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Changing Car Names: Smudging The Past, Blurring The Future? Page 2

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When it's time to change

Sometimes, a wholesale name change is done out of desperation. Audi is the prime example of how name changes can help cure a damaged brand while also preventing looming nomenclature issues.

In the late 1980s, the brand's popular 5000S sedan was implicated in unsubstantiated unintended-acceleration claims, and it decimated sales. Twice the brand would change its names in the U.S.: the 5000S successor would become the 100/200 lineup, before it went to alphanumeric badging and became the Audi A6. Later, Audi would introduce the Q badge for crossovers, and the R badge for its luxury sportscars.

This year, Audi is outpacing its record sales from 2012--a far cry from 1990, when the brand considered leaving the U.S. market entirely.

J. David Placek is the founder of Lexicon Branding, which inserted the words BlackBerry, Swiffer, Pentium, OnStar, Dasani and Outback into popular culture. In his experience, problems like Audi's might only be solved with a name change--an "exceptional event," he says, as when a company "has had a series of major negative events...and the brand has lost most if not all credibility."

Placek adds one "if": "Only if the company or product line will undergo a significant rebirth. Putting a new name on an old dog will not change anything. It might make it worse."

Rebirth is likely why Cadillac's name changes have stuck. The GM division embarked on a similar change in 2000, when it switched its lineup of Sevilles and Eldorados over to alphanumeric designations--mostly. The compact ATS, mid-size CTS, and full-size XTS now coexist side by side with the big, blingy Escalade SUV--the only name that perhaps Cadillac could not afford to drop from its then-current lineup.

It hasn't been so easy over at Ford's Lincoln brand, which followed Cadillac's lead, with considerable angst but without the major investment in dramatic new products. Lincoln flipped the Zephyr into the MKZ, and the Continental into the MKS after toying with the idea of a "Mark S"-style nomenclature that attached the heritage "Mark" to all new vehicles. Unscathed by the swaps: the Navigator, Lincoln's Escalade competitor.

It's as murky at Acura, which shifted its lineup away from well-regarded names like Legend and Integra in favor of alphanumerics when, as executives have said, it became clear to product planners that customers knew the individual cars better than the brand itself.

"While this subject remains as a point of debate with some hardcore Acura fans and the news media," Acura spokesman Chuck Schifsky says, "the fact is we made this change to help us further differentiate the Acura brand and Acura vehicles from the Honda brand and Honda vehicles, which continues to use formal names for vehicles. We feel this strategy has been successful."

Those changes have been so controversial, it's almost blotted out the contribution made by Volvo. The Swedish company gave those automakers something of a blueprint in the early 1990s, when it broomed decades of confusing nameplates. From the ashes of the 850 GLT and the 240 DL, it started with a fresh slate of badges that now includes S60 and S80 sedans and XC60 and XC90 crossovers.

Placek says when it's done right, change like that can bring a new audience to a family of cars without destroying the equity built up over years, if not decades. And though it takes time to digest the change, alphanumeric names can set up a new hierarchy that can make sense--even if the badges themselves are essentially meaningless.

"The challenge is to get the alphanumerics right," he admits. "This takes more thought and more knowledge then most car manufactures think, and it shows. So many disasters out there...BMW does it right. Most others don't."

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