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What's In A Name?

automotive marketing, automotive brand managementI love marketing - it’s full of little mind games. Chevy’s reintroduction of the“Stingray” model name got us thinking about how OEMs come up with the names for different vehicle models. What kinds of considerations went into naming the Silverado, or Versa, or Camry? Why are luxury vehicles usually given names that resemble alphabet soup (like the IS300, 328i, or MDX)? It turns out there’s quite a bit of marketing research behind these decisions.

According to the Seattle Times, manufacturers create a perception of “high-end” products by establishing a number instead of a name. When Nissan, Toyota, and Honda launched their premium brands (Infiniti, Lexus, and Acura, respectively) in the late ‘80s, they unilaterally decided that they wanted consumers to focus on the brand and not the model. When people ask what you drive, you won’t say “I drive a 528i” - you’ll say “I drive a BMW.” This inspires loyalty and unity in the minds of customers.

Luxury cars had monikers once - take the Lincoln Continental or the Cadillac El Dorado, for example - but the trend has almost entirely faded. Lincoln and Cadillac have sprung for trendier, sleeker names such as the ATS and MKS. But why does the addition of a model number create an air of technical prowess?

In the States, part of this comes from the way that the military names their hardware. A large US defense budget has lent to the public the idea that the military drives technology, research, and development. Subconsciously, we’ve categorized premium military hardware by model numbers for years - the M16, the M1A1, the F22, the SR71, the A10, the B2. These names denote power and efficiency that meet the standards of our national defense. To capture the idea of “performance,” many companies have developed similar naming conventions for their civilian products.

Other technologies use variants of this marketing strategy too. High-end cameras have model names such as the Nikon D700 or the Canon 400D. The most expensive models are called by number, but cheaper versions are given names (CoolPix and Powershot). Marketers know that model names invoke the perception of quality.

I am fascinated with the way in which a small change to verbiage or color can completely change consumer perception of a product. Check out this comparison shot of fast food logos. How much research do you think goes into their design? It’s hard to look at that and say that these companies don’t have hard data showing that red and yellow don’t sell more. Maybe it reminds us of ketchup and mustard.

With a few nostalgic exceptions in retro models — the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Charger — carmakers don't seem to have plans to move back to old-fashioned naming conventions. Will you miss them?

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