The Xbox Series X gaffe shows all that’s wrong with product naming

Microsoft / WIRED

A successful pre-order day signals a successful product launch, dictating a product’s sales in advance of the all-important release date. So when customers begin buying the completely wrong console on a day that’s supposed to be all about the shiny new one, it is clear that a terrible mistake has been made.
That’s exactly what happened last month when Microsoft began taking pre-orders for its next-gen console, the Xbox Series X. Instead of receiving heaps of orders for the new Series X, the previous Xbox One X saw an unexpected surge in sales, shooting up Amazon’s movers and shakers chart by a whopping 747 per cent. And while it’s certainly a little bit funny, it’s not hard to see why an ill-informed parent could have mistakenly purchased the incorrect console given that the Xbox One X and Xbox Series X are so similarly named.

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The Xbox nomenclature has never been the easiest to follow or understand in the first place, changing structure from generation to generation with no rhyme or reason. There’s the Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox 360 S, Xbox 360 E, Xbox One, Xbox One S, Xbox One X, Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. It’s pretty confusing for an outsider to understand, or anyone for that matter, but where exactly did it all go wrong?
When it comes to product naming, companies – or more often their branding agency of choice – starts off by looking at the brand and coming up with a name that illustrates what the product is, or what that product means to the company. Where it can go wrong, however, is when there are recurring generations in that product line, and the company hasn’t developed a robust naming strategy to support it.
Companies need to know what their long-term product line is going to be like in order for them to be able to create a naming convention that will work as it develops into the future. “In the past, Microsoft hasn’t really set a convention and stuck to it, which is a principal you really need to do to not create confusion,” says Ross Clugston, executive creative director at brand agency Superunion. “Creating a naming strategy, rather than trying to name each product as it comes out to make it new and different and amazing would be a better way to approach it.”
One example of a company sticking to a naming convention without the faff is Microsoft’s rival company Sony. Unlike the Xbox line-up, PlayStation generations go up in an orderly nominal fashion, occasionally with added descriptors like Slim or Pro. It’s easy to comprehend because both consumers in the know and parents out of the PlayStation ecosystem comprehend that the higher the number, the newer the console. Five comes after four and four comes after three.

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“[Sony’s] sticking to a convention that builds on the customer’s existing knowledge. If you’re Xbox 360, you could potentially be Xbox 720 and then Xbox 1080, so there’s a really clear, easy breadcrumb for the customer to follow, versus jumping around and going from numbers to letters to Roman numerals,” says Clugston.
Microsoft isn’t the only company who has had a few naming snafus, however. Nintendo had its follow-up to the Wii, which it confusingly named the Wii U. The console didn’t differentiate itself enough in the customers’ eye. Then there was the Asus Eee PC notebook range from 2007, which was an abbreviation of its ‘Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play’ slogan, but it wasn’t Easy to say. And in 2010, Samsung released a phone called the 🙂 – imagine looking that up on Amazon.
Sometimes, brands just get so caught up in trying to be creative or clever during the product development process that it all ends up becoming overly convoluted or confusing for the consumer. Michiel Maandag, a brand advisor and founder of Monday Brand, says that the numbers in Nokia’s early handsets internally indicated what type of consumer they were for. “Do you believe for a second that consumers would understand this? They didn’t at all, but internally, they think that consumers will just get it,” says Maandag. “They just overthink it.”
On the other side of the coin, there are product categories out there, like TVs or printers, which just don’t have any names at all. While Samsung gives its phones customer-friendly names, like Samsung Galaxy, TVs are simply sold as their model number. “The trouble there is that Samsung produces so many of these TVs that they struggle to actually differentiate them,” says Maandag. The solution, Maandag says, is to have less TVs, potentially having just three per segment so that they’re easier to identify for the customer.

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Clugston speculates that TVs aren’t given names because retailers have ruled the roost in the TV domain for so many years, relying on salespeople to guide punters to a TV of their choice. But as shopping has moved online, it’s become increasingly difficult for a customer to figure out what exactly they’re buying, made even more evident by the Series X debacle.
Ultimately, companies keep making these product naming mistakes because they either don’t have a naming strategy in place, they want to break the naming convention or they’re just trying to be too clever. “Everyone’s trying to name their own technology, which just makes it confusing for the customer,” says Clugston. “You don’t need to be clever. You’re going to create a barrier.”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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