unlocked: How cell phones get their names (column)

Have you ever wondered how a cell phone or smartphone gets its name? We have, too, so in this month's Smartphones Unlocked column, CNET editor Bonnie Cha talks with Samsung to find out how it names its handsets.

Welcome to Smartphones Unlocked, my new monthly column designed to explain the ins and outs of smartphones to help you better understand how they work. The world of smartphones is fast-paced and can sometimes be confusing and difficult to keep track of all the new technology in these devices, particularly if you're new to them, so if there are any topics you'd like to see covered here, please feel free to e-mail me at bonnie.cha@cnet.com.

Last month, my colleague Jessica Dolcourt wrote a great two-part series on how cell phones are born , along with some behind-the-scenes confessions from the handset designers. The articles provided a great insider's look at the cell phone design business, but there's another part that's always intrigued: how do cell phones and smartphones get their names?

In my seven years of reviewing phones, I've come across some great names and some that have come from the department of "What were they thinking?" Samsung has had its fair share of both, so for this month's column, I reached out to the handset manufacturer to shed some light on the subject. What follows is a Q&A session with Paul Golden, vice president of strategic marketing for Samsung Telecommunications America (Samsung Mobile).

Golden, whose responsibilities include coming up with brand and marketing strategy for new product launches, advertising, media, consumer and in-store promotions, walked me through how the company names its cell phones and smartphones. As I've learned since starting this column, the process is much more involved than I thought, so read on to see what's in a (cell phone) name.

Question: When do you begin the process of coming up with a name for a phone? Is it during the development process? Once a phone is complete? Somewhere in between?
Golden: As you might imagine, the product naming process and protocol is not the same for every phone Samsung manufactures. I can tell you that on average, the product naming process takes about five to seven weeks to complete, starting with the initial idea brainstorm and reaching completion once our team and our respective carrier partner for that device give their final approval.

Samsung Messager
Samsung Messager Touch Josh Miller/CNET

How do you come up with them? What influences the decision?
Golden: We develop a positioning statement for each product that articulates the consumer benefit and key support features. The positioning statement will act as a guideline to define the best product name.

How difficult is it coming up with a name? What challenges are there?
Golden: It is definitely a challenge to match the right name with the right product. First, we have to make sure that the product name is not already taken by a competitor or a very similar version of that product name. It can also be difficult to find a product name that has a balance between being memorable and descriptive, while also being relevant, quickly understood, and recognizable to consumers.

How long does the process take? What are the different stages and who gives the final approval?
Golden: There are typically six stages that a product will go through over a five- to seven-week period before its final name is selected and confirmed. The first phase is creative development where hundreds of names are provided from an extended brainstorm period. In the second phase, we take those potential product names to a legal prescreen to determine possible conflicts with current or future products from our competitors and make significant cuts to the initial list.

The third stage involves taking a list of about 10 to 20 leading product name candidates to our carrier partners to get their impressions. The fourth stage moves those 10 to 20 product names into a full legal search for any conflicts or potential liabilities and risks. From there, the list is whittled down to the fifth phase, which is an even shorter list of product names that are submitted to our legal team to ensure the remaining options are defensible and legally protected.

In the sixth and final phase, one product name emerges as the selected go-to market name, complete with the legal research findings and all of that information shared with the carrier for confirmation.

Do you have a team or is there a dedicated person whose job it is to come up with names?
Golden: Samsung does have a dedicated individual whose chief responsibility is to manage the product name process through the six phases, including the feedback from our legal team and the product naming/branding counterparts at each carrier Samsung works with. It's important to note that iconic devices, such as the Galaxy S, receive more product naming attention and research and go through a more in-depth approval process with our senior executives.

Are focus groups ever involved?
Golden: Focus groups are generally not used, but we do conduct market testing research with consumers to help identify which product attributes and features would likely resonate the strongest when people are shopping for a new phone. Our ultimate goals in naming a product are driving Samsung's business and building an emotional and loyal connection with consumers.

