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Seven Questions with Michael Cronan, designer and creator of the name "TiVo" and the mascot

Through a totally random sequence of events where a friend of a friend met someone at a party, I ended up talking to Michael Cronan of Cronan Design. Michael is noted for coming up with the name "TiVo" and mascot concept that they're still using successfully in 2005. He was kind enough to take the time to answer my questions about the process that came up with "TiVo" and how the name has worked ever since.

Matt Haughey, PVRblog: Take us back to the very beginning of the project. Before TiVo had a name or mascot, how was the project described to you when you began? Did they have a pretty good idea of the total features or was it pitched as just a "tapeless VCR?"

Michael Cronan, Cronan Design: Mike [Ramsay, former CEO of TiVo -- ed.] invited me to his home one afternoon to discuss the project. I'd created the color-name series concept for the computers Indigo and Crimson for his group at Silicon Graphics, as well as worked with him on the Silicon Studio project, the school SGI established to train animators on their technology. The project code name was Teleworld.

It was initially a "smart house" concept; a robust disc drive that would control features and functions in the home, including entertainment. I thought that the entertainment component would be the popular part of the offering, the part that was the newest, most amazing idea. Others thought so as well. When they called me in officially a few months later to start work on the identity, it was all about TV.

MH: Wow, I had no idea it started out as a whole-home concept. I'm glad they honed in on TV, given how historically it's been difficult to market and explain to people. And now the "teleworld" name from the filesystem makes sense.

When did you start work on the project, and about how long did it take to come up with "TiVo" and the mascot?

MC: We started in spring 1997. We had roughly six weeks to create a name and an identity. It may be hard to believe, but we reviewed probably 1600-plus name alternatives, seriously considered over 800 names, and presented over 100 strong candidates to the team. This might seem like an arduous task but those meetings were filled with fun, laughter and confidence that we would get the right answer.

We work on many new products and services, as well as updating the brands of existing products and services. I've learned that something really new needs to be first a little familiar before consumers can recognize or understand it. That's why marketers use metaphors to help explain new products.

One of the ways to generate a winning answer is to find the right question to ask. Answering questions is relatively easy. Asking the right question is more difficult. This was the technique we used in coming up with TiVo. We spent the early meetings trying to place a cultural context on the product. Was it to be a revolutionary or evolutionary kind of product? Once I began to understand that it could change behavior on an essential level I began to pose questions like, "what would 'the next TV' be like? are we naming the 'next' TV?"

The winning answer was we were naming the next TV. I thought it should be as close as possible to what people would find familiar so it must contain T and V. I started looking at letter combinations and pretty quickly settled on TiVo. I also liked that "i" and "o" were a part of the name from the "in and out" engineering acronym. Additionally I thought "vo" had a nice connection to "vox" and "voce" from the latin for vocal sound and Italian for voice, vote and vow are part of the same root words. In a way, every selection one makes with TiVo is a kind of vote. It was all beginning to make some sense. We created a beginning lexicon of TiVo expressions to help create what we anticipated would be a TiVo culture. One of the expressions was "TiVolution". I liked the similarity of sound to the rock band DEVO and their devolution stance.

Once we'd settled on the name (see the answer to your next question) we began work on creating the identity. I wanted to provide a kind of identity that would become as recognizable as the mouse ears are to Disney. From that impulse I placed a smile under the word that would make a face out of the lettering and signal the happy attitude of the character. We were also thinking of the shape of a TV and so added the rabbit ears. I was driving one day and saw the little Darwinian fish-with-legs evolution character on a bumper and immediately realized that TiVo needed legs.

The next day I presented a little stick figure drawing and everyone started nodding, the TiVo identity became the TiVo mascot. From that concept we developed the extended look and feel of the brand, with color palettes and the elements to create the world of TiVo, "TV my way". Later we realized that the character would need to be refined to help the animators do their work. By then Paul Newby had come aboard and helped direct the refinements to the character. At one point in the review process TiVo got a little too skinny and I urged that he get a little thicker to help keep the TV metaphor clear.

MH: I heard you say that "TiVo" wasn't the first choice. Can you recall some of the names you thought fit better? Was "TiVo" a compromise between the company and you or did they really like that name right away?

MC: It's interesting that of all the names we developed, TiVo was the ninth name we presented. It was always a favorite with me. There were names that were seriously considered, but in retrospect definitely not as good as TiVo. One was "Bongo"; at one point the team was considering that the thumbs up and down buttons on the remote might be different sizes for tactile differentiation so the notion of Bongo drums came up. "Lasso" was another candidate, it referred to capturing what you want to watch when you want to watch it. 

