Earlier this month, Apple pulled back the curtain on its new wrist-borne technology, the Apple Watch. Much of the subsequent chatter centered on pricing ($349 to $17,000), features (digital crown, sapphire crystal), and release date (April 24). Some of us, however, directed our curiosity elsewhere: to the device's three model names. Why "Watch," "Watch Sport," and "Watch Edition"? What do those spare yet evocative names tell us about Apple's objectives?

This is not a trifling matter. We name developers spend a great deal of our professional lives toiling on precisely this sort of sub-branding challenge: constructing nomenclature systems and devising clear ways to communicate service levels, upgrade versions, or feature packs. Compared to the glamorous work of naming, say, the next Viagra or Twitter, it may seem like humble labor, but it's essential for a company's overall branding message. And there's no single set of rules to govern the process.

Take the Apple Watch. By giving the device that particular name — and not, say, "iWatch" — Apple signaled that the company was moving into a new era without co-founder Steve Jobs.

Another sign of the times: an apple pictogram — or emoji — in lieu of the word "Apple."

The bare, unmodified "Watch" name communicates "standard," while "Sport" conveys function. (The Watch Sport is made of lightweight aluminum and has a "fluoroelastemer band" suitable for sweaty workouts.) As for "Edition" — trendy shorthand for "limited edition" or "luxury edition" — it crops up in many areas of branding. Until recently, Banana Republic operated freestanding accessories boutiques under its Edition sub-brand; the name signaled "curated" (another buzzy term) and "pared down." Edition Hotels, a sub-brand of Marriott, has a name and design that are meant to convey (as the website puts it) "individuality, authenticity, originality, and unique ethos" — several levels up from the parent company's mass appeal. (You're unlikely to see "ethos" in a Marriott brochure.)

Marking class distinction was the goal of one of the earliest sub-branding efforts. In the 19th century, writes John Maxtone-Graham in Liners to the Sun, trans-Atlantic steamships "separated and identified" passengers according to type of accommodation. Those who could afford individual cabins were booked in Cabin class; those who couldn't were berthed below, in dormitories often situated near the steering equipment — hence "Steerage."

When larger liners came along toward the end of the century, their owners saw a business opportunity in additional levels of choice. "Henceforth," writes Maxtone-Graham, "Cabin passengers were economically subdivided. First Cabin, or First Class, encompassed the most lavish and expensive staterooms on board. Second Cabin — hence Second Class — occupied small quarters at the after end of the main bunkhouse and below."

For the huddled masses, there was still Steerage, which in 1912 was rebranded "Third Class" by Albert Ballin, the shrewd owner of the Hamburg-Amerika Linie. After World War I, Third Class was burnished even further, as "Tourist Third Cabin." It was "a stroke of genius," writes Maxtone-Graham: "The two peripheral embellishments — a 'Tourist' prefix and an obligatory snob suffix, 'Cabin' — diluted the undeniably proletarian stigma of 'Third'."

Luggage labels denoting classes on the Cunard steamship line. Via eBay.

That slicing, dicing, and destigmatizing continues today with airline class distinctions. Virgin America, for example, dispenses altogether with the depressing associations of "Coach" or "Economy" and substitutes "Main Cabin" and "Main Cabin Select."

You also see the class-level ladder — with Olympic Games overtones — in the "metal" naming of health-insurance offerings under the Affordable Care Act. At the Bronze level, you have lower premiums and higher out-of-pocket costs; Silver, Gold, and Platinum plans cost more each month but provide greater coverage.

Not all sub-branding signifies class distinctions. With software upgrades, for example, newness is the selling point, and a numerical sequence is the quickest way to convey the message. The first public release of Adobe Photoshop, in March 1989, was 0.87; Version 1.0 was released the following year, and 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0, 5.5, 6.0, and 7.0 followed on an approximately annual schedule. The current version, 15.0, was released in June 2014. (Compare that purely functional numerical system with Adobe's internal codenames for each release, which are reminiscent of yacht names: Bond, Seurat, and Fast Eddy in the early years; Red Pill, Superstition, Fast Eddy, and Single Malt Whiskey Cat more recently.) I once worked on a software naming system for a client in which the sequence started not with 1 but with 10; the significance was identical, but the connotation was "higher" and "better."

Many fashion brands launch with a high-end collection that's paraded down the runway at one of several international fashion weeks. If the brand proves successful with wealthy customers, it may spin off into "diffusion" or "bridge" sub-brands aimed at the proles. Couture-level Armani, for example, begat Emporio Armani (less expensive merchandise that's still designed by Giorgio Armani himself) and Armani Exchange (even less expensive and sportier). All three brands share the "Armani" element, and both modifiers begin with E (for no reason I've been able to discern), giving them a family resemblance. Other fashion brands opt for name truncation rather than expansion. A dress labeled "Donna Karan New York" may set you back $900 or more; a similar garment from the DKNY sub-brand costs $200 to $300.

As brands grow, it becomes an ongoing challenge to maintain consistency and comprehensibility. "The natural impulse of companies with new products," write Wolfgang Giehl and F. Joseph LePla in Creating a Brand That Inspires (2012), "is to give them a distinctive brand name in the mistaken belief that this will result in better customer visibility. The reverse is typically true. Customers want simplicity and don't have the time to sort out a confused brand structure."

That turns out to be a tall order for luxury automakers. At one time you could identify a BMW's brand hierarchy by a model's alphanumeric badge: a 320i was a 3 Series (entry level) model with a 2.0-liter engine and fuel injection (the "i"). "C" (for "coupe") designated a two-door car. Last year the C was retired; two-door model numbers now begin, confusingly, with a 4. "It gets worse though," Autoblog wrote last year. "A 550i uses a 4-4 liter, twin-turbocharged V8 (it should be a 544ti, although we'd be willing to hear an argument for 'tti'), and a 740i uses a 3.0-liter, turbocharged six-cylinder, which is the same engine found in a 535i. It's madness."

Faced with a similar mess, Infiniti in 2014 revamped its entire model-naming strategy. (Infiniti, which launched in 1989 as Nissan's U.S.-only luxury division, reportedly paid a branding agency — not mine, I hasten to add — $75,000 for proposing the J and Q in the early models J30 and Q45.) Instead of an alphabet soup of model names — EX, FX, M, JX, G37 — the company now uses the Q prefix for all sedans, coupes, and convertibles, and QX for SUVs and crossovers. In announcing the switch, worldwide brand president Johan de Nysschen said Q "is an asset that is already very strongly associated with Infiniti. It harks back to Infiniti's first product, the Q45, so it certainly has heritage for us." 

It takes courage (and cash) to implement such bold streamlining. Many consumer brands take the path of least resistance, piling on nouns and modifiers to fine-tune the sub- and sub-sub-brands. For an illustration, just stroll down the hair-care aisle of your favorite drugstore or beauty boutique, where you'll encounter such front-loaded monikers as Advanced Hair Care Smooth Intense Straight Perfecting Balm (L'Oreal), Miraculously Smooth 12-Hour Anti-Humidity Hair Spray, Flexible (Aussie), and Root Awakening Purify + Nourish for Oily Scalp & Dry Hair (John Frieda).

It's enough to make you hope for an Apple-style takeover of beauty brands. Shampoo, Shampoo Sport, Shampoo Edition. Sounds refreshing, doesn't it?