Do not name your product models after specification values

Do not name your product models after specification values

22 January, 2023 4 min read
product management, marketing, branding, requirements

Product-management pro tip: don’t use one or more of your product’s key specifications as part of the model name.

Doing so reduces your product to the spec value. If you are the one defining the product category, it also limits your marketing flexibility in the future.

A simple example is the gasoline-engine displacement as part of the model name of a car as an indicator of various qualities and attributes customers typically care about, such as power output, torque, fuel consumption, taxes and duties, expected price range. Remember the BMW 316 or the Mercedes E 200?

These are pretty bad model-naming schemes. The value of the specification is linked to fulfilling certain requirements that enable one or more key value propositions. Neither requirements nor value propositions are guaranteed to remain stable over time, especially as technological trade-offs and market conditions change over time.

For example, the power output of a typical 1.6-liter gasoline engine used to range from 100 hp in the early 1960s to 120 hp in the early 2000s, when naturally aspirated and from a manufacturer of sporty vehicles.

Then, small turbos became more commonplace as a means to meet increasingly strict emissions requirements. Engines gradually got downsized to 1.4, 1.3, 1.2, 1.0, even 0.9 liters of displacement, even down to 2 from 4 cylinders. Meanwhile:

  • Power density (horsepower per unit of displacement) and torque, two specifications generally linked to more-stable value propositions (e.g., driving pleasure, active safety) increased wildly.
  • Emissions were kept in check, fulfilling the regulations, without impacting key customer requirements significantly (i.e., cars did not become lame ducks while becoming less polluting).
  • Fuel consumption dropped, or at least did not rise significantly, despite the higher power output (thank you, turbocharging!), which is an undisputably wished-for improvement for everyone, including the general public.
  • The cost of vehicle circulation duties to the buyer dropped, at leat in countries where said duties are linked to engine size and/or engine emissions.

And what happened next in products serving customer segments that would typically go for 1.6 liter engines to fulfill rather stable requirements?

  1. 1.6-liter gasoline engines practically disappeared, as smaller engines delivered way more than enough power for typical use cases, such as within cities or on short trips, with all the benefits or indifferences mentioned above.
  2. A larger engine became an indicator of being stuck in the past, rather than indicative of a certain power output range. Note that we are talking about a certain customer segment, and not about those customers linking their cars’ engine displacement to their personal worth.
  3. The market penetration of hybrid drivetrains increased, making the specifications of the involved internal-combustion engine less relevant, and anyway focused on fuel efficiency. In fact, some hybrid drivetrains come equipped with a gasoline engine with a displacement of 1.8 liters, a value few give a damn about anymore.
  4. Some manufacturers kept the old model-naming scheme, but whatever “1.6” or “16” designator in the model name became uncoupled from the engine size, and rather indicative of a certain vehicle trim and price level. Of course, it took some time and marketing spend to shift legacy customers thinking in terms of the designator away from the engine displacement and towards some kind of quality perception.

In other words, customer and regulatory requirements shifted and new technologies relaxed long-standing trade-offs. Anyone who would now name a model with some indication of its 1.6-liter displacement could just as well market it based on the size of its tires; both specifications and their values are nowadays similarly irrelevant to the core functional Jobs-to-be-Done of that customer segment.

Therefore, two pieces of advice:

  1. For product managers: know your trade-offs and aim to anticipate changes from all sides (customers, markets, alternatives, competitors, technologies), instead of fixating on a specification and its value.
  2. For brand managers: if you’re going to name the product after some spec, at least name it after one that is more stable with regards to how it fulfills a core #JTBD of the target customer. At best, don’t name it after some spec!

I’ve had to deal with such a product for the past 3 years, and let me tell you: it’s a PITA to get customers unstuck from the spec value in the model name! Such effort is best prevented by following the advice above.