There was really never a need to compromise anything. The team was so focused on their specific challenges and very trusting with other aspects of the project that it was a terrific collaboration and recognition of what was the right thing to do. When the schedule milestone approached for the final name we put 20 "finalists" on the conference room wall. Mike and the team, like most folks in technology, have an ingrained just-in-time modality. The engineering of great products is highly creative, the team was familiar with the feelings of uncertainty that exist before an answer comes and they were comfortable that we would get it right, it's one of the benefits of an "A" level team.  Everyone gets more creative and productive when there is a hard deadline. The encouragement and support was really helpful, I thank Mike, Jim Barton, Howard Look and the rest of the team for making the process a pleasure.

I argued for "TiVo" and urged that we narrow the list down to three of four. That day the group had Ed Sullivan, from the former Pittard Sullivan, a terrific animation firm in LA who created the initial animations of the TiVo character, in for their initial meetings. Ed walked in and saw the finalists on the wall and pretty much insisted that the name was TiVo. It took one person from the outside to help the team with the choice. They at once saw the the concept through his fresh eyes and understood that he was right. Not long after that we transferred the ownership of the name "TiVo" to the company.

One of the fascinating aspects of the project was how clear the team was on the power of the concept, once they decided to focus on television. In retrospect it was an strong lesson for me in how valuable experience is in truly understanding any issue. I had had the opportunity to review the thinking in detail, use the prototype equipment and watch and listen to others using the device. Then they sent me a TiVo box at home, and one of my kids set it up. As we were watching a show, my wife came into the room and started talking to us. For the first time in my own home, I clicked the button to pause live TV. When I clicked to restart it, at that moment I really "got" the power of TiVo for myself. I began to feel, like most TiVo users do, that I wish I could use TiVo's feature set in life outside the box.

MH: TiVo really is a perfect name. If I remember correctly, I think Bongo was Earthlink's wireless service a few years later and Macromedia Director's scripting language is Lasso. What do you think about TiVo becoming a verb?

MC: TiVo is in the dictionary at this point. And I'm happy Webster's has the etymology right.

MH: Is it gratifying to hear people use it as a generic term like "xeroxing some documents" or hearing that people want to use TiVo's features in life?

MC: I am gratified that the name has helped with the understanding and acceptance of TiVo, but TiVo is a killer experience and that is what generates the wild praise. TiVo's name and Identity just helps people recognise, understand and love the what it is.

MH: Do you think the name has transcended the close ties to TV and gotten to the level of a name like say, Yahoo, or Google? (I'd say that Yahoo and Google were once closely associated with "search" but now both companies offer so many applications and features it's tough to define any one thing they focus on).

MC: TiVo has the potential to be what marketers call a Branded House, meaning that the brand evokes a level of trust that it can offer a large array of products and experiences. I actually think, from a brand perspective, TiVo has an advantage as a Branded House over Yahoo and Google. I'd bet that most people who know TiVo and Google would buy a TiVo toaster before a Google toaster.

MH: If a TiVo box could start doing all sorts of non-TV tasks, do you think the name would still work?

MC: Yes, I do think the name would work. A good name grows with what it names.

Thanks goes out to Michael Cronan for taking the time to answer all my questions, and thanks to my friend Lane for making the connection. Michael still does product and brand design as Cronan Design. Full Bio for Michael and Cronan Design follows.

Cronan Design creates names and strategic brand identities and design for some of today's most successful new products and companies. With three decades of experience in corporate communications, packaging, print graphics, exhibits and art programs, a partial client list includes Apple, Estee Lauder, Levi Strauss & Co., McKesson, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Symphony and Opera, Silicon Graphics, TiVo, TV Guide, the United States Postal Service, Verio, and Williams Sonoma.

In 1989 Cronan was featured in the Museo Fortuny (Venice, Italy) exhibition entitled "Pacific Wave, California Graphic Design", and was one of four graphic designers featured in "In the Public Eye," the first graphic design exhibition at SFMOMA in 1993. The recipient of numerous national and international design awards and publications feature articles, Cronan's work is represented in the collections of American Graphic Design at the Denver Art Museum, in the Library of Congress, the permanent Design Collection of SFMOMA, and London's Victoria & Albert Museum.

Cronan was born in San Francisco in 1951. He studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC), and graduated with a degree in Fine Art from CSU Sacramento. From 1982-1999, Cronan served as an adjunct professor of graphic design at California College of the Arts. He is a founding member and former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) San Francisco chapter and served on the AIGA national board. Cronan is also a fine artist:: www.michaelcronan.com

by Matt Haughey December 7, 2005 in Interviews, TiVo