Apple: The power of sensory memory

Originally published Jan 10, 2007

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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