Retina Name Review: The Brilliant Brand Only Apple Could Make Work


You cannot separate brand naming from brand strategy. Apple’s Retina brand name stands out as a singular example of the potential of an integrated, long-term approach to brand building. With a simple name the company transformed a technical spec of little interest to consumers into an exclusive, must-have feature across its product lines.

Here I’ll examine how Apple pulled off this branding magic. There’s much to be learned from their strategy and implementation, but be forewarned. The most important lesson is that what worked for Apple may not work for you.

The grossest, most obscure possible name?
At first encounter, Retina fails a most basic test: it has more negative than positive connotations. At best, it is a clinical, slightly gross term (“the sensory membrane that lines the eye, is composed of several layers including one containing the rods and cones”); at worst, it is suggestive of injury or disease. People just don’t generally have positive conversations about their retinas. It’s something you hope to live your whole life not having occasion to discuss outside of anatomy class.

Besides the initial negative response, the name requires lots of explaining. This, for most companies, just isn’t an option for a new technology brand. As a general rule, a new brand should immediately suggest the features and benefits. On the contrary, the meaning of Retina in relation to a digital display device is opaque. If it suggests anything, it suggests a security feature like a retinal scan.

Confusing and hard-to-explain naming rationale
Apple’s rationale behind the name — that Retina Displays offer a resolution so high that they surpass the discriminatory power of the human eye — requires the customer to be educated. When launching a new product or feature, the last thing you want to take on is the added burden of having to explain the rationale behind the name you gave that product or feature.

For a typical company, these negative connotations and confusing meaning would make the brand name a non-starter. New brand names shouldn’t create problems to solve and hurdles to overcome; they should smooth the way for a new product’s introduction.

Apple can get away with things that you can’t
That’s for a typical company. Needless to say, Apple is not a typical company. Most marketers just don’t have the advantages Apple does. The press doesn’t fight for any morsel of information about upcoming products. Millions of people don’t watch live press conferences introducing new products, and the press conferences aren’t rebroadcast on national newscasts. The features and benefits of their products aren’t discussed endlessly on blogs, in online discussion forums, and on other social media.

Most marketers have to work long and hard to generate very limited exposure for their products; everything Apple does generates worldwide buzz. Even now, most of that buzz is positive, and in June 2010 when the name was introduced, the reaction to everything Apple did was effusively positive.

Getting a bit lost in translation – to good effect
Despite the iffy initial connotations, Retina has a lot going for it as a brand name. It’s short; it’s easy to remember; and it’s easy to pronounce in most languages. Apple has masterfully taken advantage of this, and skirted the gross meaning, by retaining the English name/pronunciation even in foreign markets.

So, for instance, in German the word for “retina” is Netzhaut, and in French it is rétine, but Apple calls its display Retina in both countries. The same is true for Chinese (视网膜, shì wǎnɡ mó) and Japanese (網膜, mou maku); in both cases, instead of translating the word, the brand name is Retina written in Latin letters. In doing this, Apple keeps the positive aspects of its worldwide brand without introducing the negative possible connotations of the medical term.

Developing and expanding the brand over time

The above Google Trends chart shows searches for “retina” over time. You can see the slight tick up in June 2010 (H) when the name was first announced as a new feature on iPhones, but it’s interesting to note that it didn’t really attract a lot of interest  at first. March 2012 (C) saw the introduction of the Retina display for the iPad and a greater increase in Google searches. The big jump came with the introduction of the Retina displays on MacBooks in June 2012 (B).

As the brand spread across Apple’s product lines, so did interest in the technology. Even Apple has a finite number of marketing points it can make to consumers. By developing the Retina brand over time and introducing it into more and more products, the company deepened awareness and appreciation for this feature. It was a coherent brand strategy implemented over years, and the results from the graph above are impressive. Apple now pretty much owns the word “retina,” having co-opted the term worldwide to suit its own purposes.

A brand gives exclusivity – the true genius of Retina
It’s important to note that in terms of technology, there is nothing keeping other companies from producing devices with as high, or even higher, resolution than Apple’s. It’s also important to note that many consumers can’t even tell the difference between, for instance, the display on an iPad 2 and on an iPad 4 with Retina Display.

These somewhat inconvenient facts don’t really matter, however. No other company can have a Retina Display, no matter the display resolution of their products. Apple has created so much brand equity in Retina that consumers want it, and are willing to pay extra for it, even if it may offer limited actual benefits. These are the pay-offs of a brand strategy well implemented.

Overall Grade: A+

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