GPT is What Happens When Engineers do the Branding

Are cryptic technology acronyms hurting customer adoption?

GPT is What Happens When Engineers do the Branding

Do you know what the "GPT" in "ChatGPT" stands for? Me either, so I asked ChatGPT:


I've been tinkering with ChatGPT and it is an amazing piece of technology. I definitely think AI is going to be a game changing chapter in the history of technology. Whether it will destroy us all is a topic for another day.

Today I want to talk about a key component of technology branding: Naming.

The pace of technology advancements can be mind boggling, and in Silicon Valley there is perpetual pressure to win "first mover advantage" by bringing new innovations to market quickly, before competitors do. VCs put immense pressure on startups to deliver, so it is not surprising that startups often forego efforts to create a user-friendly, marketable product name in favor of execution. Many startups don't even hire a marketing person until the product is gearing up for launch.

Unless the technical founding team has an unusually good pulse for understanding end users, the names that engineers come up with can often hinder a product's initial understanding and adoption. Consider the "NFT", which stands for Non-Fungible Token, those million dollar pictures of apes and rocks tied to cryptocurrency. Another acronym clearly devised by the engineers. I would argue that broad market acceptance of NFTs amongst everyday people was hindered in part by its cryptic name.

This naming dilemma can also be true in large corporations that have "skunk works" style R&D teams, who secretly develop products without involving marketing or sales until the product is closer to commercialization. During development R&D teams have to call the mystery project something, so they give it a name. Sometimes this work-in-progress name makes it all the way to market. Other times when the marketing team finally does get involved, they veto it if there's still time to change it.

I don't know exactly how "ChatGPT" came to be, but based on the answer given by ChatGPT itself, it clearly was not named by someone in branding. I doubt such a team even existed when GPT-1 was released in 2018. I specifically asked ChatGPT, "Who named GPT?" and this was the reply:

The specific individuals who came up with the name "GPT" may not be publicly documented, but it is a product of collaborative efforts within the research and development team at OpenAI. Naming decisions for projects like these are typically made collectively, involving input from multiple researchers, engineers, and stakeholders within the organization. The goal is to choose a name that accurately reflects the model's key characteristics and capabilities.

I can't imagine any brand marketer or agency coming up with the acronym GPT, so I think it's safe to assume the engineers named it. No offense to engineers, they are the geniuses of our day, but in the same way they wouldn't let a marketer to the programming, we shouldn't let engineers do the branding.

When I worked in Silicon Valley I met some of the smartest people in my life. When I worked at a coffee shop, I was always hesitant to login to anything, because any given person sitting next to me could be smart enough to hack my passwords. They may very well have invented or programmed the underlying technology for the wifi router or network card that I was using. When you're dealing with that level of technical sophistication, you live in a different world than the average consumer. There is a technology bubble in Silicon Valley, no doubt about it. Everyday vocabulary there consists of terminology that only a select group of people understand, but since the terms are so pervasive and used by so many people around you, you actually begin to assume that everyone in the world talks like this, and knows what these words mean.

So it is in this environment of cutting edge innovation that someone decided that Generative Pre-trained Transformer was an appropriate way to describe what this new AI chatbot did. Now arguably when GPT-1 was released, the technology was still in development, as an experimental product, so making it understandable to everyday people was probably not a priority. Did the founding tech team know it would become as big as it has, as fast as it has? Maybe, maybe not. But the sudden ramp up of interest in ChatGPT was surprising. One day people were saying AI was still a long way off, then all of sudden ChatGPT was answering people's queries quite convincingly.

It is at this inflection point of broad adoption that brand naming by the engineers can either be a lucky win, or come back to haunt you. If it's haunting you, it may be time for a rebrand, but sometimes these technologies escape so quickly and broadly into the world, even if they make no sense to the average user, that it becomes extremely difficult and costly to rename them. The cat is out of the bag.

I can't help but wonder if a better name would make these "acronym" technologies even more accessible to the average customer. In ChatGPT's case, one could argue that it doesn't matter, as it's one of the fastest growing technologies ever invented. This is a case of a clearly innovative, once in a generation technology winning despite having a strange name.

But what about the thousands of other cryptically named acronyms for technical products out in the world? Have you encountered such an acronym and been frustrated that the company who made it assumes you know what it means? Have you ever had to google an acronym? Those names could be hurting initial customer understanding, and making things harder for your sales teams, and thus hurting revenue. As a general rule of thumb, acronyms are terrible choices for product names, and should be avoided wherever possible. If you find yourself constantly explaining what your product's acronym means, it might be worth considering a rebrand.

If you found this insightful, feel free to forward it to a friend.

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