David Thomas Memory

Name or Number? – A Product Naming Lesson from Stardate 45854.2

Branding insight can come from many sources: case studies, real world experience, and even fiction.  Here's a lesson you can apply to naming your products from Star Trek - The Next Generation.

Stardate 45854.2 the Federation Starship Enterprise is headed for the Argolis Cluster.  Its mission: to chart six star systems being considered for colonization.

A Nemesis Encounter

This seemingly innocent exploration soon leads Captain Jean Luc Picard and his crew into an unwanted encounter with their hated nemesis, The Borg.

Based on the humanitarian insistence of Dr. Beverly Crusher, Picard reluctantly agrees to take an injured Borg drone on board the Enterprise for treatment.  It’s a risky step.  The drone has been emitting a tracking signal.  A deadly Borg cube could arrive at any moment to rescue the drone and assimilate the crew of the Enterprise.

Threat of Assimilation

As tension over a potential Borg attack mounts, the script writers weave in the moral of the story: An individual’s right to choose cannot be violated.  This principle is actually stronger than totalitarian force.

Noteworthy Naming Lesson

For the astute observer there is also a noteworthy naming lesson – a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about sending a product to market with a numeric designation or a convoluted acronym rather a real name.

A Surreptitious Assignment

The naming issue surfaces as the ship’s Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge reluctantly converses with the drone.  The interaction is necessary for Geordi to carry out his surreptitious assignment.

He is studying how the microchip in the drone’s brain processes information.  Once he understands how the chip works, he plans to implant an invasive programming sequence – a total systems failure virus that will infect the entire Borg Collective when the drone is reconnected to the hive.

From Caution to Kindness

Initially Geordi’s dealings with the Borg are cautious, distant, cold and guarded.  He ignores the Borg’s canned mantra: “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”  Then he points out the absurdity of the drone’s statement “We are Borg” even though he is only one.

Geordi then asks the drone what his name is.  He doesn’t understand the term.  Geordi rephrases the question “a means of identification?”  He responds not with a name but with a number, “3rd of 5.”  He was number three of five Borg on the small space vehicle that crashed.

As Geordi continues his study of the Borg, his demeanor and the relationship both start to warm.  Eventually the Borg asks Geordi for his “designation” i.e. name.  Once he learns it, Geordi figures 3rd of 5 would like a name of his own.  So he christens him Hugh.


Creating Emotional Attachment

From the moment that his identity changes from just a number, 3rd of 5, to an actual name, Hugh, the Borg becomes an individual.  Geordi no longer sees him as a device to be programmed, but as a person.  Cold hearted logic retreats.  Hugh becomes an object of emotional attachment.

Gradually the emotional warmth spreads, even to Captain Picard.  Touched by Hugh’s innocence and growing sense of individuality Picard abandons the virus implant strategy.  He gives Hugh the right to choose between a future on the Enterprise or returning to the Borg.

Hugh’s personhood, created by his name, proves to be a far more powerful infectious agent than the planned invasive programming sequence.

The name turned a hated enemy into a valued individual.  Changing identity from a number to a name unleashed new unimagined possibilities.

How About the Real World?

So Star Trek’s writers spun an interesting tale contrasting a name with a number.  So what?  How does this fictional account from a far off galaxy apply to marketing in the real world?  It provides insight into three categories where product names need to excel: emotional engagement, approachability and memorability.

Buy on Emotion Justify with Logic

Remember the old sales adage, people buy on emotion and justify with logic?  It’s been around for a long time.  Why?  Because it’s true.  Whether you’re selling designer clothes to fashionistas or mega million dollar software systems to big corporations, the impetus for the buying decision is emotional.  After the fact rationalization is logical.

If you want to sell more new fangled gizmos or services, you need to engage the buyer’s emotions.  Logic alone won’t cut it.

For emotional engagement, numbers are at a distinct disadvantage to actual names.  Numbers are cold and scientific.  All logic. No emotion.

If you present your product to the market as a numbered entity your chances of winning customer affection are minimal.  You’ll likely finish 3rd of 5.

An Expensive Compensation Tactic

While it is possible to surround a number or an alpha-numeric combination with emotion, it takes time and a considerable investment.  Flashy videos with provocative music and a professional voice over can infuse numbers with some feeling.  But it’s an expensive endeavor, and the feeling only takes hold in people who have seen the production numerous times.

Names are far more engaging than numbers.  In just four syllables Testarossa ignites the pulse rate.  S 600 elicits a yawn, although both designations represent exotic automobiles.

Emotional attachment will prompt prospects to buy faster and pay a higher price.  An appealing name will create a deeper and stronger emotional connection than any number.

On the Enterprise Hugh became hard to resist.  3rd of 5 was easily rebuffed.


Approachability is a key factor to starting sales conversations, especially for complex technical products that require an involved education process to lead a prospect to a buying decision.  This is another category where names are better than numbers or alpha-numeric combinations.

Numbers can give products a technically advanced persona.  At first glance it may seem appropriate to surround a technical product with technical sophistication.  It can help attract technically minded prospects.  But what if you want the product to appeal to the mass market?  What if the product purchase needs to be approved by a non technical executive?

A Real Turn Off

In these cases number designations for products can be a real turn off.  They make the product appear overly complicated.  Confused or overwhelmed prospects run for cover.  They do not buy.

Busy executives guard their schedules.  They have neither the time nor the inclination to dive into long technical dialogues.  If the first impression your product makes is highly technical you’ll be relegated to technical levels in the sales process with little opportunity to pitch the business case to the true decision maker.

Hugh proved to be a far more approachable title than 3rd of 5.

Easier to Remember

Names are also more memorable than numbers.  Easier to remember is easier to buy.  If the customer knows the name of your product she can find it right away whether she’s shopping in person or online.  If the name escapes her, she might end up not buying at all, or worse yet, buying a competing product instead.

Now it is not impossible to remember numbers.  In fact your mind is likely filled with a lot of numbers already.  Numbers like 911, 328, 409, 90210, 802.11.  It is possible to get people to remember numbers, but it is easier to get them to remember names.

π to 22,500 Decimals

As proof consider David Thomas, an International Grandmaster of Memory.  He’s listed in the Guinness Book of Records for memorizing Pi to 22,500 decimal places.  Remember π, 3.14159…, from geometry class?

I thought David must be some kind of number memory savant until I attended a conference session where he shared his secret.  His 22,500 decimal place performance didn’t come from memorizing numbers.  He actually memorized names.  He transposed the numbers to create names.

The Number Memorizing Secret

For example he would convert the number combination 2-3 into B-C, the second and third letters of the alphabet.  He would then assign a different B-C name to each 2-3 combination – Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Betty Crocker, Bing Crosby.  Then he memorized the names.  When it came time to recite Pi for the record books, he reverse engineered Bill Clinton to B-C to 2-3.

If numbers were easier to remember than names, David Thomas would have memorized numbers directly.

With enough repetition it is possible to remember numbers.  But which do you find easier to remember if you only hear or see it once, the Star Trek episode name “I, Borg” or the stardate 45854.2?

Names Trump Numbers

Sending a product to market with a number sabotages sales efforts.  Numbered products have all the personality of a serial number.  Prospects don’t get excited over serial numbers.

It takes a lot of energy and fancy advertising footwork to stir interest in a product when its number title screams complicated geek device with no apparent benefit.

If you’re bringing a new product to market give it a real name that engages the emotions, opens conversations and enters the memory.  If you would like to learn more on how to select the best name for your product, call or email me.  I’ll be happy to share further insights with you.

Don’t sentence your new product to a future as an unlovable Borg drone.