Detroit News

Monday, December 27, 2004

Chrysler Razor
DaimlerChrysler AG

Though it paid to use it on a concept vehicle, Chrysler backed away from calling a whole model line Razor, a name another firm owns. Finding an apt name is a lengthy ordeal for carmakers.

What's in a name? For cars, everything

Automakers have learned to steer clear of legal snags, hidden meanings and matters of taste.

Buick LaCrosse
General Motors

The Buick LaCrosse name would have raised eyebrows in Quebec.

Names that might have been

What some iconic cars were almost called:


Considered: Corvair. Chevy wanted a "C" name, and 1,500 possibilities were reviewed. Corvair went on to fame as the subject of Ralph Nader's 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed."


Considered: Ranger, Pacer, Citation, Corsair, Ventura. The car was finally named for Henry Ford's only child.


Considered: Cougar, Bronco, Puma, Cheetah, Colt. Ford exec Lee Iacocca liked the image of wild horses.


Considered: Hep Cat, Beaver, Detroiter, El Tigre. According to legend, the Thunderbird's giant wings stirred the winds.

Chevrolet Malibu
General Motors

Chevrolet had to repurchase the Malibu name from another company.

Ford Fusion
Ford Motor Co.

Ford called this car Fusion when it couldn't get back the Futura name.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group knows all too well the legal and financial obstacles that can thwart the search for a cutting-edge car name.

Early this month, the Auburn Hills automaker had a clear front-runner in the moniker sweepstakes for the vehicle to replace its Dodge Neon compact sedan in 2006 -- the Dodge Razor.

But when Razor USA, a Cerritos, Calif.-based seller of foot-propelled scooters and mini street motorcycles, told Chrysler it would have to pay royally to use the Razor name, the nation's No. 3 automaker cooled on the idea.

"If they want to play that way, then we'll walk away," said Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines. "There are a kajillion other names out there."

The process of naming a vehicle is torturous but critical to a vehicle's success. Automakers must choose a name that evokes an image that will help boost sales, while making sure it is not offensive in any language and that it is actually available.

"You have to try to get a name that fits with the way you want to position the product," said Craig Bierley, product director at General Motors Corp.s GMC division. "You look at whether it's rugged or tough, or whether or not it's sophisticated."

Automakers have to go to great lengths to ensure that an ill-chosen name doesn't wreck a vehicle's chances before it ever gets started.

GM famously learned this lesson in the early 1980s with the introduction in Mexico and Spain of its Chevy Nova coupe. "No va" in Spanish means "won't go." When Ford sold its Caliente in Brazil, the company later found out the name was the local term for a prostitute.

Recently, when the world's largest automaker went to name the replacement for the Buick Regal and Century, it was more cautious. GM settled on an oh-so French moniker, LaCrosse, in hopes of conveying an air of sophistication about the sedan.

But what GM didn't initially realize is that in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, LaCrosse is a common slang term for masturbation. The LaCrosse now carries the name "Allure" in Canada.

Ford Motor Co. ran into its own handle hangup when it attempted to bring back two names from its past -- Futura and GT40. Since the original vehicles went out of production years ago, the names were scooped up by other companies. Ford backtracked, settling instead for Fusion and GT.

Companies or individuals who own rights to a name have blocked many a car name, fearing a mass-market vehicle would overshadow or dilute their brands. But if an automaker can show that the two names can coexist in the market without confusion, it can win permission to stamp a vehicle with the name, said Charles Rutherford, an intellectual property attorney with Detroit law firm Dykema Gossett PLLC.

Ford, for instance, could not secure the Futura name because it belongs to an automotive tire brand, which could conceivably be confused with a vehicle nameplate. But Ford may have been successful if Futura was, say, a cereal brand.

Chrysler's recent run-in with Razor USA may have also stemmed from the scooter maker's fear that consumers would confuse the car with its own products. Even though the company had licensed the Razor name to Chrysler for a concept vehicle at the 2002 Detroit auto show, it demanded a premium to put the name on a mass market vehicle, Vines said.

