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April 22, 2012

News & Features

What's in a name? Auto naming is a big decision for carmakers

Detroit Free Press

Buick_Verano_0422_604.jpg

Verano, which means summer in Spanish, was picked by Buick. (General Motors)

They are small, metallic stamps found on the rump of any vehicle on the planet, but they cost millions of dollars to find, invent, vet and advertise.

Car names.

At recent auto shows, carmakers have been promoting their latest motoring monikers. Acura and Infiniti 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.

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

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," says University of Michigan-Dearborn marketing professor Aaron Ahuvia.

Assigning a name to a new vehicle is 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, jibe with the design and styling, and sound pleasant to the ear, marketing experts say.

"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," says Craig Bierley, director of advertising and promotions for Buick and GMC.

Buick and GMC look to maps, minerals and seasons for inspiration. For example, Verano means summer in Spanish.

Nissan sometimes uses existing words that fit the company's image for the vehicle, such as the toughness of the Titan and the agility of the Juke. The latter, though, is slightly problematic, as 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?' " says Mark Perry, director of product and advanced planning for Nissan Americas. "Pinto as a name might be fine, but the association is negative."

Some car companies prefer to stick with the tried and true, including Toyota, which has used Camry and Corolla for decades. "One of the arguments or discussions you have in naming: Do you lose equity in a name if you keep changing it?" says Mike Michels, Toyota's vice president of communications.

Ford uses the same philosophy 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 says. "It has a history and heritage people know. It's about connecting with the consumers."

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