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Detroit News Article on Vehicle Naming

VehicleVoice managing partner and AutoPacific president George Peterson contributed to this Detroit News article on vehicle naming. Much of the discussion at this week’s Chicago Auto Show is about name changes around the industry.
A moniker can make a car, but there’s no secret formula
February 9, 2007: Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News
Changing names:
• Ford changed the names of Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego to Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. It also renamed the Freestyle the Taurus X.
• incoln moved to an alphabetical system, Zephyr became MKZ.
• Dodge is replacing the Stratus sedan with the Avenger.
• GM’s Pontiac division is replacing the Grand Prix with the Pontiac G8.
CHICAGO — Cars of the future are supposed to take center stage at auto shows, but it was names from days past that generated some of the biggest buzz in the Windy City this week.
Ford Motor Co.’s decision to revive the Taurus name and give it to its slow-selling Five Hundred sedan, announced this week at the Chicago Auto Show, had journalists, analysts and executives alike critiquing the strategy and wondering whether it would become the latest trend.
It’s not an idle question. Naming vehicles is a major undertaking, with automakers spending millions to cultivate and market each new moniker. The brand equity of mainstays like Civic, Camry and Taurus is valued far beyond that of any high-priced advertising blitz.
And with the U.S. auto market crowded with vastly more models than even a decade ago, finding the right name is more difficult — and more vital — than ever.
“Naming is a big, big deal,” said George Peterson, president of consulting firm AutoPacific Inc., a Tustin, Calif market research and product consulting firm. “You can always argue with the names they use. But you can’t beat a good name.”
Detroit’s Big Three automakers have been criticized for their habit of trying to launch new names to revive tarnished brands rather than sticking with the names and improving the vehicles.
“Even if the car has kind of run its course and started to wane, you’re better off investing in marketing the current product than coming up with a brand new name,” said Karl Brauer, editor in chief of Edmunds.com, an online auto shopping site.
Bringing back an old name is a compromise of sorts, offering several benefits over creating new monikers, notably eliminating the need to spend a fortune trying to create brand awareness.
Ford is hardly alone in this back-to-the-future strategy.
DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group hauled out its old Avenger name this year for the vehicle replacing its Dodge Stratus sedan.
General Motors Corp.’s Chevrolet resurrected the Malibu name in the late 1990s and Impala in 2000.
The Chevy Camaro and Dodge Charger were gone, but the Charger is back and Camaro is coming.
The allure of old names is growing as some automakers discover that alpha-numeric titles favored by luxury brands don’t work for everybody.
Those almost code-like names are meant to build recognition for the brand rather than the vehicles. And it can work. The mega-success of the 300 sedan put Chrysler back in the spotlight. And Cadillac’s STS, CTS and SRX, helped remake the brand’s image from old and worn to edgy and cool.
Other attempts have been disastrous, however. Honda Motor Co.’s Acura lost an estimated $1.5 billion in sales by renaming its Legend sedan the RL, Peterson said. “The joke was that RL stood for Ruined Legend.”
Reviving old names can backfire, too. If a name is good enough to resurrect, the argument goes, it probably shouldn’t have been buried in the first place.
“You can bring back names from the past,” Brauer said, “but unless the product is good, it’s going to be a short-lived run.”
While many companies tinker with names, Ford’s high-profile financial problems coupled with the Taurus’ iconic status made its move a major attention-grabber. Many at the auto show probed other automakers for hints of similar moves:
• Will Pontiac’s G8 rear-wheel-drive sedan get the Grand Prix name? (No)
• Does Toyota regret going with the xA, xB, xD naming system for its Scion brand? (Not at all)
• What do the folks at Chrysler think about bringing back old names? (Won’t say)
GM product czar Bob Lutz was peppered with name-related questions after the unveiling of the G8 Thursday. Critics have said Pontiac’s letter-number theme drains some of the feeling from a brand meant to trigger an emotional response in drivers.
GM is sticking with the strategy. When asked about Ford’s decision, Lutz said he would not comment on “bringing back a name that was killed for good reason.”
Other Ford rivals declined to speak on the record, while making it clear they thought the idea was misguided.
Ford, however, could very well be vindicated. Most analysts say the Taurus revival makes sense and dealers love the idea. So do drivers who became fans of the Taurus when it redefined the family sedan in the 1980s.
More than 80 percent of consumers recognize Taurus as a Ford product, compared to about 9 percent for the Five Hundred, according to research by Art Spinella of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore. “Ford did the right thing reviving the Taurus and Sable nameplates,” he wrote in a note about his study.
Just ask consumer Michael Wheatley of Bardstown, Ky.: “Smart move,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Very smart move.”

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