Phonetic representation of the name Apple

Occasionally the Name Inspector writes about names for companies, products, or services that have achieved iconic status. There are lessons to be learned from these names, sometimes because they’re great, and sometimes because they show it’s possible to succeed with a so-so name.

Apple Computers is a great name. It’s a model solution to a problem faced by all technology companies: how to make something that’s fundamentally abstract and mysterious seem accessible and appealing. Apple, you may recall, is responsible for turning computers into popular consumer commodities. Before Apple’s famous “1984″ ad, when people thought of computers, they thought of mainframes used in business and government. Apple has managed to make computers seem fun, approachable, and desirable.

Of course, it isn’t just the name that has achieved this. It’s the user interface and the design and the packaging and marketing. But the name Apple captures the whole image perfectly. Why?

Well, there’s the obvious cultural symbolism of apples. They’re associated with school (an apple for the teacher) and therefore with childhood and learning. More importantly, in the story of Adam and Eve, the apple represents knowledge and sex. Who doesn’t want those things? The fact that the apple also represents sin contributes to the hip, rebellious image that the original Apple ads tried to establish. The apple is the perfect symbol for the subversive power of owning your own computer. The Apple logo, with the little bite taken out of it, is an obvious reference to the idea of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

This kind of quasi-literary symbolism is only part of the story, though. The deeper power of the name Apple comes from our everyday experiences with actual apples. They are, in a sense, the perfect consumer commodity: they’re ubiquitous and cheap, you grasp them in your hand and literally consume them, and they’re delicious. For almost everyone, they’re old childhood friends: cooked into sauce and cut into little pieces for babies, put into school lunchboxes and toted around, and baked into pies. It’s these deeply rooted sensory memories of apples that make Apple a great name. Nothing is more familiar, more accessible, or less intimidating than an apple, and that’s just the message Apple wants to get across.

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11 Responses to “Apple: The power of sensory memory”

  1. [...] There’s something interesting to notice here. PageFlakes is a vivid name, and that’s good, but it’s vivid in a particular way. There are different ways for a name to be vivid. Sometimes a name introduces sensory associations in all their minute detail to bathe something in a warm emotional glow, the way Apple does. Other times a name provides a sort of cognitive scaffolding to help people understand what something is all about. In that case the most important sensory associations are schematic ones relating to general size, shape, motion, and other properties that allow us to make inferences about how we might physically interact with something. [...]

  2. on 12 Apr 2007 at 4:48 pm Jack

    > Before Apple’s famous “1984″ ad, when people
    > thought of computers, they thought of mainframes
    > used in business and government.

    This really isn’t true. The Apple name became fairly well known in 1977 from press coverage of the Apple II, which was long before 1984. Home computers such as the Atari, Vic 20, Commodore 64 and others had also made computers seem fun, approachable, and desirable well before 1984. (They were mainly used for playing games.) Even businesses and governments were using IBM PCs before the 1984 ad, and the IBM PC was launched in 1981 with friendly approachable ads featuring a Charlie Chaplin tramp character.

    The IBM PC was in fact so successful that Time magazine chose the “personal computer” as its 1982 Man of the Year.

  3. on 13 Apr 2007 at 9:16 am The Name Inspector

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for setting the record straight. I guess I mistook my personal experience and recollection of the Apple Macintosh for real history. The first personal computer I used to do word processing and things like that was a Mac in a college computer room. My main computer experience before that had been playing Oregon Trail on a school mainframe with a teletype interface. Needless to say that was considerably earlier. I wasn’t paying enough attention to computers in high school, though I’m sure I must have used IBM PCs there in the library at least. Anyway, I stand corrected.

  4. on 22 Jun 2007 at 1:02 am technogoddess

    Apple has always been the cool outsider when it comes to computing and the name alone implies this fact. Other computer companies (in my opinion) used really dull names for their products that were very technical sounding and uninspiring even if their functions were useful or even fun. “Apple Computers” was a signal to expect something different, and its core targeted market (i.e. people who wanted to be different) hasn’t really changed much since its creation. It appealed to the hip computer user with a penchant for the unique, the unexpected, the bleeding edge and who was not afraid to try something new and non-traditional. I still hear people who brag that they bought or used Apple computers long before the company was popularized by its commercials in the mid-80s. Clearly “Apple” is a richly descriptive name for a technologically different experience. Macinosh is an incredible extention of the Apple-family names. And all because the Woz (Steve Wozniak co-founder of Apple Computers) liked to eat those particular apples.

  5. [...] It’s interesting to compare the name Twine to the name Apple, which The Name Inspector wrote about some time ago. Both names make technical, abstract things more accessible by associating them with everyday objects. But the name Apple gets a certain glamour from the beauty and the cultural and literary significance of apples. Twine, on the other hand, is decidedly unglamorous. Apples are things you polish and proudly display in a bowl, but twine is something you throw in a drawer or a car trunk and forget about, until you need to use it. [...]

  6. on 31 Jul 2010 at 12:59 pm John

    Um, its name actually comes from Newton’s apple, not Adam’s.

  7. on 10 Oct 2010 at 11:49 am glyn

    Mmmm … i guess you are talking about the origin of the apple name, the associations and product / service relationships discussed here sound accurate enough … but i don’t think apple for teacher is part of the story? certainly not adam, but the temptation to own an apple … maybe …

    you don’t dicuss the huge battle they had with the beatles and their apple records for trademark infringement … why not?

    i know and many of my friends know the origin of apples name but its not discussed here … ?

  8. on 12 Dec 2010 at 1:49 pm Jake

    I’m really glad I’m not the only professional on the blog that realizes this was a flailing attempt at an educated understanding of Apple’s brand.

    If you’re going to spout fact, please refrain from using personal reflection, unless you’re going to make the article an “opinion” piece, rather than a factual article.

    All you’re doing is confusing the common.

  9. on 15 Dec 2010 at 1:45 pm The Name Inspector

    Hey Grumpy Jake, nice to see a negative comment on here from time to time. Keeps me on my toes. But really, flailing? Now that hurt. Readers familiar with this blog, however, will know that I reserve the right to both “spout fact” and make liberal use of personal reflection, and even out-and-out subjective opinion! I would never be content to write a mere factual article. Where’s the fun in that?

  10. [...] — and debunks some common naming myths. He also analyzes a few familiar company names (eg Apple) — and hates the branding term “empty vessel” because he thinks it’s silly. [...]

  11. on 27 May 2012 at 10:37 am Stanag 6001

    I’ve just read the “The book of Jobs” (Jobs’ biography :-) ) and they gave there other justification for this historic brand name – slightly different from yours.

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