Siri’s Rise From Obscure Nordic Nickname to Branding Success Story

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Dec. 15 2011 3:18 PM

Siri Baby

As Apple’s use of an obscure Nordic nickname shows, we’ve started naming our kids like products—and our products like kids.

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So let's circle back and take a closer look at the choice of the name Siri. It has been widely assumed that the name is a riff on SRI International, the California R&D lab where the technology was first developed. According to the people behind Siri, though, that's not the real story. From the beginning, they say, there was no question that they wanted a human-style name. In fact, the project's original code name was, irresistibly, HAL. And Siri's founding team of executives and investors approached the naming process by turning to baby-name books.

The winning name was proposed by the project’s director, Danish telecom executive Dag Kittlaus. Siri—remember, it’s a popular name in Scandinavia—was the girl's name Kittlaus and his wife had picked out for their first child. They ended up having a boy, so the name was kept in reserve until the proud papa finally got the chance to confer it on a virtual daughter. The letters S-R-I might have been a plus, but Kittlaus and his team were playing to an audience of investors and consumers, not to the research lab. What mattered was the public image of the name.

To fully appreciate how good a pick Siri was, compare it to a legendary fiasco of a human-named software product, Microsoft Bob. Bob, introduced in 1995, was an interface that attempted to make the intimidating world of computing a little friendlier. “He” presented your computer as a house, with perky cartoon characters to help you find your way. His logo was written BOB, with a bespectacled smiley face for an “O.” But Bob’s friendly, old-fashioned, ultra-simple name symbolized the product’s basic conceptual flaw. The aggressively disarming everyman pose was like Microsoft patting you on the head: Bob was, in a word, patronizing.

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The name Siri, by contrast, hit its mark dead center. To English speakers, it comes across as classic Danish design: clean, spare, elegant in its simplicity. It feels namelike but isn't overly familiar or tied to any time period. It's approachable but not in your face. It says that technology is a stylish accessory, and that you, as its owner, are stylishly confident. It encapsulates the movement of technology from geek to chic that was a defining contribution of Steve Jobs’ last decade at Apple.

Put another way, it's a branding coup, one that instantly achieves the effortless Nordic cool of an Absolut Vodka bottle. But can vodka-bottle style and human-name style really point in the same cultural direction? you ask. Sure. Just ask the 78 American girls born last year who were named Skyy.

Laura Wattenberg is the author of the book The Baby Name Wizard, and creator of BabyNameWizard.com.