Friday, October 23, 2009

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Shakespeare clearly hadn't heard about branding. The name of a thing, be it a product, company or even a person, is seen by branding professionals a critical step in driving perception, value and success. Marketing consultancies make a lot of money devising names-as-brands, something that's been in my mind a lot lately: in my day job, we're sweating over the naming of some new products we're launching. Of course, the names of things matters outside the world of branding, and we marketeers can learn a lot here.

A few years back the author David Lodge wrote a wonderful essay about names in literature and how they can have either connotative or denotative meaning. To understand what he means here, think about the discount home goods chain “Lowes” (connotative of their pricing and value) and their arch-rivals Home Depot (denotative, it says what they are). In literature all names are fair game for manipulation. Dickens particularly understood how names drive character: think the diminutive, contracted “Pip” and and the frightening Miss Haversham from Great Expectations (saying “Haversham” out loud, one syllable at a time, will extract the connotation). Nabokov famously made his eponymous heroine's name physical: Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. J. K. Rowling has great fun with her magical names: Mad-Eye Moody, Severus Snape, Fudge, Malfoy. In fact, names are so powerful in fiction that their absence can be used to great dramatic effect, such as the unnamed narrator in Du Maurier's Rebecca or the man and boy of McCarthy's superb The Road.

So what about tech world naming? Intel and Oracle are two very different companies, but judged just on the intended connotation of their names they have the same lofty aspirations. Microsoft and IBM are contractions and acronyms, and take the say-what-we-do approach. Google, Amazon and Pandora all have obscure origins and associations, but you really wouldn't extract much meaning from the names by themselves. The current trend in tech company names is to murder ordinary words – Flickr, Digg and Zune are good examples – probably in an attempt to land a decent domain name and get a watertight trademark. TheNameInspector has a very good list of IT company names.

In my day job the chore is to avoid the three-letter-acronym (which of course has its own acronym, TLA) product naming trap. It's challenging, although I try to remember that Shakespeare probably did have it right, after all: If the product's any good, who cares what it's called? Meaning follows naming and there's no short-cuts to the laborious process of creating a real brand.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Are Gartner, Forrester and IDC like Moody's, Fitch and S&P?

Word is, we're getting over the current recession and things are going to be just peachy any day now, so naturally it's time to name the guilty and hold them accountable for the fine mess they've gotten us into.

Who to blame? Rarely at the top of the list of black-hearted, no-good, fat-cat swindlers who made all our 401Ks vanish are the ratings agencies: Fitch Ratings, Standard & Poors, and Moody's. But they played a key part in the financial meltdown: these are the organizations that assign credit ratings on banks, companies and others that issue debt obligations such as a bond issued by the State of California or a mortgage-backed security issued by Lehman Brothers. The agencies got into all sorts of trouble this year because of an obvious conflict of interest: agency analysts are paid by the same firms they rate. There's a bunch of hearings going on where various ex-employees of the agencies are saying they had all sort of pressure placed on them to overestimate the worth of otherwise dodgy and unintelligible financial instruments like credit default swaps.

Hmmm.... conflict of interest by analysts paid by the firm they rate.... sound familiar?

Industry analysts the world over derive a good chunk of their revenues – in many cases all of their revenues – from the very technology firms they then write about. When Gartner rates vendors on a Magic Quadrant or Forrester does the same in a Wave, there's a good chance that the majority of the vendors they judge are paying clients.

For sure there's differences between industry analysts and the financial rating firms. First, for most industry analysts, fees paid by technology vendors aren't ear-marked specifically to fund a “ratings report”. Especially for the bigger analysts like Gartner, Forrester and IDC, any fees paid by vendors are for general access to written research and advisory services. Second, most reputable industry analysts have a strong account base among end-users of technology – most large companies around the world have subscriptions to industry analysts so that their IT staff can get informed opinions on products and services. This means that only a fraction of their overall revenues come from vendors – in the case of Gartner and Forrester, perhaps 30-35 percent. That said, a lot of smaller firms are almost entirely reliant on vendors subscription fees to be in business.

All this came to mind when I read Gartner analyst Thomas Bittman's excellent rant on how his integrity is often questioned. Bittman points out that in 14 years as an analyst he's never let vendors unduly influence his reports, although he says he “understands” why the marketplace has the impression that “analyst firms can be bought.”

Responding to Bittman, the good people at Sage Circle, an advisory firm for vendor analyst relations professionals, point out that you don't need to be a Gartner client to get a very strong rating, and that the correlation between payment and judgment is very poor. Shamus McGillicuddy at IT Knowledge Exchange points out the inherent conflicts analysts face when they take money from vendors and consumers.

The problem is that Bittman's argument is little different than the defense made by the ratings agencies. In both cases, no matter the integrity of individual analysts, there is the clear appearance of a conflict of interest. As Bittman himself states, the marketplace will always believe that it is harder to criticize a paying client than a non-paying one.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The ways Social Media is changing the news

Stating the painfully obvious, social media is completely changing the way news is gathered and shared. It's also rewriting the economics of the news business. But because of social media, is news itself changing? In other words, is news new?

I can see some obvious ways that social media is changing the substance and character of the news:

Velocity – The news business has always been about first-to-market advantage. Getting the scoop and being first was always the goal, and social media is clearly a news accelerator. Social media makes all news almost instant.

Volume – a side effect of social media is that the shear amount of news that we get is becoming overwhelming. It is repetitive, overlapping, redundant, contradictory and endless.

Veracity – A recent Pew Research report showed ratings for press accuracy had hit a two-decade low. The straightforward factual accuracy of a lot of news – in fact, the paucity of anything approaching a fact in a lot of news reports – makes this finding unsurprising.

Validity – It's getting harder to take news at face value. It's difficult to know if a news source is always credible, and almost impossible to verify.

Value – the real dollars-and-cents value of a lot of news is plummeting, a victim of over-supply. The news market is saturated and the barriers to entry as a news source have fallen away.

What have I missed?