Samsung Droid Charge
Samsung Droid Charge Sarah Tew/CNET

What part do the carriers play in the naming process?
Golden: Some carriers do own product names that evolve into specific brands across multiple manufacturers, such as Verizon and its Droid brand. But more often than not, Samsung conducts the product naming process for our phones and accessories and own the intellectual rights to that product name and potential future generations of products that share all or part of a older product name.

How much influence do the OEM's have? Can you tell the carrier that you want a phone to keep its original name/branding (e.g., Samsung Galaxy S II) or if you don't agree with a name, can you push back?
Golden: Naming a product is definitely a collaborative process between Samsung and our carrier partners. Let's face it, if the carrier is a big fan of a product name that we choose to bring to market, the better our overall synergy will be with the carrier in marketing, launching and promoting the product both in advance and after retail availability begins.

How different is the naming process for the U.S. and other parts of the world? When do you change the name of the same phone for different countries?
Golden: Many of the phones that we sell in the U.S. are unique to the U.S. market. In those cases the names will also be unique. For global devices, our preference is to use common naming as much as possible in order to leverage global media. In today's media world, there are no real borders so consumers get exposed to online and social media that we do globally as well as in the U.S. The more consistent we can be in our naming globally, the better. In some cases, we may have different strategies for product branding in the U.S. than other parts of the globe.

Does Samsung check a proposed name to see what cultural or religious meanings it has in other countries or societies?
Golden: Being a global company, Samsung and our legal counsel are very sensitive and careful to avoid introducing product names that could offend consumers here in the U.S. as well as other parts of the world. That is one of the reasons that our product naming process goes through multiple waves of legal reviews. Our legal agency checks names against other languages (always Korean) to ensure there are no potential hidden meanings. The Samsung HQ intellectual property team also will ask the meaning of a name if it is a coined name, such as APTOS, which combines apt and operating system.

What are some of the legal issues you have to deal with with coming up with names?
Golden: Aside from the obvious problems associated with launching a product name that is the same as a competitor, we also have to be aware of product names that could unintentionally mislead consumers into thinking that our phone or tablet has a specific feature or capability that it does not actually possess. Also, the mobile phone product industry is growing with more manufacturers and products every day. More products in the telecom industry creates a smaller number of original product names for Samsung and our competitors to choose from.

Once you come up with a unique name, is that exclusive to Samsung? Do you own it or can other companies use them?
Golden: Once a product name is registered as Samsung's intellectual property, our rights typically extend to exclusivity among the consumer technology industry. However, other consumer product industries, from cars to food or airlines all have the ability to use a name of one of our products, as long as their legal counsel can prove there is minimal to no chance that a consumer will confuse our product with the product from a completely unrelated industry.

Why do you use the model number for some devices?
Golden: We still use numbers on some entry-level feature phones where consumers are looking more for economy and basic functionality.

Samsung BlackJack II
Samsung BlackJack II Corinne Schulze/CNET

Any names that have been favorites among customers, as well as within Samsung? Least favorite?
Golden: The Samsung BlackJack and its successors, the BlackJack II and the Jack, both seemed to resonate with consumers. More recently, our Galaxy S and Galaxy Tab portfolio of products have been very successful in branding Samsung as a provider of premium, durable, and powerful smartphones and mobile tablets. Out of fairness to our naming team and to keep me out of trouble, I should probably plead the Fifth on the least favorite product name.

Any fun brainstorming sessions or war stories you'd like to share?
Golden: Again, probably in my best interest to keep quiet on that question to keep myself out of trouble.

Finally, I have to ask about the Samsung :) (Smiley) and Messager. The use of an emoticon is novel, but got a bit of ribbing in the press. And Messager isn't technically a word. Can you share how these two names came about and provide some thoughts on some of the criticism?
Golden: For Smiley, I can confirm that T-Mobile owned the rights to that product name, so their marketing team would be the best place to start. In this case, the carrier had a very strong interest in the name.

On the Messager, you are correct that its not a proper word in the technical sense, but Messager did a great job of conveying its primary use case in a very straightforward way. The Messager had a slide-out full QWERTY keyboard and was marketed to teenage/young adults as a phone that was great for text messaging.

About the author

Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.

 

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