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 and

(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".