Katherine Mahoney, vice president of marketing for Razor USA, would not confirm that Razor and Chrysler were in talks, but hinted at what it would take for her company to share its name.

"We look at licensing a brand name in a strategic way," she said. "Therefore, any categories we consider would have to express and support our brand values.

"There would have to be some synergy in the relationship."

For now, Chrysler is back to searching for a new name for its Neon replacement, and the clock is ticking. The automaker is expected to debut a concept version at the Geneva, Switzerland, auto show in March.

Apart from conveying a certain image or attitude, a name can also send a subtle signal to consumers who may be looking for a vehicle that fits their political or social criteria.

"Hunter may be a good name for some people who like to hunt, but may be bad for animal activists," said Lincoln Merrihew, managing director of the automotive practice at Boston-based consultants Compete Inc.

Honda Motor Co. was especially astute in long ago choosing Civic as the name for its popular small car since the name implies buyers are doing their civic duty by selecting a fuel-efficient, reliable car, Merrihew said.

Steve Manning, managing director at San Francisco-based naming and branding firm Igor International, says the best names contain a degree of tension and multiple meanings, such as the Chrysler Crossfire.

"Tension is always more interesting," Manning said. "Crossfire works because it's exciting, a little edgy, and the danger of being caught in a crossfire is good. People buying sports cars like that faux sense of 'I'm a dangerous, risk-taking, 007 kinda guy.' "

The path to finding and settling on a name for a vehicle can take many months, said GM's Bierley. Many companies first test possible names on consumer focus groups, but GM has largely abandoned the practice.

"Our instincts are generally pretty good in terms of what fits," Bierley said.

At GM, a vehicle team that may include engineers, public relations, advertising and financial staffers will brainstorm for several hours, paring down suggested names to about a dozen. A lengthy legal search follows, which results in a list of candidates that are actually available.

If another company owns the name through copyright or trademark registration, it's off-limits. A name that has gone unused for three years or more, however, is fair game.

The product team makes its choice and presents the name to the division's general manager, who gives it thumbs-up or down. If it passes the general manager's muster, the name moves on to the desk of Mark LaNeve, GM's vice president of North America marketing and advertising, who gives it final approval. Higher executives are informed of the decision and can veto it if they wish.

Over the years, it's become more of a challenge to find just the right name.

"It's more difficult than 10, 15 years ago because of the proliferation of models," Bierley said. Once you use a name, you don't want to go back and use it again unless it's one of your 'heritage' names, like Impala."

GM had to actually repurchase the Malibu name when it decided to reintroduce the name in the late 1990s. The name was claimed by another company after the automaker discontinued the Malibu more than a decade ago.

Bierley recalls going home and poring over the index in a world atlas for three hours searching for new names. "I was just looking for something cool I hadn't thought of," he said.

Igor's Manning despairs that automakers aren't looking hard enough for effective names. With SUVs, for instance, they too often settle on outdoorsy, rugged choices.

"They're all exactly the same thing, saying the same thing to the same audience," said Manning. "It's just white noise."

The move to alphanumeric names can also be confusing to consumers.

"Look at Lexus SUVs," Compete's Merrihew said. "R is higher in the alphabet than L or G but the RX line is the least expensive, GX, the middle and LX is on top. They don't follow any natural deduction trends."

That doesn't mean alphanumerics are a mistake, since they can also help reinforce a brand's change of image. Cadillac, for instance, has replaced old names such as Seville and Deville with CTS, SRX, STS and DTS.

"What Cadillac is trying to do is being seen as the same as Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus that use an alphanumeric system," Manning said.

Sometimes automakers avoid trademark battles by creating their own names -- or hiring a company to coin them. When Suzuki needed a moniker for its new compact sedan, it turned to Namebase, a brand consulting agency. The name Forenza was chosen because it sounded vaguely Italian and suggested the sound of a revving engine.

After the LaCrosse faux pas, GM includes cross-checking a name's meaning in most major languages. But sometimes, names aren't even considered because, in any tongue, they simply could never translate the right image.

"If we named a pickup Ladybug," Bierley deadpanned, "that wouldn't work out."

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