If you saw Spotify’s 2021 Wrapped lists everywhere last month, you’re not alone. But ask a stranger on the street if they’ve heard of Car Thing, and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Car Thing, Spotify’s entry into the world of smart devices, has gotten mixed reviews. Some folks kinda like it, and some aren’t at all impressed. But whether the product is wow or wanting, the name’s not bad at all.
Car Thing makes clear that this is a device you use in the car, and that simplicity is part of the name’s brilliance. It’s descriptive in a creative way. Plus its acknowledgement that people use thing all the time because they can’t remember product names is rather meta. (Do you say “Where’s my USB WiFi adapter?” when you can’t find it or “Where’s my WiFi thing?”) Self-aware, self-referential marketing has been popular for a while and, when done well, projects savvy, humor, and humility.
Whosit type naming isn’t new either, but we haven’t seen it applied to tech before.
The classic YA novel A Wrinkle in Time features Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. And of course there’s the Abbott and Costello baseball players Who, What, I Don’t Know, et al.
In the 70s, Hershey introduced Whatchamacallit, a peanuty crispy candy bar (with a name by advertising powerhouse Doyle Dane Bernbach) that was heavily promoted and became a hit. In 2009, they decided to tweak the recipe and call it Thingamajig, a candy that never took off. Last year another version of Thingamajig was produced called Whozeewhatzit (a rare instance when a naming contest produced usable results).
Friends tapped this idea by titling all its episodes “The One Where…” or “The One with…” Perhaps Car Thing is tying into the same zeitgeist: Friends seems more popular than ever.
Car Thing is charmingly descriptive, self-aware, and slightly cheeky, which make it stand out from names of other products in the music and car spaces, such as Beats Solo and Powerbeats Pro from Beats by Dre, Onyx and Dock & Play from SiriusXM, iPod (does anyone even still use those?), and the alphanumerics used by many high-end audio and auto companies.
(One lesser known name in the music space that’s creatively descriptive in a similar way is Amazing Slow Downer, for a product that enables musicians to change tempo and key without changing pitch. The Catchword team love that name, and the product—lots of musicians round here.)
The (not so) Bad
Car Thing does have a few challenges, but they’re all minor.
To start, if the name isn’t paired with Spotify, you’d have no idea the product has anything to do with audio. But that won’t be a problem because it will almost always be sold or used in the context of the Spotify brand. (And in case you ever forget, the device features a cute little tab on the top left corner labeled “Spotify.”)
Grammar nerds and consistency hounds may be annoyed by the difficulty of ensuring uniform use of the name without a or the in front. Reviews in The Verge, Yahoo’s engadget, and Android Police were all inconsistent: sometimes it’s the Car Thing, other times just Car Thing. Does it matter? Not really, especially for a product name, and Spotify’s site does use the name sans article with great discipline.
What about the name’s descriptiveness, doesn’t that hurt its protectability as a trademark? After all, words like copier, video player, tissue, or oat cereal—all descriptive terms—can’t be trademarked. And trademark attorneys ask brands to enforce the usage Kleenex tissue or Xerox copier rather than the Kleenex or the Xerox in order to avoid genericide (what happens when a trademark becomes so commonly used for the general category that it loses its identity as a brand and its protectability as a mark).
Not to worry. In our opinion—and as we always remind you, we’re not attorneys—this name is actually too vague for trademark to be an issue. It doesn’t give enough information to be considered descriptive of a category of products. (Note that although none of the marketing includes a ™ or ® at this point, Spotify, which is based in Sweden, has applied for trademark in the US, UK, and EU, if not worldwide.)
So, will Car Thing become a thing? We’re not sure given those reviews, but its name is definitely a hit.