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Microsoft looks to improve its name game

After years of being the butt of jokes for its convoluted product naming, the company wises up about appellations. Photos: Cool names, disappointing products

When Microsoft showed off Silverlight at an April conference, it generated near-instant buzz.

Interestingly, though, it was not the first time Microsoft had talked about the technology. But when the company had done so a year earlier, it was under the name "Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere," which just didn't excite people the way Silverlight did.

The improved moniker was no accident. For the past two years, Microsoft has put in place a concerted effort to improve its product naming, an effort that is just now becoming publicly visible with the introduction of products like Silverlight, Popfly and the new Surface tabletop computer.

"I'm very pleased with the progress we've made in a relatively short amount of time," said David Webster, the general manager of brand strategy for Microsoft. The software maker hired him away two years ago from naming expert , where he was a managing director.

In recent months, Webster and team have held in-person seminars and offered Web-based training on how to come up with better product names. The group also put several dozen posters around campus with a box of Band-Aids and the caption: "You wouldn't call it Wound Healer 2.0."

The company has a rich history of products with names that are excessively wordy. Arguably one of the most convoluted monikers announced by Redmond (though thankfully later shortened) was its appellation for the mainstream 64-bit version of Windows XP: Windows XP 64-Bit Edition for 64-Bit Extended Systems.

Its woes in product naming and packaging are legendary both within and outside the company. A popular video has made the rounds on YouTube outlining what Microsoft might have done if it had been tasked with designing the iPod's box. Instead of the minimalist carton that Apple came up with, the video ends up with a text laden container for the "iPod Pro 2005 XP Human Ear Professional Edition with Subscription."

It later emerged that the video was done by people inside Microsoft.

"It was the packaging team trying to make a point about design," Webster said.

In fairness, when Microsoft did come up with its iPod rival, it gave it a distinctive name--the Zune--and included a well-designed box that shared many of the attributes of Apple's popular packaging.

The company is still trying to use its Windows and Office brands where those make sense, Webster said, though the company is also trying to brand new technologies with new names, with the brand group now working directly with Microsoft Research to brand technologies even when they are in their earliest incarnations.

"There are a lot of marketers at the company. They are at various levels of sophistication when it comes to how they think about naming."
--David Webster, general manager of brand strategy, Microsoft

Still, when it comes to names, there are still some mouthfuls coming out of Redmond. At its Worldwide Partner Conference recently, Microsoft was touting the benefits of its Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), a collection of tools for businesses to manage their PCs.

"I think there's an opportunity for us to get better in naming some of the products," Microsoft COO Kevin Turner said during an interview at last week's conference in Denver. "I mean, we just have a lot of products, and we're building a lot of products. So that puts a lot of pressure on making sure you can be consistent."

Turner also noted that the company has to go through an extensive process to make sure that its desired names are available in all the places Microsoft sells its products. "And so there's a whole legal process that goes into naming conventions," he said. "But, you know, I think it's fair to say that we could do a little bit better job in that area."

It's also a matter of getting the message out to hundreds, if not thousands of people, scattered throughout the company.

"There are a lot of marketers at the company," Webster said. "They are at various levels of sophistication when it comes to how they think about naming."

The Windows Live group in particular has come under fire for labeling multiple products with the same name and constantly shifting things around. The memorable Hotmail became Windows Live Mail, only to finally settle on Windows Live Hotmail. Another product, then known as Windows Live Mail Desktop, moved in to quickly scoop up the name Windows Live Mail.

Some of the perceived missteps are more intentional than they might seem. When Microsoft finally added BlackBerry-style push e-mail to its Windows Mobile phones, it did so with the Messaging and Security Feature Pack.

Webster notes that the phone software was actually an example of improved naming. Although the product's name was cumbersome, it gave IT managers and phone carriers a good understanding of the product. Plus, he said, Microsoft also coined the term Direct Push technology to describe it to consumers.

Thinking about the audience is key for good product naming, says branding expert Karl Barnhart, a managing director at CoreBrand in New York. When it comes to selling technology to businesses, for example, the Microsoft brand is a tremendous asset.

"They are able to outspend their mistakes. They are almost like the Yankees."
--Karl Barnhart, managing director, CoreBrand

But, he said, when Microsoft sought to enter the game console business several years ago, he said the company made a smart choice in creating an entirely new brand--the Xbox. They had similar needs with the Zune, he said, noting that Apple's strong presence meant Microsoft couldn't really come out with the "Microsoft Portable MP3 Player."

"They needed to come out with something...snappy and short and memorable," he said. "They also needed to distance themselves from (the) Microsoft" brand.

Microsoft, and all other tech companies, face an increasing challenge when they try to create catchy names, rather than descriptive terms for their products. Besides needing to secure a trademark for the term of choice, companies also typically want the ".com" Web address associated with the term. And while there are dozens of classes of trademarks, there is only one .com domain for each name.

"The Web is making naming even harder," Barnhart said.

Not all products call out for striking one-word names, either. For instance, when Microsoft announced the name for its new server operating system, it was the expected Windows Server 2008, something Microsoft had signaled it would do for some time.

In general, the branding problem is trying to promote a sense of predictability and have names that are easily understandable. Although Microsoft maintains four separate ERP (enterprise resource planning) programs, it unified its Microsoft Business Solutions products, at least in name, rebranding them each as part of the "Dynamics" family of products. Its new effort in security software, meanwhile, comes under the "Forefront" banner.

Webster noted that the latter was a departure, saying that the company wanted something that sounded proactive.

"Traditionally, names in the security space have been more defensive," he said.

One thing Microsoft has on its side, Barnhart said, is lots of money to spend on whatever names it settles on. And money can forgive a lot of sins.

"They are able to outspend their mistakes," Barnhart said. "They are almost like the Yankees."

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