Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Product Naming Case Study: The 3DS

Naming products is a difficult process. An ideal name is short, memorable, an undisputable trademark, has no easy way to mock it, doesn't mean something bad in common languages, and it embodies the key features and positioning of the product. It's an extraordinarily difficult feat to achieve all of those goals, and correspondingly rare. Usually names fall short, sometimes far short, of more than one of those points. Even less-than-stellar product names can take many hours of work to create and approve.

One aspect of of product naming is that a product name can also turn into a negative factor, sometimes merely by chance. Usually this happens when you move a product to a foreign country and find the product name doesn't work. A classic example is GM trying to sell the Chevy Nova in Latin America, but "no va" in Spanish means "it doesn't go", which is a less than useful association for a car.

Nintendo's most recent hardware has had some interesting names. Back in the early days, they stuck to pretty straightforward names that were easy to remember and obviously had no trademark problems: The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The Nintendo 64. All had the company name as part of the product name, so it was clear what company was making it. These products reinforced the meaning of Nintendo as a key gaming brand. Although the N64 didn't really say it was a game machine, by this time the word Nintendo was so strongly associated with gaming the point was made.

Next up was the GameCube, which was descriptive to a fault. It really wasn't an exciting or evocative name, and didn't point to any product benefits. Yet Nintendo's brand by this time was plenty strong enough to compensate. Subsequently, Nintendo choose to find a readily trademarkable name that had some unusual resonances: The Wii. This was probably the most radical name in Nintendo's history, and it attracted a great deal of commentary (much of it negative). Again, though, the power of Nintendo's brand carried the company past any negatives, and the best-selling hardware shut up detractors pretty quickly. After all, if it was selling like hotcakes who cared what they called it?

The Gameboy was a little bit odd for America, but the overwhelming success of the product eventually transcended the relatively weak name. (Weak because it really didn't point to any product benefits, and seemed a little off-putting to half the potential audience.) The Nintendo DS was a fairly obvious name to point to the device's main differentiation: the dual screens.

Now we come to the Nintendo 3DS. I'm sure that when Nintendo was working on the prototypes, and somebody said "What will we call it?" somebody quickly suggested "Nintendo 3DS!" Sure, the device has glasses-free 3D display, and it's basically an advanced version of the DS. At that time, too, 3D was making a resurgence. James Cameron's Avatar was setting box-office records, and the movie industry was making plans to have 3D in every theater, with every movie being in 3D, as a way to get people to come back to theaters to get something they couldn't get at home. (And, not incidentally, charge them a lot more.) Meanwhile, TV manufacturers realized they might have a way to get people to buy new TVs even though they might have just bought an HDTV in the last year or two. And game publishers, watching console game sales sinking, saw the possibility for a new technology that could revive game sales and be relatively easy to add on to existing consoles.

Nintendo was in desperate need of a sales boost, too. A new handheld device riding the wave of 3D enthusiasm seemed like the perfect answer. What better way to ensure that the device was associated with the 3D craze than to put 3D in the name?

The upside to the 3DS name seemed clear: The name clearly associates the device with 3D, and thus with the enthusiasm for 3D being generated by the movies, TV makers, and the game industry. So the 3DS name should help boost sales by some amount. Perhaps no one even mentioned the possible down side: What if 3D turned out to be just a fad? Or, worse, if 3D actually turned out to be a negative feature for customers? Then the name might be a drag on sales, reminding customers of a feature they don't like or don't care about, and making it seem like the device is all about that feature.

Of course, this is exactly what has happened. Satoru Iwata realized this early on, and noted in public statements that the device wasn't all about 3D and that you could have non-3D games on it. But if you leave your little 3D slider in the off position on the 3DS, you're left with a DS that is clunkier than a DS Lite and has about 1/3 the battery life. At least, it still has more horsepower, and when you're not using 3D the main screen is a fairly high resolution. The lower price tag is going to help significantly, too, by showing that you can get the extra features with paying a huge amount more than you would for DS.

I expect that a new version of the hardware is in the works, at least to make it less expensive to produce, and possibly to add a second analog control, improve the battery life, and maybe make it slimmer and lighter. This is a natural evolution that console maker inevitably work on (at least, the part about making the device cheaper to produce). I think Nintendo will be looking closely at possibly rebranding

This is a cautionary tale for marketers, though. Naming is a two-edged sword; think carefully before you hitch your product's success to single feature or a pop-culture craze. That may be OK if your product is only going to be on sale for a few months, but if you expect to be selling something for years you need to take a longer view. A blander name might not give you an initial sales boost, but it may also avoid a sales problem. Nintendo's done pretty well in the past with names that are not terribly exciting in and of themselves, but they let the quality of the product add value to the name. And some solid marketing spending, too. Marketers, take heed.

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