What's in a (car) name?
After selling millions
of cars over the course of its 20-year lifespan,
the Ford Taurus got dumped unceremoniously
from the company's lineup in late 2006. While
sales had been slumping in recent years, the
car did have one thing going for it: Its name.
While other cars had been developed to take Taurus's place -- including the Ford Five Hundred and the Ford Freestyle -- it would take years before those offerings had the name recognition that Taurus had developed. The company's president, Alan Mulally, decided to revive the Taurus name just a few months after it was discontinued, slapping the moniker onto modestly updated versions of the Five Hundred and the Freestyle, which became the Taurus and Taurus X, respectively, for the 2008 model year.
Such gyrations are relatively
rare, but they highlight the challenges that
exist when trying to name cars. "It's
a jungle," says Gerald Meyers, professor
of Business at the University of Michigan
Business School and former chairman and CEO
of American Motors Corp. "If you make
a mistake, you can destroy an actual piece
groups and flashes of inspiration
While the process that companies go through to name a car varies not only by company but by model, you can bet it's gotten more complex since Ford started cranking out the unimaginatively named Model T.
a jungle. If you make a mistake, you can
destroy an actual piece of engineering."
-- Gerald Meyers, former CEO of American
Motors Corp. ”
When Toyota began working on
developing a new brand of vehicles to appeal
to the Generation Y set, for example, it did
extensive research to find a name that resonated
with its target audience of young, male, urban
trendsetters, says Toyota spokeswoman Allison
"Focus groups, internal
surveys, and mail intercepts were conducted
in 2001," she says. Their research helped
them settle on the Scion name. "Some
words they associated with the word were 'innovative,'
'futuristic' and 'high tech.'"
That process is often similar
for model names. Marketing and product creation
groups can come up with a list of more than
a thousand names (often generated by a computer),
which are then whittled down through committee
meetings, focus groups of people in the targeted
demographics and interviews with potential
"If potential customers
verify the instincts and research of the company,
then the name is taken to the product planning
committee and the chief executive," says
Meyers. "And the chief executive can
say yes, I agree, or not -- and then put holy
water on it."
Meyers can think of exceptions
-- he remembers when car designer Richard
Teague sketched out a design for a subcompact
car and called it a Gremlin. The name stuck,
and the car had a successful nine-year run
during the 1970s.
And the much beloved Jeep never
had a naming committee -- the story goes that
during World War II, it was known as a "general
purpose" vehicle or GP. When soldiers
talked about the vehicle, they slurred GP
into "Jeep," a name that's been
used ever since.
things go awry
Naming cars is an inherently conservative process, Meyers suggests. "The thing we always told ourselves was that it doesn't make much of a difference what you call it, but there can't be any negatives," he says.