Last month Carl Pei, co-founder of Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus, announced the name of his next venture: Nothing. Describing itself as a London-based consumer technology company with investors such as iPod inventor Tony Fadell, CEO of Reddit Steve Huffman, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, and Google Ventures (to the tune of $15mm), this startup is big news. Does the name do it justice, or is it a big, well, nothing?
Pei explained the name in a release, “We believe that the best technology is beautiful yet natural and intuitive to use. When sufficiently advanced, it should fade into the background and feel like Nothing.”
Nothing’s site tells a brand story of “tech like it’s supposed to be.” Smart phones, earphones, watches, computers that “improve our lives without getting in the way of them.” The video promises the simplicity of sun-dappled trees and a young woman napping in a field of daisies. The friendly voiceover proposes to scale our daily technology down to the essentials, to tech “so seamless it feels like nothing.” Although the video offers no specifics on how this vision will be realized, it’s certainly a compelling story, especially now, when screen overload is unavoidable and technical difficulties impact our work, our kids’ education, even our courts (looking at you, emotive kitten filter).
The name and company announcement have had mixed response, with some calling it “as forward thinking a name as it can be” and others skeptical whether it can live up to the hype. Initially, we were similarly torn.
Nothing is bold, edgy and has a powerful point of view. It’s short, easy to spell and say, and memorable as heck. It stands out from the major players in consumer tech such as Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi, and Verizon and is sufficiently distinct from the new kids on the block. (Although many tech startups are named with real English words, and a number of their names play on the ideas of air/atmosphere and essentiality, as far as we know none have explored the nothing metaphor. Notably, Nothing just acquired failed phone startup Essential.)
The name tracks elegantly to the company’s essence and practically writes the brand copy itself. Plus, the founders were able to trademark the name—not an easy task, particularly for a real English word name in international tech. Sounds like it checks all the boxes on our 10 Qualities of Great Brand Names—A+, done!
Hold on. Despite all the name’s strengths, we keep coming back to Great Name Quality Number 5: great names are free of serious negative meaning. Nothing is literally a negative, an absence of substance, which doesn’t sound like an appealing message for a company that makes things. The name not only suggests that there’s nothing between you and this tech but that there’s nothing there at all—no value added, no benefit.
Given these concerns, how will this name sound in context? “I just got a Nothing phone. Wanna see it?” Many brand names lose their dictionary meaning after the brand gains equity (no one thinks about an Apple Watch as fruity), so this limitation of Nothing may fade if the company is successful, but initially it’s likely to hang up a few customers.
Additionally, Nothing lends itself to uncharitable punning, of course, with several journalists noting that as of yet nothing is known about Nothing. Even the company’s own blog launched with “Here Comes Nothing.” Future product reviewers have been served a buffet of criticism wordplay with “nothing sandwich,” “next to nothing,” “thanks for nothing,” “nothing much,” and so on.
However, turning the negativity of nothing on its head is what makes the name brilliant, and likely to evoke strong feelings in customers, furthering brand loyalty. Names with “bad” meanings can be used very effectively, especially for consumer brands. (See Catchword principal Mark Skoultchi’s piece in How Brands Are Built on this very topic to learn more.)
So does Nothing have “serious negative meaning” or cool edginess? Is it a brilliant name or a bit of a gimmick? Both. And that’s part of what’s provoked the buzz (Great Name Quality Number 2). Nothing is a compelling name with attitude, and it prompts us to skeptically scrutinize the brand and its products harder than we would if it had a milder name. The fact that we’re thinking about the name this much shows its strength, and strong brands naturally create hype. (But if they don’t live up to it, they’ll fall even harder.)
In the end, we prefer names that say something similar to Nothing but in a positive way, such as Seamless (food delivery), Intuit (bookkeeping), and Organic (branding and experiential design). An affirmative name suggests taking a stand for something rather than reacting against, which leads to broader appeal and more positive associations for customers, media, and other audiences. But if this startup is targeting an audience that tends to the meta and nihilistic—qualities often attributed to millennials—and doesn’t plan to expand beyond it, then Nothing may be an exception.
For all these reasons, we give Nothing an A- (a fitting negative). The name’s weaknesses are built into its strength. And although they are notable, these flaws will ultimately only hurt the brand if it doesn’t deliver something of value.
The first smart devices are planned to be released within the next six months, so we’ll find out soon.