Clawing your way to the top

By Eli Altman
April 1, 2009
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Filed under Naming

Last weekend I went down to Joshua Tree with a few friends to do some camping and climbing. Preparing for the trip, I headed over to REI with my friend Pete to pick up a few things. Pete hadn’t been camping in a while and needed a sleeping bag. Someone in a green vest made a few suggestions, and in the end, Pete ended up getting a black and blue bag made by The North Face.  It wasn’t until we were in line that I noticed the name of the sleeping bag boldly sewn onto its storage sack: THE CAT’S MEOW.

What a funny name for a sleeping bag. The first thing that came to mind was “oh, maybe he got a women’s bag by accident”… After not being able to find powder blue trim, the letter ‘W’, or any other telltale sign that this product was intended for women or children, I asked Pete, “Did you know that your sleeping bag is called The Cat’s Meow?” He replied affirmatively. It didn’t seem to bother him.

Now, I guess most people would stop here, but let’s think about this for a bit:
Is this a good name for a sleeping bag? Well, it certainly stands out– and I definitely remembered it… so it easily passes that test.  But then again, if they named it Body Condom, I would have remembered that too.

I guess where I have an issue with the name is that there’s almost no connection to the North Face brand, or the outdoors. Out of context, you would never think it’s a camping product. The name brings to mind little porcelain figurines and other chotchkies you might find on your grandmother’s mantle. In fact, is “a marketplace for unique wooden keepsakes that make the purr-fect gift”. How cute is that?! Needless to say, sharing brand space with sites and products like this certainly isn’t ideal.

There are some language issues too. Who even says “cat’s meow” anymore? It feels like something Millard Fillmore’s wife would say. Encarta refers to it as “dated slang”, while the other dictionary definitions I found talk about something that’s highly sought after, fancy and special. Although it might sound like something furry to cuddle up with, it certainly doesn’t fit the ‘great outdoors’ prototype.

After consulting the North Face site, The Cat’s Meow seems to stand on it’s own. Their other bags have names like Solar Flare, Nebula, Superlight, Kilo and Tundra… pretty standard naming territory for outdoor products.

North Face is an extraordinarily popular company with terrific brand awareness and global distribution channels… they can easily overcome a name like this. However, if you were running a startup outdoor equipment company and this was your first sleeping bag, there’s no f&%$ing way you’d call it The Cat’s Meow.

The North Face site indicates it’s a ‘best-seller’, so they certainly aren’t having trouble moving the little kitties– but why make it harder on yourself? Some bearded mountain men are bound to scoff at the name and move on saying, “I’m not the type of man who sleeps in The Cat’s Meow… I drink Coors Light for heavens sake!”

While the name has plenty of flaws, at least it stands out. A lot of companies don’t end up naming their products something interesting because they’re afraid of excluding certain demographics or because they put too much weight on some offhand comment from a focus group. I have to applaud The North Face for having the stones to try something different. Now, would I want to stand out in this way? to this audience? Probably not. But at the very least it’s a conversation starter, and at the very most, it’s a theft-deterrent. (given the choice to steal someone’s sleeping bag, I probably would look elsewhere)

Above all else, the product works. On a particularly windy night in Joshua Tree, Pete was as warm as a kitten in mittens (sorry, I had to). If you can handle some heckling, the Cat’s Meow might be the bag for you.

Imagine how happy these cats would be if their sleeping bags were properly insulated.