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Bad branding infects tech

High-tech branding needs some help, according to Steve Tobak. Just look at some of the spin-off and product names, and you'll see what he means.

Last week, I explained why high tech isn't known for its stellar marketing. Well, if you'll permit me to continue to throw stones from the comfort of my glass house, I'd say its branding isn't worth a damn, either.

Mothers should love their children, right? Then why do high-tech mother companies give their spin-offs such stupid names? Do they hate their offspring? It's not that far-fetched. They already saddle them with tons of debt and other baggage. Maybe a stupid name is just their way of saying, "Don't let the door hit you in the butt on your way out"?

Or maybe they're just trying to toughen the company up for the real world, as in Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue? I seriously doubt it.

The worst name of all the high-tech spin-offs has to be Rockwell's offspring, Conexant Systems. I had trouble pronouncing it for the longest time. Now I can pronounce it, but I still hate it. Also, the fact that Rockwell's stock is trading at record levels while Conexant's remains in the tank indicates something of a dysfunctional mother-child relationship, doesn't it?

Then there's Freescale Semiconductor, the Motorola spin-off. Living in the greediest capitalist society in the history of the world, it would never have occurred to me to use a company name with "free" in it. Also, I wonder how many hits the company's Web site gets from butchers, chemists, and drug dealers.

Then there's On Semiconductor, whose name is just plain misleading. Semiconductors are a cyclical business sector; it should have been On/Off Semiconductor. Another awesome Motorola spin-off, by the way.

How about Spansion? It makes me think of Spandex, Spaniard, Cocker spaniel, or someone speaking Ebonics or a little kid trying to say expansion.

Then there are the prodigal sons, Agere Systems and Agilent Technologies. I know one was spun off from Lucent Technologies and the other from Hewlett-Packard, but I've never been able to remember offhand which is which. I think LSI Logic bought one of them, but I don't know which one. By the way, LSI Logic changed its name to LSI Corp. a few months ago. A bold move.

I always did like Lucent, though. I guess it means light, but it sounds just enough like Lucifer, to be fun.

And how about mergers? What's up with PMC-Sierra, KLA-Tencor, and Sanmina-SCI? Can't these executives just pick one name and go with it, for God's sake?

Some company names are a little confusing. Does Plantronics make headsets for hearing-impaired vegetation? Do you think lonely analog engineers ever chance upon the wrong Maxim Web site (when aiming for that of Maxim Integrated Products) and completely forget what they were doing?

Slingbox had to be the funkiest product name I'd heard in a long time. The ads were great, but every time I heard one, I thought of Sling Blade. Billy Bob Thornton was great in that movie, but he was really creepy.

Intel, which usually comes up with great brand names, really botched Viiv-- and not just the name. Still, you know that everyone in the focus group had to ask how to pronounce it, right?

The biggest waste of enormous branding dollars has to go to SBC Communications. After spending megabucks creating a new brand to embody its amalgamation of telecommunications companies, it bought what was left of the old Ma Bell and, in a surprise move, tossed the SBC brand it had just spent a fortune creating in the garbage in favor of AT&T. Did I forget to mention that the company went to lowercase letters and a slightly rounder globe? WooHoo.

I know this is sacrilege for a branding guy to say, but when it comes to technology companies and products, I'm not sure how much a name matters. Look at Texas Instruments. Nobody likes Texas, and the company doesn't make instruments anymore, but so what? It's a great company. Nobody seems to care about its name.

Still, I can't let you get away without some branding advice. Just remember this rule, and you'll do fine: keep it simple, memorable, and repetitive. If you need more info, I've got some good articles for you to read.

One more thing: make sure the name doesn't mean "rat poop" in Mandarin.

Note: This was inspired by "How not to name your company" by Michael Kanellos, CNET's erudite editor-at-large.