Cuil, Knol, and other crimes against branding

Yesterday’s launch of would-be Google search killer "Cuil", dreamed up by several ex-Googlers with $33M in funding, may have been a lesson in launch catastrophe.

But even more problematic than the apparently relatively poor search results and availability outages (Cuil had after all boasted of a larger search index than Google), were the crimes against branding it committed with its "Cuil" (they want you to pronounce it "cool" or "kewl") name:

  1. It’s already been pointed out that there are at least 5 alternative pronunciations, misspellings, and… shall we say "problematic"… meanings of "Cuil".
  2. Apparently the company decided to change the name from "Cuill" (with two L) very late in the game, with some of their press releases apparently still having the old spelling. While the old version did nothing to help with spelling or pronunciation, just the fact there would be such a late change does bode ill for their understanding of branding strategy (which would be to get completely clear on your branding first as an integral part of your Unique Selling Proposition – USP).
  3. While "cuil(l)" supposedly means "knowledge" in Gaelic, and is in fact pronounced similar to "cool" in that language, such a play on words, while it might have seemed clever to people inside the company, violates one of the first rules of branding: That the name or message must pass the "Telephone Test" (remember the "message whispering chain" game you used to play in kindergarden?). If you have to explain the product, spell it, and explain the pronunciation all at once, it’s game over baby.

But the Cuil ex-Googlers aren’t the only ones cooking up cases of "too cute by half". Google itself has been hot on their heels with it’s new "Knol" offering, a sort-of competitor to Wikipedia, as well as Seth Godin’s Squidoo.com and Hubpages.com.

(Knol may actually become yet another case of Google ranking its own properties highly in its search results, thus making it a potential spam haven a la Squidoo. It has also elicited hand-wringing from Mahalo’s Jason Calacanis as the entry of Google into the content space.)

"Knol" is supposed to stand for "unit of knowledge" (whatever THAT means), and the name is plagued by almost the same level of confusion as "Cuil":

Too short to really carve out mental real-estate, oddly distasteful to say (yes, the underlying emotional state in saying a name does matter), and mixing it up with the real word "knoll" – a small, natural hill according to Wikipedia. As in "the grassy knoll"…

Google has a long history of producing very odd-sounding (Orkut and Froogle come to mind) or overly generic names, few of which work well as brands. Many of them also commit the cardinal sin of brand dilution (attaching additional, unrelated meanings to your core brand, as in "Google Checkout", which is predictably hardly a blip in the payment processing space).

Notice that Google’s brands other than its core search service have worked best when they avoided these pitfalls: Gmail, Adwords and Adsense – which were strong enough names to stand on their own and thus became detached from "Google Adwords", asf.

YouTube should have been another lesson to Google (and companies everywhere), that a unique name always works better than a brand extended/diluted one: Google Video, which is also a generic, never got any real traction vs. YouTube.

Of course Google "solved" that problem by acquiring YouTube for $1.6 Billion. Getting better branding advice for their own offerings from the start would almost certainly have been a lot cheaper…

At least they then got it, and resisted renaming YouTube. Had Microsoft bought it, with their branding track record, they would have likely renamed it "Windows Live Video Tube".

Microsoft’s Branding Mess Revisited – Is “Live” Really “Dead”?

Microsoft’s desperate attempts at purchasing all or part of Yahoo in recent months has highlighted the deep and ongoing branding mess that Redmond finds itself in.

So bad have things gotten that this fact was acknowledged in no less than MSFT’s internal email on how to get its listing Internet division to profitability:

… 4. Fix our online branding – Our brands are fragmented and confusing today, and we recognize a need to clarify and align our online branding . We are now driving forward to address this opportunity.

Ironically, in that same May 18 email MSFT’s Kevin Johnson was pre-announcing their latest attempt at search "disruption", "Live Search cashback" (yes, the lowercase ‘c’ is intentional, someone at MSFT must have thought that it was "cool").

Let’s examine why "Live" is such an unfortunate choice for branding Microsoft’s search offering along with a slew of other properties:

  1. Since "Live" was from all appearances originally conceived to refer to an online version of Windows and Office products (e.g. "Office Live Small Business", etc.), it draws an implicit comparison back to those products as being NOT "Live", or, in other words, "Dead". And that can only be considered to be unfortunate.
  2. By matching the term "live" with a slew of other terms across many different properties, there is brand dilution built right into the naming "methodology".
  3. "Live" is also a well-used, one could even say well-worn term in a context of "real, live, as in not recorded events" in entertainment and media, while browsing the internet is not really considered "live", unless we are talking about live streaming of audio or video. And so things get particularly confusing when paired in ways such as Microsoft’s "Craigslist killer" attempt "Windows Live Expo", which conjures up images of a real-life trade show or other similar events in most people’s minds. So it comes as no surprise that Live Expo never got any traction and is now being decommissioned.
  4. "Live" may actually also be generally too generic a term to capture any real mindshare: "Live Search", "Live Expo", "Live _Anything_" do not carve out enough of a unique mental real estate in the way that newly minted terms, and/or terms with novel usage such as Amazon, Yahoo, Google, and eBay can. Ask yourself if there is a reason that just about none of the internet companies built on "generic" domain names ever really took off. Buy.com, Shop.com, etc. etc.
  5. Oddly enough, single syllable terms may also be too short to, except for a very small number of exceptions, create enough naming differentiation and rhythm: One syllable is like one single "beat", when the majority of successful brand names (not necessarily companies) are two or sometimes three syllables long, with the stress typically falling on the first syllable: INtel, BEbo, iPhone, Gmail, Windows, YouTube, Meebo, Facebook, MySpace, eBay, PayPal, Kayak, iTunes, iPod, craigslist, WordPress, Blogger, Apple, flickr, twitter, Yahoo, Netflix, Google, Netscape, Drupal, Hotmail, Amazon(3), Firefox(3). Add your own favorite non-techy examples here.

The bottom line is, brand names need to be memorable first and foremost. And by being easy to say (using rhythm and even rhyme), you and I and everyone else are more likely to repeat them – out loud or to ourselves. Add uniqueness that ideally carves out a new spot in our mental real estate (a "category label" – think Q-Tips, Xerox, and yes, Google, as in "to google someone or something"), and that is NOT confusing, and you’re there.

To bring it back to Microsoft, "Windows Live Hotmail" isn’t it. Hotmail (not originally created by Microsoft) was actually a very good brand name, which accounts among other things for it’s wide, "viral" spread throughout the world.

Bizarrely enough, Microsoft in it’s tortured branding forays and strict insistence on spreading around its still powerful "Windows" brand , had considered dropping the "Hotmail" name entirely in favor of "Windows Live Mail".

Windows incidentally was always a decent brand as long as it is reserved for naming an operating system, anything past that was needless brand dilution. I have discussed previously where the strong but mistaken urge toward brand dilution stems from: Corporate hubris and misunderstanding of branding fundamentals.