Copyright The Financial Times
The Ferrari Testarossa. Lamborghini Diablo. Ford Thunderbird. Chevrolet Corvette. The names tell you all you need to know about these cars: they make your pulse race. But, a century after Gottlieb Daimler named his new car marque after Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of his biggest customer, the motor industry is running out of ideas. “It’s becoming really difficult to pick really good names just because so many have been used,” says Phil Dykewicz, director of market research at General Motors Europe.
Anything remotely positive named after an animal, Greek god, mythical creature, sign of the zodiac, tree, town, planet or even aspirational job (think Dodge Diplomat, Nissan President, Austin Princess, Pontiac Executive or Chevrolet Celebrity) has already been tried. Even some of the less positive animals have made it, although not very successfully (the Volkswagen Rabbit and Mitsubishi Dingo, for example).
The problem is becoming acute in Europe and the US, where the number of models on sale has soared in the past two decades. As well as the problem of finding so many more names – there were 313 different car models on sale in the UK last year, up by a third in 10 years – rapid globalisation of the industry means the names also have to work in foreign languages and not breach trademarks elsewhere in the world.
“You can come up with a name that might be fine in the UK but by the time you have covered the rest of the European markets the chances are that someone, somewhere will have registered it,” says Paul Jee, a product marketing manager at Ford, who is about to leave to set up his own naming agency.
As a result, naming cars has become a very serious, and very expensive, business involving a lot of lawyers and made-up words. But there is still romance in the nomenclature of some of the smaller companies. Three years ago Ferrari named its Pounds 418,000 limited edition sports car the Enzo after the founder of the company, while his late son Dino also had a car named after him in the 1970s.
The Lotus Elise two-seater emerged when Romano Artioli, the millionaire owner of the British company, decided to name it after his granddaughter, who was born about the time the project was signed off. “To start with, we weren’t sure about it,” says Alastair Florance, group PR manager at Lotus. “But when we thought about it we decided it was cute and of course it began with an ‘e’, which is very very important, as all Lotus road cars start with an ‘e’.”
Lotus took full advantage of the name, with baby Elise, by then two and a half, standing in the driving seat of the car at the Frankfurt motor show in 1995 when the silk wraps were taken off.
Bigger manufacturers have moved beyond their founders’ names. The last time Ford, the world’s third-largest carmaker, tried this was in 1957 with the Ford Edsel, named after the son of founder Henry Ford. The car was the most dismal failure in the company’s history and became a case study on how not to design, build or name a vehicle. Ford may even have regretted its decision to reject the names suggested by American poet Marianne Moore, which included the Mongoose Civique and the Utopian Turtletop.
The idea of naming cars after places where senior executives have just been on holiday – as is the rumoured source of the Ford Granada – has also been consigned to history.
Jee says: “Where we are dealing with a car that it going to be sold in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of countries around the world, we need a more rigorous approach.”
When Jee was put in charge of finding a name for the Ford Mondeo saloon, currently Britain’s seventh-best-selling car, he turned to a specialist naming agency: “We had four 4-inch binders that charted all the work that had been done and the hundreds of thousands of dollars we spent,” he recalls.
“Mondeo”, like many recent car names, is made up, because there are so few words left unused that have positive connotations. It beat the runner-up, Lyrus, partly because Lyrus was close to a German sausage brand and partly because the Mondeo was planned as a “world car” to be sold globally, and the name was close to monde, French for “world”. The US division scrapped the name anyway, in favour of Contour.
Ford now saves money by generating names internally, and Jee can often be found browsing a dictionary. But the company still has to go through a tortuous legal process to ensure no one else owns the right to the name or similar sounding names; only 20-30 per cent of names survive the searches. Jee also has to persuade the European board, which frequently rejects names because it doesn’t like them, and get the personal approval of Jim Padilla, Ford’s president and chief operating officer.
The length of the process is linked to the importance of getting it right. Peter Pfeifer, manager of image and communication research at GM Europe, says a name can enhance the character of a car. “If it doesn’t match, you always have the feeling that the personality is not expressed properly.”
Other companies have similarly long-winded processes, yet big mistakes still get made, mostly because of sexual or scatological slang in foreign languages.
Steve Kitson, head of overseas PR for Hyundai in 1997, was instrumental in preventing the company naming its new small car the Atos in Britain. “As soon as I saw it I could imagine the headlines: ‘What a tosser this car is’,” he said. But to get the name changed took a lot of effort, as the management team in Ulsan, south-east Korea, didn’t understand the colloquialism. Eventually Kitson had a Korean translator provide a slang equivalent, so Britain now has the Atoz, based on the idea of “A to Z”, while the rest of Europe has the Atos.
