What’s in a Name?

On Mark Twain, Sam Palmisano and the “Internet of Things”

ImageDo you agree that words matter? Mark Twain did. In the vast library of Twain quotes that should get its own Internet, he said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is
really a large matter – ‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Naming something properly is a key aspect of thought leadership. It is a blend of strategy and tactics framed by words. The right word calls the right concept to your audience’s mind. The right concept has a gravitational pull for other ideas that help the audience understand your point and even make their own contribution to it. A haphazard effort to name things drives haphazard outcomes.

To illustrate this, let’s consider a great example – by way of being a bad example – of the strategic nature of naming things properly. Let’s talk about “healthcare.” It’s a word we hear often. It’s in the news. “Healthcare” is a big part of our lives.

Now, do a thought experiment.

Take a moment to survey everything that is currently circulating in your thoughts, called to mind by that one word. Are all the thoughts, concepts and mental images swirling in your brain related to taking care of your health? Or are they actually about taking care of illnesses? Are you picturing people exercising and snacking on edamame? Or do you see people taking pills?

We spend a lot of time and money talking about “healthcare.” Would we have so much controversy about “illnesscare?” Would we have more discussion about exercise, cooking good food, redesigning cities for better lifestyles and a host of other things if we could call all that “healthcare” instead? But, we can’t. We have to invent other, more abstract, words like “wellness” because healthcare is taken. How much more popular would My Fitness Pal be if it were called “My Healthcare Pal?”

Naming things well provides a springboard in thought leadership. When Sam Palmisano, then-CEO of IBM, bet the corporate farm on services (even more so than his predecessor Lou Gerstner) he named his customer the “global entrepreneur.” The name called to mind a certain persona that could be translated into any national character or regional market. It simultaneously spoke to aspirations of those in emerging economies and the new-found opportunities for those in developed nations. It also carried a sub-text of the infrastructure such a person would need to operate globally right from the beginning of an enterprise and that was what IBM wanted to sell.

Obviously, some thought went into Palmisano’s naming of this archetypal customer. A more organic effort has supported the name “Internet of Things.” The name struck me as a bit dubious until I started investigating the concept for a client. You might wonder why you want your toaster watching cat videos. Most likely you don’t (but for those who do there’s an app for that I’m sure). It’s a comical image that keeps you thinking and soon you are hooked. You might want your sensor-equipped toaster, refrigerator and dishwasher on your home WiFi network connected to a hub that can alert you when things are getting out of spec (“Honey, the fridge is making that noise again!”). Likewise, when you’re driving into town from the suburbs you might want to know where the open parking spaces are. Imagine parking spaces that look for you rather than you hunting all over town for them. I could start liking this “Internet of Things” thing.

So, the name “Internet of Things” quickly challenged me to turn some whimsical images into what might be possible if objects really could talk to each other.

What other names of concepts or market dynamics are misnomers with potentially disastrous results or useful terms to spark understanding? Are we respecting the power of the lightning to illuminate the night sky? Or are we chasing lightning bugs in the dark?


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