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What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?

While studying computer science at the University of California in Santa Barbara, I worked for a company named Inter-Continental Telex (ICT). The name implied a large corporation with offices in major cities around the world. In reality it had only one office, three desks, two telex machines, five employees, and two shifts. It was successful for a few years and the owner considered expanding, but in the mid '80s fax machines dropped below $1,000 and became affordable to consumers, thereby sounding the death knell for telex. ICT moved from telex to fax, but the "T" in ICT was a reminder of outmoded technology.

Potential customers would see the word "telex" in the name and immediately assume the company was behind the times. When there were several service companies to choose from, a potential customer would skip past ICT and pick a company with a name or advertisement that reflected the latest technology. Imagine looking through the phone book and finding a surgeon named Dr. Slaughter or a lawyer named Ima Felon. Though these names are entirely cosmetic and don't in any way reflect the actual qualities of these two people, I'm guessing you'd skip them and choose someone with a more attractive or at least a less menacing name.

Losing 75% of all potential customers simply because of the company name was unacceptable to ICT's owner. He could change the name, but that meant he would also lose all the name recognition he had built up over the years. Name recognition was the major argument for keeping the name, but that only applied to a few hundred current and former customers. He could have easily informed those people about the name change. But how can he convey to the John Doe looking in the phone book that ICT isn't outdated even though the word "Telex" is in the name? Which is worse: Confusing some current and former customers or limiting your pool of future customers? Though the answers may seem obvious, the owner chose to keep the name and, after a few years of dwindling revenues, went out of business.

Fast forward 15 years to 2003. Sybase decides to tap into the PDA market by customizing and repackaging PowerBuilder for use with Pocket PCs as this market is expanding quickly and could provide a significant revenue stream for Sybase if their software development tool becomes popular. Behind closed doors, in the seemingly compulsory smoke-filled room, Sybase product and marketing managers debated what to call this new product. They settled on"Pocket PowerBuilder" and "PocketBuilder." Would the term "PowerBuilder" encourage the sale of the product or would it stigmatize it as old and outdated and thereby doom it?

Sybase's easiest targets are their current PowerBuilder customers, who will be able to easily move portions of their existing client/server applications to iPAQs, Axims, and other Pocket PC devices. A more difficult challenge will be to get the attention of the market at large and convince them to invest in Sybase's solution. When a potential customer sees the name "Pocket PowerBuilder" will he think more positively, more negatively, or not be influenced? Whether we like it or not, PowerBuilder is commonly thought of as ancient history, even legacy. The "name recognition" factor has a positive effect only on some portion of Sybase's customers. To everyone else it either has no effect or a negative one. Since Sybase already has a direct marketing conduit to its customers, the value of the positive effect is questionable, while the impact of the negative effect can only be assumed to be substantial and can't be easily overcome.

Though John Chen announced the new product at TechWave as "PocketBuilder," the official name is "Pocket PowerBuilder". Will Pocket PowerBuilder follow ICT's lead and be doomed at the starting gate by virtue of its name? I don't think so, but I do believe they should have chosen the shorter name. I also believe that it's not too late to change it to PocketBuilder. In fact, as PowerBuilder evolves into a powerful Web development tool should it be rebranded? Could a new name give it a fresh start and allow it to get a second look from the market at large?

More Stories By John Olson

John D. Olson is a principal of Developower, Inc., a consulting company specializing in software solutions using Sybase development tools. A CPD Professional and charter member of TeamSybase, he is co-editor and author of two PB9 books, and the recipient of the ISUG Innovation and Achievement Award for 2003.

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Most Recent Comments
Buck Woolley 01/05/04 11:26:00 AM EST

I agree 100%, the name 'Powerbuilder' is to software development as the word 'cassette' is to music distribution. 'I didnt think they made/use those/that anymore' is the response to both.

With PB10 coming up its the perfect time to rebrand, remove the '0' so you have version '1' of a new leading edge product. Incorporate the roman 10 - 'X' in the name. How about 'PbX v.1 or SyX v.1' But of course this will not happen and good ole (yawn) Powerbuilder 10 will be wheeled out this year.