Celeron is here.
Say it and be damned!
The new chip brand, announced yesterday, is the first "consumer" computer processor from Intel. Based on the Pentium II core, Celeron is designed to be a low-cost, low-power chip for cheap PCs, a development that will likely be followed by a Celeron family of chips for home servers and small computerized devices. Another class of processors with its own fancy name will follow for high-end servers and workstations.
While this chip may help Intel expand its market into other areas, its name presents serious challenges to the company's entire empire. For instance, it seems to have forgotten the fact that Celeron, also the Celtic goddess of the four food groups, is known to be fickle and haughty. Can anyone forget what happened when she gained control of the Orbitron? The valley quakes with her anger.
If only executives had used the past as their guide. Digital Equipment named its desktop lines Venturis and Celebris. The two wed and gave birth to a cosmetologist.
My God, what hath branding wrought?
Ten years ago, "branding" (air quotes optional) was considered an organic art. A company obtained a dominant market share and its name and products became household words. The top brass at Michelin, for instance, did not start the company with the premise that a fluffy, chubby mummy made of tires will instill a sense of comfort and loyalty among drivers, as well as drive an incremental kitsch market.
A few years ago, branding became a painfully self-conscious process. Brands are now developed as seriously as, and in tandem with, the products themselves. The usual excuse is that brands help consumers identify their needs more accurately.
"The purpose of having separate brands is to give users the ability to quickly and easily identify the computer that best suits their needs," said Dennis Carter, vice president of Intel corporate marketing. Consumers must already be entering CompUSA stores exclaiming, "Oh, Celeron, how you symbolize thrift and quality!"
The alternative excuse is that brands convey the personality of the company. Again, this latest one seems to miss the mark. Intel remains the rightful king of aggressive paranoia. Andy Grove could stride down his company's halls, bellowing "Make me a pyramid from the bones of my enemies!" and have half a chance of tripping over it by sunset. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)
So what does Celeron say about Intel? At the urging of Peter Glaskowsky of MicroDesign Resources, I did a quick Yahoo search to find out. Celeron is, among other things, the name of an 18th century French explorer, an industrial laminate from Brazil, a condominium development near Ohio's Kent State University, and the New York state birthplace of Lucille Ball.
Celeron was meant to suggest simplicity and reliability while sounding smooth and international, according to Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corporation who contacted Intel about the origin of the name. I guess "Sergio" was smooth and international but short on reliability.
The name itself came from "celer," connoting acceleration; "cell," a small, integral unit that is the building block of life; and "on," referring to subatomic particles.
"Some of the Latin scholars here were surprised to hear 'celer' meant speed," Kay said. "We thought it was something where you kept root vegetables."
All of the above seem to say that brand exercises are mostly rank excuses. Branding exists because it worked in the past. The "Intel Inside" campaign, developed by the same Dennis Carter, transformed the chipmaker in the minds of the public from a manufacturer of arcane components to a trusted company that could guarantee computing safety. Since people already had a working familiarity with the company, the campaign worked. Market shares soared and its dominance in processors increased.
Unfortunately, that sort of campaign is typically a once-in-a-corporate-lifetime event. Brand successes don't spring fully formed from the heads of marketing gurus, but rather germinate in a patiently tilled plot of solid products before they bear fruit.
This lesson seems to be lost, especially on smaller companies. Struggling and underfunded, these firms hire marketing executives who dress like cast-offs from Duran Duran in the unlikely hope that somehow a name will stick in the public consciousness and they will have an overnight success.
Still, branding must be a great job. You sit in a room with a group of random strangers and ask, "If you could be a dinosaur, which one would you be, a Stegosaurs or a Triceratops?" I've been trying out my skills in my own little focus group and discovered a few rules of the branding business:
Rule 1: If you have to chose between Lord of the Rings or space-age overtones, lean toward space age. "Zilog does sound more powerful and bulkier, but Celeron sounds a little more nimble and faster. You know, 'zip, zip, zip,'" said one respondent close to my desk.
Rule 2: Avoid the letter "X" whenever possible. Few could spell "Xilinx." It also has uncomfortable Mesopotamian overtones. (See rule 1.)
Rule 3: Monkeys doing human tasks almost always boost brand awareness. The exception to this is a monkey with a cigarette.
Rule 4: Has-been celebrities of the 1970s score higher as pitch personalities than do puppets. Lambchop scores low, whereas David Cassidy, Florence Henderson, and Flip Wilson all get thumbs-up.
Finally, rule 5: Avoid too-scientific sounding terms. "Celeron conjures up images of a nonnutritive vegetable or dietary supplement," said another respondent.
If the mildly irritating Celeron was the big winner in the brand sweepstakes, the losers must've been the verbal equivalent of fingernails scratching over a chalkboard combined with the smell of turpentine. Luckily, we'll probably never know.
Michael Kanellos is available for brand consulting and children's parties.