Brand name considerations for Apple's "iRadio"

As anticipation grows for the announcement of the Apple streaming music service the world has been calling “iRadio”, an interesting branding question stands out in on our minds: What will Apple call this service? While it may not matter all that much provided the service itself delivers the innovative streaming experience we’re expecting, we do believe a good name goes a long way in planting the idea in the minds of consumers.

So what do we think Apple should call this service? Let’s start with the name the media has chosen so far: “iRadio.” It says “radio,” of course, in Apple ecosystem language. And “radio” is the word for “live, curated, omni-present content” that has been a part of most of our lives forever. I say most of our lives, because that may not be the case in the minds of younger consumers born into the digital age who wake up to an iPhone rather than Elvis Duran on Z100, and spend their days listening to iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and YouTube. In their minds “radio” might mean the thing mom listens to in the car while I’ve got my headphones on, or that odd clock radio next to Grandma’s bed.

Still, Pandora put themselves on the map, in part, by comparing themselves to the category leader—Radio—through the use of the slogan “internet radio”. That’s right out of the Positioning playbook (Ries & Trout, the godfathers of modern brand positioning), and it worked.

The iRadio name would do the same trick, but there are two reasons we think Apple will not use that name. First, it is limiting. Radio suggests live, hosted or something like existing Radio. It robs Apple of the ability to create something totally new and get out from under existing perceptions about radio that may include negative images like too much repetition, too many commercials, unnecessary clutter and the old way of doing things in general. Second, Apple already owns a huge piece of the “music” brand landscape with their iTunes brand. Why muddy the waters, as Google has done so horribly with “Google Play All Access”—a name that not even Google insiders can remember. Our sense is that Apple will keep it simple, as they usually do.

That suggests that Apple will find a cool way to have this service mesh with iTunes, both in fact and in name. How about the “iTuner”? The name plays neatly off of iTunes and makes an old hi-fi term modern again, perhaps. On the downside here, it is still a second name, and “tuner” has other meanings that may not be helpful, such as “young men who add lots of accessories to their cars.”

How about “iMusic”? It says that Apple covers the entire music space. That all of music revolves around your Apple products. It makes it all “yours” with the Apple i-nomenclature. And it leaves room for more innovative sub-products in the future. However, iMusic does not acknowledge movies and other media that are likely to be a part of the whole experience and are already currently offered by iTunes, so it seems unlikely that Apple would change to a name without finding one that is all-encompassing of the plethora of offerings it is likely to host.

Perhaps “iTunes+” is the way to go. iTunes+ suggests that all the new streaming radio additions just make iTunes better and better. After all, Apple already has 100 million people using iTunes. Why make it sound like they need to go anywhere else for the ultimate music experience? You can see Apple deploying streaming inside of iTunes already—offering full streams of albums before they are released and 90 second previews. So the “+” just tells consumers that they’ve enhanced iTunes and you need to know it. Eventually, when the streaming features become ubiquitous, they could drop the + if they want to. Obvious downside here is the Google+ comparison, and we know Apple likes to be unique. Plus, Apple also already chose not to update the iTunes name upon the addition of movies, TV shows and more that it offered past its initial debut, so we doubt they’ll go this route.

Which brings us back to our first thought—the best name for streaming radio from Apple is probably simply “iTunes.” iTunes just got better by adding all of these features. You know that name, you love that name and Apple just gave it new energy and more to love. Apple doesn’t change the name of the iPhone every time it makes the screen bigger or increase processor speed. (Well, maybe a little with all the 3, 4, 4S and 5 namings, but our guess is that most consumers still just call ’em iPhones).

Now you might be thinking….Does a name really matter, especially when we’re talking about a powerhouse parent brand like Apple? In general, we think that every element of a brand is capable of making a positive contribution to the overall image. Sometimes we’re stuck with a name that we have to imbue with new meaning (think Cadillac). Sometimes we’re creating something totally new and it almost doesn’t matter what we call it (think Google or Yahoo!). And sometimes we’re reinventing a category like Apple is doing here, and the challenge is to bring together familiar elements with a fresh take, often one of the hardest tricks in marketing. In all of cases, a great name is a brand benefit, and a bad name can be a brand drawback, so we imagine Apple’s done its homework here.

The good news for Apple is they’ve done such a good job of establishing the i-ecosystem—from iPod to iPhones--that almost anything following an “i” can work for them, short of iDon’tKnow. What we do know is that ultimately the signature Apple user experience will carry the day and that it is likely to hit the bulls-i…er…bulls-eye.