Names – we’ve all got one and like it or not they help to create an impression on those we meet. No offense to the Tiffany’s or Wayne’s of the world but chances are if you found out that one was your new neighbour then you might hastily take a look at estate agents windows a little more closely…until you got to know them properly of course.
The same is applicable in the car world, as although manufacturers themselves often take a good deal of focus for customers, there are many nameplates which are extremely valuable and oftentimes you need not bother mentioning that you own (for example) a Toyota Prius, merely the mention of the P-word lets the world know that you care for the environment and get a million miles-per-gallon. As with many products these names are often the result of years of research and hard-work by marketers and product planners alike, to ensure that it is their blood sweat and tears which makes it to the fore front of your mind when you are ready to buy. Yet as with people, names can also get a soured reputation and as a result even the right product with the wrong name can fail miserably at the first hurdle.
Every car manufacturer has at least one of two model line ups that will likely never change – efforts may have been made in the past to make a new change but eventually these time-honoured names will end up being wheeled back out, even if it ends up being a sacrilege to the original spirit of such a car. As a nation with the most passionate relationship with the car (or automobile as they like to say), the U.S.A. is filled with just such nomenclatures that hark back to the good ol’ days when everything had a V8 and the highways were clear. Models like the Mustang, Camaro and Charger often need no introduction and indeed all share a similar past – stonking muscle cars which having lost their way in the 80’s and 90’s are back with a vengeance now. The Corvette has a similarly storied history, but the oldest American (and worldwide) nameplate has to be the Suburban – originally designated a type of vehicle (similar to the way ‘Touring’ is used by BMW and a few others to signify their estate/wagon variants), the ‘burb has gone on to morph into a modern do-all vehicle despite the fact it has ended up ostracized by parts of society who criticise it’s large size and thirst for fuel. Nameplates like the Suburban and Mustang survive primarily because they adapt well to the market yet keep their core values at heart.
But whilst historic names are often drenched in fandom and will usually sell regardless, there is always a certain pressure not only to keep within expected boundaries but also to be class leading – two expectations which don’t always marry well in the face of competition. To keep up with class pressures manufacturers have taken to relying on their traditional ‘big sellers’ – cars with a reasonable amount of history and recognition but without the romanticism that often accompanies historic nameplates. To give some of these models a little more gravitas they have started to morph into global names so that as well as cross continental recognition, marketing efforts can also be reduced to cut costs. A perfect example of such a model is the Ford Focus; one of the mainstays of Ford’s global sales, the Focus was launched in 1998 as a replacement for the similarly worldwide Escort (more on that later). Inoffensively named and easily translatable, the Focus has gone through 3 generations of model which has seen multiple body styles yet has adapted well to market pressures in terms of space and also engine technology.
It’s amazing what a well known name can do and often they are able to survive quite significant scandal and change in direction – take another Ford, the Explorer. At it’s peak the Explorer was the biggest selling SUV nameplate in the U.S. and despite horrific tales of tyre blow outs and numerous deaths, this continued until the early 00’s. Around the same time they introduced a couple of models with a very similar concept but which were car based and much more modern; the Ford Freestyle and Flex both had seating for 7 and a raised driving position, but neither sold well at all despite looking reasonably good and being undeniably better than the Explorer. With the current Explorer they launched it on the same platform as both of these models (and subsequently discontinued the Freestyle); with chunkier styling and the Explorer nameplate, it sells many many times more than either of it’s forebears.
This kind of recognition often means you merely need to give the model name of a car and people will automatically know the name and general appearance of the vehicle, but this doesn’t mean that they are not at risk from replacement. The aforementioned Ford Escort sold for over 30 years before it was retired, mainly thanks to the product itself becoming stale and unimaginative but also because of the negative connotations which had started to surround the Escort nameplate. Truth be told had the Focus continued to use the Escort name it would still likely have been a success, but at times these storied names need a new injection to bring in some fresh blood and give it a new image – similar examples include the Vauxhall/Opel Vectra, which became the Insignia, and European Toyota Corolla, which has been re-christened Auris in certain markets…a big gamble considering that the Corolla name is the largest selling car name plate in history.
