Huh? Well, okay, then…

If Tate’s offline today I’ll write a post. I’d like to find out where other namers stand on the burning issue of the day…which is, what exactly is a vessel and when is it empty?

Tate and I have had a running disagreement about the nature of Apple Computer’s name in the context of naming typology. It has been Tate’s oft-repeated position that APPLE is an empty-vessel name. He bases this on statements made many years ago that Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs chose the name Apple based solely on his admiration for the Beatles and their Apple record label. Since neither the word itself nor Jobs’ reasoning connects with computers in any way, it’s an empty vessel. (Tate, when you are able to resume posting you may feel free to say so if I have misrepresented your position in any way. Tee hee hee, it’s kinda fun to say this knowing that you’re under your self-imposed cone of silence today!)

My position is that Apple is a real word with real and widely understood associations such as apple pie. I will note in passing that Neil Taylor, in “The Name Of The Beast”, lists Apple as a real-word name and categorizes it as primarily evocative in impact.

So even before reading Taylor I was in agreement with him that the word Apple has such a familiar, household-word impact that it cannot be classified as an empty vessel regardless of the intentions of the company management that chose it. In fact, if they truly meant to choose an empty vessel they blew it.

It seems quite possible to me that “Apple”s impact as a kitchen word materially affected the success of Apple’s campaign to position their computers as more user-friendly than everybody else’s. Had they called it “Lennon” or “LoveMeDo” or “Cavern” the vessel might have indeed been empty.

But regardless of the state of Steve Jobs’ unconscious, the word Apple carries meanings which are pretty much universal to an American audience, which to some degree evoke some of what Apple Computers explicitly wanted to commuicate. So I say: a vessel perhaps, but not empty.

What say y’all?

5 Responses to “Huh? Well, okay, then…”

  1. Tate Linden says:

    Here’s the crux of the issue: Does the intent behind a name matter, or is it more important to predict what the consumer will think?
    I fully acknowledge that Apple as a word is NOT an empty vessel. I would, however, suggest that until Apple Computer came along one would not have seen any connection whatsoever between an apple and a computer. If the items were in an array of things and you had to pick which one didn’t belong I could almost guarantee that one of these items would be the odd one out.
    The problem with using real words is that they have meaning. It is human nature to try to figure out how two things are linked. We like making sets of stuff. One could argue that an empty vessel is an impossibility if you’re using a real word since every word has a definition, and every two definitions can be related in some way. Consider:
    Peanutbutter and the National Debt
    Mother Theresa and A blown out lightbulb
    A pile of screws and your front lawn…
    We can find a way to make all of these connections make sense. (Really, we can…)
    But if we didn’t mean anything by it in the first place (and the connections aren’t universal for all viewers) is there really anything there at all?
    An apple is round. A computer is not.
    An apple is edible. A computer is not.
    An apple rots after a period of weeks. A computer (I hope) does not.
    We don’t focus on these other issues because they don’t help us to contextualize the name. They don’t give us a set. Instead we look at:
    An apple is on the teacher’s desk. So is a computer.
    An apple is non-threatening. so is the computer referenced.
    While I can’t know for certain if the story I tell (and that was told to me) was really what happened or what they were actually thinking, I feel strongly that the name could easily have been seen as an empty vessel.
    Why would you name your company Apple (connoting how different you were – as many of today’s pundits suggest) and then go and name your computer model the Apple IIc? Or the IIe?
    Both the restatement of the parent company as part of the name and the use of the nubers I and II were already commonplace. Wouldn’t a company that really was trying to make a statement here do something different? It wasn’t until the Apple Lisa that they started using less traditional nomenclature (and that was a huge flop.)
    Maybe I need to officially adjust my thinking and say that you just can’t have an empty vessel if you use a real word to identify your company. We humans may just be too good at finding similarities and meaning. Even when there’s none to be found.

  2. Okay, but naming is a business built on impact, not intent. And the whole point of evocative naming is to bridge between the literal and the perceived by using an unexpected link: the evocative name.
    For example: Thunderbird: not a bird, not an Indian symbol. The mythical Thunderbirds were not revered particularly for speed – or they weren’t before Ford used the name. Think the use of the THUNDER part was accidental? What if the namer had just loved totem poles – would that make the word less evocative because he/she failed to notice the connection?
    For example: Motorola Slvr: not a sliver, not wood, not even silver (as a different vowel placement would imply). It’s a small, slender cellphone. Also Moto Razr – you can’t shave with it, it’s just thin/flat/kind of edgy. There’s no product ID in either name – they’re evocative without being descriptive. And they’re definitely not empty.
    So, I contend that a name can be evocative while completely non-descriptive – that doesn’t make it an empty vessel. An empty vessel name would be Accenture, maybe, or Epson (unless that’s a founder’s name or something) or Kodak or Xerox or to use another Neil Taylor example, Orange for an airline. Though perhaps they, too, were trying to play with Beatles fandom?
    A truly empty vessel would not be evocative or descriptive – just…empty, until filled by brand associations.

  3. Tate Linden says:

    One could say that everything – including jibberish – is evocative. There’s even a whole field of psycholinguistics and the study of the emotions linked to individual letters… V means sexy and such.
    This seems to be way too slippery a slope for me. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
    If you stare too hard at Kodak you’ll see Kodiak… does this mean that the namer wanted us to think of the great white north? Should he have realized that by adding a letter he ends up with a real word instead of just a bunch of letters?
    Yes, naming is complex. Yes real words have connections – and yes our brains will find them. But it is my belief that intent DOES matter. If intent didn’t matter then Apple Computer would have had to live with the connection between their product and rotting fruit, having their product grow on trees, having their product able to survive a drop of 8 feet or more… etc.
    How do you balance these two issues?
    1) You can’t use a real word as an empty vessel because it has meaning and people will connect it somehow to your product.
    2) You can’t use a real word as evocative because every word is going to have associations with it that *don’t* apply to the product.
    The difference between naming something to have no logical connection and naming something to connect in a particular evocative way (to the exclusion of the bad meanings) seems too close for comfort. If you can’t control an empty vessel then how can you control the unintended aspects of an evocative name?
    Would calling a name “Arbitrary” as opposed to “Empty” make this concept easier to swallow?
    This is my point with the Apple name. It wasn’t intended to have meaning – but it ended up with one nonetheless… Empty vessels always get filled with something – even when you just have a jumble of letters.

  4. Avi says:

    Apple is a good example of the need for a powerful story meme in every new name. A good story meme makes for instant impact. What the product satisfies and how the advertising pans out will then add to it or take it into the direction the new brand would like to be pushed toward.
    A name like Apple was a stroke of genius because it was so different from the prevailing norm that it made people, immediately, sit up and take notice; something a small entrant like Apple needed to do in a market dominated by the Big Blue. What’s more, Apple is ‘Red’, which is a powerful contrast to blue. Everything about Apple said different, and that’s exactly what Apple wanted to be. Great naming move.

  5. Tate Linden says:

    I agree – the arbitrary quality of the name made it stand out. I’d not focused on the contrast to Big Blue in color choice – though as I recall Apple’s early logo had a rainbow of colors in it. Either way they were going against the grain…
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Avi.

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