Tiers of Pain: Many Companies Mess Up Product Naming Hierarchies

By Alex Kelley

December 3, 2015

Many companies offer tiers of products for the customers, but creating a coherent product naming scheme for the various tiers is difficult. The names of a hierarchical product line have to be distinct so as not to be confused, and yet part of an intuitive family so they appear obviously linked to the same product line. They also have to be in a logical order so that the top tier offering seems better than the middle tier, and that in turn better than the basic offering—though the basic offering still has to seem GOOD and desirable.

What prompted this blog was that my Chess.com account asked me if I wanted to upgrade to a Gold, Platinum, or Diamond membership. And I thought, hmm… Gold is the winning medal, platinum is a metal—a very precious one, though not also a medal—is it better than gold? And Diamond is a gem, not a metal or medal at all. Is that better than Platinum? Mixing metals/medals and jewels in a hierarchy is kind of like saying you can have the Clementine, the Orange, or the Apple package.

But, these kind of bungled hierarchies are everywhere.  Tall, Grande, Venti? I can never remember which is bigger—Grande or Venti. And Tall sticks out like a stubby thumb, not being a fancy-sounding Italian word. Xbox had the original Xbox, then the Xbox 360…then the Xbox One? The Xbox One sounds like the first Xbox, not the latest Xbox; certainly not the one after 360.

Many car models are signified by their make and then an alphanumeric—or just numeric system. You’d think that using an alphanumeric system would lend itself to clear hierarchies–we understand that the Ford F150 comes first, then the Ford F250 and Ford F350, but many car companies struggle with this. As others have noted, Lincoln and BMW are particularly confusing in this regard.

And then we have car rental sizes. At Enterprise, Economy is smaller than Compact, Intermediate is smaller than Standard…makes you wonder if they aren’t intentionally misleading, so you might up-sell yourself to a Standard thinking it is the baseline offering. (Not to mention, Standard could be misleading vis-à-vis the gear system, which I would assume is automatic.)

Not only is it tough to rank three items as good better and best, many companies need to rank dozens offerings. Samsung Galaxy has a notoriously huge portfolio of phone variants, with different versions and tiers indicated by numbers (which thankfully go in sequence) and different letters that stand for things like “Wonder,” “Royal,” and “Magical.” Needless to say, the letters are hard to keep straight unless you are looking at the price tags in front of you.

Apple’s strategy is to combine metaphorical, inspirational names with a numerical code. They showed us that Leopard was better than Tiger because Leopard was 10.5 and Tiger 10.4. That is a good solution if you want the memorable punch of a metaphorical name and the straightforwardness of sequential numbers, but I still get confused when people merely say the big cat or Californian geographical feature without saying the number. But maybe that one is on me.

Just for fun, I’ll leave you with perhaps the most ridiculous ranking protocol in the world: olive sizes.

If you’ve been confused by a hierarchy of products, let me know in the comments! And as always, if you need advice for creating a hierarchy of product names, give us a shout.

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