How Cortana got her name (and why it matters)
The best product names are instantly memorable, self-explanatory, enjoyable to say and hear, and, most importantly make a good impression of what they represent.
Remember Hydrox? The original creme-filled chocolate sandwich cookie? Probably not. Though it entered the market in 1908 (four years before Oreo made its debut), the folks behind Hydrox failed to understand that cookies shouldn’t have a name that sounds more like bleach than a dessert. More than a hundred years later, Oreo remains the best-selling cookie in American history.
The Genius of Cortana
Cookie manufacturers aren’t alone in the need to get the product name right. Microsoft knew this all too well when developing their virtual assistant Cortana. Introduced in 2014, Cortana came three years after the arrival of Siri, the first widespread virtual assistant in the market and the pride and joy of Microsoft’s major competitor, Apple. Not only did Cortana have to be an exceptional product in order to compete, but it also needed to enter the public psyche as quickly as possible.
Why Familiarity Matters
Though not every company has a name with a history like Cortana, the Microsoft narrative reinforces the importance of choosing names that are memorable and self-explanatory. “We name AI assistants for the same reason we put googly eyes on a Roomba,” Scott Fynn, a former manager for the program commented, “the intent is that people think of them as a person. It helps people relate to the technology and gives them a metaphor to help them interact with it.” As 50% of product launches fail to meet the targets set for their release, the significance of choosing a name that will click with the market cannot be overstated.
Amazon was the next company to follow Apple and Microsoft’s lead with their Alexa-enabled line of products. Two years ago, Google went the opposite route with the straightforward naming of their Google Assistant. Instead of creating an avatar for their software, Google anthropomorphized its own name to significant success. If their company name could be turned from a noun into a verb, then why not to a person?
How Cortana Got Her Name
Originally a digital assistant character in Microsoft’s flagship video game franchise Halo, Cortana had been a beloved, nigh household name for years prior to her Windows 8.1 debut. In fact, while the software was being developed, the team at Microsoft nicknamed the project Cortana. While names like Alyx and Naomi were being considered for the final product, once news of the Cortana name leaked that the public, all other bets were off. The overwhelming public enthusiasm for the name led to a petition that gathered thousands of signatures overnight. Pop culture popularity aside, Fynn stated that another significant advantage in using the Cortana name was that, “We didn’t have to explain to the public what she did. We even brought on the original voice actress to the project.”
Whatever your product is, the more instantly the name clicks, the better the market will receive it. People are naturally attracted to what feels relatable and familiar to them. Think of the popularity of apps like HUJI that mimic the photographic qualities of film cameras and the resurgence of cassette tapes and vinyl records. The best way to pair a product with the right name is to test it. Names are emotive and by testing different ones, you’ll come to understand what emotional responses each option evokes and the associations that come to mind. Human names work well for digital assistance, less so for lawn mowers. To maximize your opportunity for a successful product launch, be sure to run a product naming study as part of research and development.
eBook: A Beginners Guide to Product Naming