I am not a number …

In the classic espionage thriller, The Prisoner, the authorities attempted to break the will of their captives by depriving them of a unique personality, forcing them to adopt numbers rather than names.

Historically, mobile phones have similarly been deprived of a unique personality. Their names have tended to gravitate towards the functional name categories. (See "What makes a name.") This has resulted in an alphanumeric cloud of MDAs; 6600s; Z100s etc, thus rendering them instantly forgettable. Further evidence for this lack of distinctiveness, came from a recent focus group, conducted by Light the Fuse, which showed, that while most participants could remember the brand of their mobile phone, most could not remember its name.

Naming Matrix 4

This lack of distinctiveness is further exacerbated by manufacturers using similar naming conventions, which also results in an inability to legally protect many names. Unsurprisingly, these two factors have lead to numerous examples of naming contention between rival manufacturers products.

Mobile Phone Name Contention

This Mobile Phone Name Quiz demonstrates the issue. ( The winner of the quiz, will be randomly selected from the correct responses on the 1st July 2008 at 12:00 noon. ) 

This naming contention, is not just restricted to competitor products. As portfolio's grow in size and with ever decreasing product lifecycles, name re-use can occur within a single manufacturers portfolio.

The 6600's


Functional naming strategies, dependant upon alphanumeric designations, are a very 'industrial' approach to naming and are somewhat out of place with the consumer nature of the product category. Some manufacturers will have deliberately adopted this approach to focus on the emotion of the master brand. In most cases, it is indicative of a portfolio that has no distinctive customer proposition. 

BMW Logo However, alphanumeric naming strategies can work. BMW have over 200 products and variants (not including options) currently on sale. The "Series" sub-brands and clear naming architecture, makes the range easy to navigate.

The customer proposition behind each Series is distinctive. The "1 Series" is recognisable and distinct to the "X Series". In addition, the naming architecture is such that within each series, the proposition behind each model is recognisable. The "316" is distinct to the "330". BMW, also handles name re-use on a generation basis. "3 Series" has been used over 5 product generations (internally designated E21, E30, E36, E46 and E90 ). Although the generational changes are characterised by industrial design changes and functional enhancements, the basic customer proposition behind the Series remains the same.

Through investment in communication and maintaining consistency of the respective benefits, BMW have been able to protect such names, due to their acquired distinctiveness.

Nokia Logo

Nokia have a similar alphanumeric naming policy. However the portfolio is difficult to navigate, as there is no clear distinction in the proposition behind each series and no consistency in the naming architecture. For example, the original Nokia 6600 was a Symbian Series 60 based smartphone, however the two new 6600s, which are "coming soon", are design oriented consumer products, based on the Series 40 user interface.

Walkman Logo

Sony Ericsson, also have an alphanumeric naming strategy. However, investment in sub brands, have allowed them to clearly articulate customer propositions, for sections of their portfolio. Contributing to the development of strong positions in the Music and Camera Phone categories.



It is only recently, however, that manufacturers have begin using more distinctive Experiential or Figurative names for the products themselves. Names such as Pearl, Chocolate and Touch have started to emerge and attempt to inject an element of emotion and position the products. This change in approach has undoubtedly contributed to the success of these products.

Currently these attempts are only slowly being introduced and are limited to sections of the respective manufacturers portfolios.


It is clear that for new manufacturers entering the market, (or indeed for those seeking to build their market share), there is still a significant opportunity to generate a unique positioning, marketing energy and  competitive advantage, through adopting a more distinctive approach to product naming.

Consider three clear examples where such distinctiveness can add value: 

  1. Network Operator Ranging: Network operators will make ranging decisions ( either positive and negative ) on hundreds of mobile phones per quarter. Manufacturers therefore need to take steps to cut through this clutter. A distinctive name can contribute, along with presenting the product in a compelling manner.
  2. Keyword Search: If a product name lacks distinctiveness it can be more difficult to locate using a Search Engine. Worse still, if the name is shared with that of a competitor product, traffic maybe driven to the competitor product unintentionally.    
  3. Last Three Metres: Research recently published by Motorola, indicated that approximately half of prospective mobile phone buyers have a clear idea of the phone they want to purchase. However, half of these, have their opinion altered by the salesperson. This effectively means that the Salesperson could effect, up to 75% of all assisted mobile phone purchases.

    In order to take advantage of this and get the Salesperson, on-side and selling on your behalf, they need a "hook" that both helps them remember the product and aids in the consumer sales pitch. 

Taking this approach however does contain an element of risk

  • Emotional names can take time to develop. Especially to undertake the necessary legal and linguistics checks.
  • They are not a replacement for a compelling product or customer proposition. The product itself must still deliver on the emotional content of the name.