News Column

Car Names Don't Come Out of Thin Air

Feb. 23, 2012

Zlati Meyer

2013 Dodge Dart
2013 Dodge Dart

They are only a 3-inch or so swatch of a vehicle worth thousands and thousands of dollars, a metallic stamp on the rump of any car, truck or SUV on the planet.

But they cost millions to find, invent, vet and advertise.

Car names.

A month after the North American International Auto Show, automakers are out there promoting their latest motoring monikers. Acura and Infiniti, for example, went the archetypal luxury-brand alphanumeric route with ILX and JX, respectively, while Buick went with a classic word reassignment by using Encore for its new SUV.

And Chrysler went old-school -- dusting off "Dart" for its new compact."In general, what you want is for the product to reflect these zeitgeists to the greatest extent possible, whatever the mood or spirit of the times is as experienced by the target market -- the design visual and the name to reflect that and people's ideals and aspirations," explained University of Michigan-Dearborn marketing professor Aaron Ahuvia.

Makers draw names from various sources

When Buick needed a name for its new compact crossover SUV, the automaker headed for a dictionary to look for a word that began with "en," like the brand's popular full-size crossover SUV, the Enclave.

General Motors was lucky. The word, Encore, hadn't already been trademarked by a competitor. Nor did it mean something bad in another language.

These are challenges an automaker faces when assigning a name to a new vehicle -- a vital part of a marketing plan, though a behind-the-scenes process, often aided by outside branding agencies, that starts as much as two years before the car hits showroom floors. It must tell the story of the car as it identifies with the primary market, marketing experts say. Denali, another name for Alaska's Mt. McKinley, fits on a rugged GMC, but not on a compact car, for example.

Does the name jibe with the design and styling? Is it pleasant to the ear?

"We get a list of names and think about what's appropriate for the vehicle and for the brand overall, and (how) we think it speaks to the target consumer. That's the largest judgment call," said Craig Bierley, director of advertising and promotions for Buick and GMC.

Buick and GMC, for example, look to maps, minerals and seasons for inspiration; for example, "Verano" means summer in Spanish. Nissan will sometimes use pre-existing words that fit the company's image for the vehicle, like the toughness of the Titan and the agility of the Juke, (which could be a partial faux-pas, though, because Juke means cockroach in Arabic).

"You want to make sure a name has neutral or positive associations. If you have negative associations, you want to ask, 'Can I change it?' " said Mark Perry, director of product and advanced planning for Nissan Americas. "Pinto as a name might be fine, but the association is negative."

Some have uninspiring back stories; the Toyota FJ Cruiser was an internal model code used in the 1950s and 1960s. A design studio's name or a development code, like the MR2, can stick, too.

When cars were first invented, they were identified only by their makers' names, as the manufacturers weren't making many styles, according to writer and lexicographer Paul Dickson. As lines expanded, trends cycled through -- far-off places and warm destinations after American GIs returned stateside (Chevy Biscayne), the galaxy during the Cold War space race (Mercury Meteor) and words that screamed independence (Ford Maverick), as the counterculture grew more popular.

Some car companies prefer to use what works, like Toyota, which has used "Camry" and "Corolla" for decades. "One of the arguments or discussions you do in naming -- do you lose equity in a name if you keep changing it," Toyota's vice president of communications Mike Michels pointed out.

Ford uses the same series with its Mustang and F-series, according to Rick Novak, Ford's global cross vehicle marketing strategy manager. "We're going to use names already seen as icons in the industry. You want to make sure you're already (playing up) your assets," he said. "It has a history and heritage people know. It's about connecting with the consumers."

But the company did the opposite with the storied Taurus -- renaming it the Five Hundred, only to change it back later. Novak declined to discuss that chapter of Ford's history.

The offshoot of getting inspiration from your current catalog is looking through the corporate archives. Most recently, Chrysler went into the vault to bring out the name Dart for its latest Dodge. Chrysler declined to comment on the naming process.

But for some auto manufacturers, the best place to find innovative names is in their imaginations. The Nissan Maxima had roots in "maximum," because it was the top -- or maximum -- of the brand's line, while the Xterra hinted at its off-road -- or terra -- roots and the coolness of extreme sports' X Games, according to Perry. And the Toyota Venza? It's meant to connote a sense of adventure with an Italian-sounding ending with a bit of flair, Michels explained.

Such creativity requires more of an investment at the back end from the manufacturer because consumers now need to learn about the new name -- what it's supposed to be conveying, how it's pronounced, how it's spelled. The Volkswagen Touareg is an example.

"It's a double-edged sword. It's indeed a burden. You have to educate them about what it means, and it will be inherently less memorable. If you call something a Yukon, people already know it, and it's easier to remember," said University of Michigan-Dearborn marketing professor Aaron Ahuvia. "(But) the advantage of giving it a completely new name is you have more freedom in shaping what the name ultimately means to consumers." The ones with the easiest time are the luxury car companies, who use alpha-numeric systems that often are coded descriptions of the vehicles' engines. Still, that can be confusing for consumers who find remembering such names is not as easy as ABC-123. The naming process boils down to this, according to Ford's Novak: "Is it clear? Is it easy for consumers to understand globally? Does it support the right imagery of the vehicle?"



Source: (c) 2012 the Detroit Free Press