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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 of engineering."

Focus 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.

"It's 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 Takahashi.

"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 customers.

"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.

When 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.

-- Posted: Aug. 2, 2007
 
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