March 24, 2014

What’s In A Name? And Which Product Is Better?

Every day, I’m briefed by another company with a range of products from entry-level to high-end. And every day I try to figure out their naming scheme: It seems most IT vendors follow the naming schemes of car companies, but few use the same naming system!

As Micron explained the logic behind their three SSD lines (e, m, and h for entry-level, midrange, and high-performance, respectively) I was struck by the contrast with a similar conversation I had with Nimbus Data over their lines (S-Class for speed, E-Class for enterprise, and now Gemini dual-controller). Just like so many other product areas, vendors are trying to convey important product differentiation information with their naming systems, but it’s often conflicting and confusing.

Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, and Honda

Walk into a car dealership today and you’ll find dozens of different models from most manufacturers. Are the BMW 330i, the Mercedes-Benz C300, and the Cadillac CTS competitive? You bet! But each manufacturer uses a different naming scheme:

  • BMW’s car lines are numbered, with smaller initial numbers corresponding to smaller cars. Today, the company mainly uses odd-numbered series for sedans and even numbers for coupes. Thus, the 1 Series is a compact, the 3 Series is slightly larger, the 5 Series is full-sized, and the 7 Series is the limousine of the bunch. There’s also the forthcoming 2 and 4 Series as well as the established 6 and 8 Series coupes. The rest of the number roughly corresponds to engine size and performance, with letters denoting important options.
  • Mercedes-Benz uses letters to denote model lines, and these generally match the European auto size classifications. The A-Class is smallest, followed by the B-, C-, E-, and limousine S-Class. Again, Mercedes uses numbers to denote engine size and output as well as letters for important options. Thus, the 330i and C300 are indeed fierce competitors in the hot C-size automotive segment.
  • Cadillac now uses obscure initials for model names. Although the CTS  competes with the Mercedes C-Class, it’s larger and the rest of the line is merely alphabetical. The new ATS is smaller (though not A-size) and the XTS is large like the S-Class or 7 Series. This alphabet soup can be difficult for buyers to comprehend, but this hasn’t stopped Acura (ISX, TSX, RLX, etc), Infiniti (G, M, Q), and Lincoln (MKZ, MKX, etc) from following suit.
  • Then there are makers like Honda which use model names to keep their lines separate. Consumers have had decades to learn that an Accord is larger than a Civic and are now buying small Fits and Odyssey vans. Toyota (Yaris, Corolla, Camry, Avalon), Ford (Fiesta, Focus, Fusion, Taurus), and many others also use names.

Pretty much every vehicle manufacturer uses one of these four systems (numbers, letters, initials, or names) to denote their various model lines, and many switch between systems over the years: Cadillac’s Catera was replaced by the CTS and their Seville became the STS, and Acura replaced the Integra with the ISX and the Legend with the RLX, for example. Generally, alphabet soup is perceived as “upscale” while names are considered “mass-market”.

Considering IT Equipment Naming

IT vendors have long followed these traditions, focusing primarily on the BMW number series scheme. Many vendors sell 3- 5- and 7-series devices, often using hundreds or thousands as specific model names. Customers can grok that a 3550 is smaller or slower than a 5760 without knowing what the rest of the name means!

  • Products with BMW-esque numbered lines include the old Palm (the Palm III, V, and 7), Intel’s current SSDs (335, 520, 710, and 910) and processors (the Core i3, i5, and i7), IBM midrange storage (DCS3700, DS5000, V7000), and many more besides. Others diverge from the strict 3/5/7 naming into similar numbering systems: NetApp has FAS2000, FAS3000, and FAS6000 lines, Cisco’s Nexus 1000v and 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-, and 7000 series, and Nimble Storage has CS200 and CS400 lines.
  • Other products are inspired by Mercedes-Benz’s letter naming scheme. I mentioned Micron and Nimbus Data above, with their conflicting “e” series, and there are many others besides.
  • Quite a few product lines are given alphabet soup names, and like Cadillac these often have implicit or evolutionary meanings. Consider the Brocade VDX and MLX, reminiscent of Acura, for example. Then there are the Cisco ASR, Juniper QFX, and so on: These are evolved initialisms like Cadillac’s CTS.
  • Finally there are the companies like Dell that prefer product line names. Dell’s PowerVault is complemented by their acquired EqualLogic and Compellent systems in storage, but this might be just as confusing to customers as their Inspiron and Latitude laptop lines since there is no implicit meaning to the names. EMC originally had the Symmetrix and Clariion, but now prefers to use the similar-sounding Lincon-esque “VMAX” and “VNX” for these lines. I like Western Digital’s evocative “Blue”, “Green”, and “Black” hard disk drive lines better than Seagate’s plethora of names since they mean something.

Stephen’s Stance

Of course there are many, many other examples of number- and letter-series naming, and too many made-up alphabet soup and product line names that I haven’t included here. The point is, there is some logic to IT product naming, just like there is in cars and other products. But it’s not always obvious to consumers what they are buying!

What are your favorite examples of product line naming?

  • Nick Pearce

    We have found, in general, that product names in the enterprise world stop getting used at the purchase order. From that point on the kit then becomes referred to by the company name.

    - “We dump the rushes into the Object Matrix (OM etc) then it gets sent to the Avid”

    - “the Isilon does the number crunching then it gets pushed to the HP”

    - We edit on the HP but Bob prefers to view it using the Mac.

    So much for all the effort put into the product name!

    In the consumer world product names become more relevant:

    - “I’ve got an Xbox 360, an Nexus 7 etc…”

    - “My Nike Fuel …”

  • sfoskett

    A comment from a reader (who Disqus wouldn’t allow):

    The other reason that car companies dropped car names in favor of
    numbers and letters is that they wanted people to focus on the company
    brand and not the product brand. Take the Accura Intrgra – a lot of
    people used to just call it an Integra, and not a lot of people put
    value on the Accura brand. At some point, they changed it’s name to
    the Accura RSX, and most people I know now just call it an “Accura”.
    The Integra name is almost forgotten. Marketing people seem to think
    this is important, doubly so for luxury brands.