What’s in a Name? For Cars, a Mix of Art and Science

Posted January 11, 2018 5:51 p.m. EST

When Volkswagen developed a smallish SUV to meet the segment’s growing demand, it faced a challenge: The truck had no name.

A car’s name is crucial — it defines the car and can provoke an emotional response among consumers. It will be front and center on TV ads and billboards. Above all, a car’s name is brand equity, its very identity. A Mustang is a Mustang, with or without “Ford” in front of it. A Cherokee is a Cherokee, even if it’s always a Jeep.

VW sought the public’s input — a tricky proposition. Its unorthodox approach included a poll, which produced a stunning response. About 350,000 readers of the German magazine Auto Bild cast votes. Among the names on the ballot: Namib, Rockton, Samun and Nanuk.

The winner was Tiguan, a mélange of “tiger” and “iguana.”

Sexy? Perhaps not. But it stuck, and the Tiguan has stuck around. The Tiguan, which first went into production in 2007, has earned a redesign for 2018. And when a model doesn’t quite meet expectations, its replacement in the lineup often gets a new moniker: The Tiguan’s bigger, older sibling — the Touareg — has been replaced in the United States by the new Atlas.

Every year, automakers roll out a new crop of cars, trucks and SUVs. For 2018 alone, in addition to the Atlas, there are the Stinger (a sport sedan from Kia), the Velar (a new addition to the Range Rover lineup) and the Urus (a Lamborghini billed as the world’s fastest SUV).

“You try to create a language and a name that taps into the psychology and sells the product,” said Robert Pyrah, the head of strategy at the London-based creative agency Brandwidth. Pyrah is an outsider in the insider-intensive automotive industry, but his research, delivered to companies like Toyota, General Motors and Volkswagen, is crucial when it comes to naming — and selling — a vehicle.

“There’s a whole set of strategic considerations that come in,” he said. “It’s thinking how the brand should be positioned in the marketplace, identify the car’s essence.” Some clients have specific goals: “They’ll say, ‘We have a new SUV, we want the name to target 30-somethings with two children.'”

Pyrah and his team will come up with about 30 available names, then meet with the manufacturer’s marketing team and product planners to trim the list, which will be presented to senior management. The whole process can take a year or more.

One obstacle that branding experts in the car industry — and their clients — face is the dwindling number of names that are still free to be trademarked. That can lead to questions from the company’s leaders, Pyrah said.

“If you should present an uninvolved person on the board a list of names that are coinages, or made up, or futuristic, they’re going to go, ‘Well, why can’t I have Explorer?'” he said. Then there is the danger of an unintended meaning, even after careful vetting. In 2003, the Canadian division of General Motors was about to introduce a Buick model it had christened the LaCrosse. It became apparent shortly before launch that in Québécois youth culture, LaCrosse is slang for masturbation. The name was changed.

Mark Gillies, a spokesman for Volkswagen of America, said Volkswagen often announces a name in advance of the vehicle launch “to make sure that if there were objections, we’d know about it.”

Many manufacturers prefer following patterns they already have in place. Volkswagen will often name models after winds (Scirocco, Passat, Bora). Lamborghini uses the names of bulls. (The Urus is named after the ancestor of modern cattle.) Beyond the Mustang, Ford embraces the letter F: Flex, Focus, Fusion, Fiesta.

“It’s an evolution, from real things to animals to metaphors, to words that are slightly made up,” Pyrah said.

Because so many names are already taken, branding agencies will often try to push the envelope. Take the Nissan Qashqai, a crossover branded in the United States as the Rogue Sport. “It’s such a weird name, it flummoxed people at first,” Pyrah said. “Now it’s cool.” David Placek looks at branding through a different lens. Placek, who founded San Francisco-based Lexicon Branding in 1982 and has named products like Sonos, Swiffer, the Subaru Outback and the Rogue, believes a name should be “surprisingly familiar.”

“We’ve found that our minds are a little on the lazy side,” he said, “and they look for something familiar. Swiffer, for example, is intuitive, about swiping, sweeping, cleaning.”

Sound symbolism and letter structure are his company’s key precepts. When he worked with the electric-car startup Atieva, Placek said, the first sentence in his brief to the client was, “We can’t look or sound like a car.” Placek came up with Lucid, an adjective meant to convey intelligence that would also “sound” smooth and simple.

“The brand name is a vessel that carries ideas into the marketplace,” he said. “You want to tell people, ‘Hey, there’s a new idea here.'”

Pyrah, who lectures on the subject of branding at Oxford University, suggested that automotive naming was governed by convention. “Look at electric cars,” he said. “You’ve got to sound a bit futuristic, a bit green: Leaf, Volt, Bolt.”

Some carmakers — the Germans, in particular — opt to avoid the game by using alphanumeric names, like the BMW 328i and M5, the Mercedes-Benz GLA250, the Volvo S90. This can sometimes lead to confusion for Audi shoppers, who may struggle to keep straight the differences among the A3, the S3 and the RS3, or between the Q5 and the SQ5.

Placek said he tried to avoid what he called “alphabet soup.”

“There’s no memorability, and they’re hard to process,” he said. “BMW, IBM are exceptions.”

In those cases, the brand equity lies with BMW, not with “328i.” But, speaking of exceptions, for Porsche, while the brand name resonates, the number for one of its classics speaks for itself: 911.

When it comes to signing the deal on the showroom floor, however, the car name isn’t necessarily what pushes the buyer’s buttons.

“The product has to be king,” Pyrah said. “At the end of the day, I tell clients that as long as the name isn’t bad, you can get away with most things.”