Whenever I talk to folks at work about branding and some of our products I usually get two kinds of responses. On the one hand, there are those who think branding is important and we could be doing a better job. Then there are others who believe we should focus on shipping quality products and the rest will fall into place. The second position is somewhat hard to argue with because I end up sounding like I advocate that marketing is more important than shipping quality products. Luckily, I now have two real world examples of the importance of getting branding right for your software even if you do have a quality product.

EXHIBIT A: Topix.net

In a blog post entitled Kafka-esque! Rich Skrenta writes

I'm in the Wall Street Journal today, with a story about our purchase of Topix.com for $1M and the SEO issues related to moving the domain.
Back in 2003 when we were looking for a name, we came across Topix.net. The name 'topix' really fit what we were trying to do, it was a heck of a lot better than the other names we'd come up with. It turned out we could buy the name from a South Korean squatter for $800. So we took it.  Of course I knew we were breaking one of the rules of domain names, which is never get anything besides the .com. But I thought that advice might be outmoded.
Surely, the advice that you had to have a .com wasn't as relevant anymore?

Well, we got our answer when our very first press story came out. This was in March 2004 when we got a front page business section launch story in the Mercury News. They gave us sweet coverage since we were the only startup to come out of palo alto in months (this was just as the dot-com crash was beginning to thaw). Unfortunately, while the article clearly spelled "Topix.net", the caption under our photo -- the most visible part of the story after the headline -- called us Topix.com. Someone had transcribed the name and mistakenly changed the .net to .com, out of habit, I suppose.

Since that time we've built up quite a bit of usage, and much of it return visitors who have bookmarked one of our pages, or become active in our local forums. But still, we continued to have issues where someone will assume a .com ending for the name. Mail gets sent to the wrong address, links to us are wrong, stories incorrectly mention our URL.

Beyond that, as part of some frank self-evaluations we were doing around our site and how we could make it better, and the brand stronger, we ran some user surveys and focus groups. "What do you think of the name?" was one of the questions we asked. The news was good & bad; people actually really liked the name 'topix', but the '.net' was a serious turn-off. It confused users, it made the name seem technical rather than friendly, and it communicated to the world that "we didn't own our own name."

EXHIBIT B: Democracy Player

In a blog post entitled A name change Nicholas Reville writes

This is some big news for us. We are planning to change the name of Democracy Player.

We chose the name ‘Democracy’ almost two years ago when we were first setting up PCF. We knew it was an ambitious name, but we thought that it made a clear statement about how important it is that an open internet TV platform is for our culture.
And, even though I’m about to explain why we need to change it, I’m glad we’ve had this name for the past year. It’s funny that a name like ‘Democracy’ can become a name for software– I think it turned out to be less odd than we expected. When people hear a name, they tend to accept it. And it helped us assert our mission clearly: free, open, and dedicated to democratizing video online. I think conveying that mission so strongly was crucial for us.

But the name also confused a huge number of potential users. In all our debates about whether you could call something ‘Democracy’ and how people would react to the name, we hadn’t realized that so many people would simply assume that the software was for politicians and videos about politics. We hear this response over and over, and it’s a real limitation to our user base.

So we’re changing the name to Miro.


Friday, March 16, 2007 4:57:34 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
So they changed a name that made people assume "that the software was for politicians and videos about politics" and changed it to a name that people would assume was about Spanish surrealism?
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