Increasingly though, the more traditional models in manufacturers line-ups have been supplemented (and sometimes outpaced or replaced) by niche designs which can straddle multiple market segments. Aside from having unusual product briefs, the looks and of course name of such vehicles can also raise eyebrows yet can also help to make an impression in a crowded marketplace. Without a doubt the most successful example of this in the current UK market is the all-conquering Nissan Qashqai. What started off as a name that very few people bothered to attempt to pronounce, it is now a regular star of top 10 sales charts and has breezed a trail where rivals can only dream of following. Making people think about how to pronounce a name is a clever trick to get it to stick in their heads – the Hyundai ix35 is a good little car but let’s be honest who is going to remember what one is called when your brain already has to work out what that Nissan Q-thing is called? Renault will be hoping that their Qashqai twin, the Kadjar, also meets a similar reaction.
But of course this kind of strategy can very easily backfire – I’m sure that Volkswagen UK rue the day that bosses in Wolfsburg decided to name their new premium SUV the Touareg, an unpronounceable name for even some who are interested in cars but also one which is a little too close to ‘toe rag’ for comfort. Similarly Mitsubishi’s Shogun had to be renamed Montero in Spanish speaking markets, as the standard name ‘Pajero’ sounded too similar to the Spanish word for w*nker (although why they just couldn’t have called it Shogun everywhere I don’t know). One of the most unusual names on the market at the moment is the Vauxhall Adam – so called as the founder of Vauxhall’s European twin Opel was named Adam. Maybe this is well known in it’s home market, but for me it sounds odd…although not as bad as it’s bigger brother, the Karl (thankfully that’s called Viva in the UK!).
Brands within brands:
Maybe the ultimate fantasy for brand marketers is for their new baby to become so revered that it can be spun off into it’s own separate brand, or at least a mini product line. Probably the clearest example of this is also a bit of a historical nameplate – the MINI, which has become a brand in it’s own right after being launched as a separate company by BMW in 2001. This has allowed for the MINI magic to be spread across several vehicles and of course the result is more money for Munich, although there has been a fair amount of criticism for going against traditional MINI values of being ermm…mini.
Citroen have been at this recently too, having plundered the history books for arguably their most famous nameplate (the DS) and have started to apply it to a whole series of models in their line-up which marry to the sleek and sophisticated values that the original DS had…or at least so they would like us to think. PSA obviously see a lot of value in this though, and are going so far as to launch a seperate DS brand as not to have it diluted by the more workaday Citroen models which share their platforms and engines with the DS cars. Ford are intending to do a similar thing with their Vignale line-up as are Renault with their Initiale Paris models, but without the historical context will they succeed?
So sometimes a name plate can actually damage a vehicle’s saleability – sometimes they are just too non-descript or confusing, or other times they can come with negative connotations either from questionable choice of word or past models. There are many examples of the latter (nobody is going to be calling their new model an Aztec or Pinto anytime soon), but the most common modern trend for poor name plates is for manufacturers to overhaul it’s naming structure in favour of something alphanumeric a la the Germans. Possibly the most confusing has been Infiniti’s decision to change all of their saloon/coupe models to ‘Q’ and their SUV/crossovers to ‘QX’, with the numerical suffix (30,50,60,70 and 80) referring to hierarchy…this would have been fine had they not previously used both combinations before to refer to specific models; the G35 has now become the Q50, but the QX56 is now the QX80, confused much? So are buyers.
At least Infiniti’s system has some logic though, as Lincoln’s jumble of letters has none and is usually seen by enthusiasts as the worst example of throwing away iconic name plates and replacing them with non-identifiable letters. I think at some stage that the ‘MK’ stood for Mark as they used to in their luxury coupes of the past, and the letters apparently stand for words like ‘Touring’, ‘Zephyr’ or ‘Crossover’…referring to either the type of vehicle or a historic Lincoln model. With sales flagging and customers confused, it’s no wonder that Lincoln have announced their intentions to revert to calling their flagship the saloon the Continental.
So what have we learnt today? Well in honesty probably not much, but I do think it’s interesting that product planners can get things quite so wrong at times as well as having occasional moments of brilliance – buyers do not always act quite as predictably as markers would like to think, but when thinking outside the box it probably needs to come from an actual moment of inspiration instead of merely latching onto something that sounded like a good idea over a business breakfast. As somebody whose dream job would be to work in the marketing department of a car firm this is something I would one day love to think about, but I’d certainly be making informed decisions unlike some it seems.