When General Motors launched its Buick LaCrosse two years ago in the US, it had to rename the car Allure in Canada, because “lacrosse” is Quebec slang for masturbation. Bob Lutz, GM vice- chairman and a fluent French speaker, expressed surprise when he discovered the problem. “I thought I knew every expression existing in the French language for self-gratification, including the crudest ones known to man,” he said at the time.
Mitsubishi Motors has the same problem with its Pajero offroader, which sells as the Montero in Spanish-speaking countries and the US. Pajero literally means “straw dealer” but is also slang for masturbation.
Perhaps the most famous problematic name is the Nova, sold until the early 1990s as both a Vauxhall and a Chevrolet. Surprisingly it sold well in Spanish-speaking countries, despite “No va” translating as “doesn’t go”.
The Nissan Moco is unlikely to be successful anywhere that speaks Spanish. When the Japanese carmaker showed off its first entry to the minicar market, its small round green car prompted surprise from those who knew that “moco” means “snot” in Spanish.
But the Japanese, broadly speaking, appear to be happy to buy cars with foreign names that sound absurd in their native languages. The Daihatsu Naked, Mazda Bongo Friendee and Suzuki Joy Pop are never going to be sold in English-speaking countries. But the Honda Life Dunk almost sounds like a 1960s hippy van from California. Sadly, it won’t appear outside Japan.
The Nissan Cedric (apparently inspired by a medieval knight) was another unfortunate choice, with many blaming its name for its initial failure in export markets. “Its only serious problem was that it was given one of the most ridiculous names in the history of the motor car,” says one devoted owner on his web site.
There is an almost limitless supply of Japanese car names that sound odd in English. The Daihatsu Move Latte is described by one reviewer as having “the street cred of a shopping trolley” to go with its silly name, while the Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear and Honda That’s appear to have been picked at random.
“We do tend to have wacky names, I must admit,” says Takeshi Sumita, director of PR for Honda Europe. “They sound pretty exotic in Japan, but no one would dream of using them in Europe.”
China is starting to adopt English words for cars without clearly understanding them, too. Brilliance Jinbei, based in north-east China, calls its flagship minibus the Jinbei Haise Underservant. “The limitless business essence deduces your excellence,” runs its enigmatic advertising.
Perhaps the best example of linguistic misunderstanding is the tale surrounding the origin of the Starion for Mitsubishi’s mid-size saloon. The car came in the wake of the Colt, and the story goes that the US sales manager suggested Stallion, but it came back from Japan as Starion because of a Japanese mispronunciation. Mitsubishi executives have tried in the past to explain it as a deliberate combination of “Star” and “Orion”, but the company admits the truth is now lost in history.
There are other pitfalls apart from language. Mitsubishi prompted protests from British second world war veterans when it launched the Lancer Evolution Zero Fighter, named after Japan’s fearsome shipborne Zero fighters. Only a handful were sold in the UK, with the “Fighter” part of the name dropped – although the existence of 14 German owners’ clubs for the Triumph Spitfire suggests few there hold wartime grudges.
The easiest way for companies to avoid language difficulties is to use an alpha-numeric code, a system adopted by almost all of the premium carmakers, from BMW and Mercedes to Lexus and Jaguar. But there are problems even with the universal language of numbers.
First, there is little emotional appeal to a name such as the 5- Series, GS 430 or 407. Second, the numbering systems sometimes run out: what should Peugeot do in a decade’s time when the 409 is replaced? Move to 410, breaking its -0- style, or revert to 401? Third, and most difficult, the launch of new vehicles means some of the stricter numeric systems are running out, too. Peugeot has been forced to name its new small people carrier the 1007, breaking away from its neat series which ran 107, 207, 307 and so on.
It has also had to insist that people call it the “one thousand and seven”, to avoid potential legal objections from the owners of the James Bond rights to 007.
“We were concerned that the dealers might go overboard with it and have stuff like ‘For your eyes only’ and James Bond lookalikes at the launch,” says Andrew Didlick, head of communications at Peugeot UK. “The legal advice was it could cause difficulties.”
Perhaps carmakers shouldn’t try so hard. The success of the Golf, for 30 years one of Europe’s best-selling cars, suggests that customers can get used to anything.
JAMES MACKINTOSH – The Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times