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

August 12, 2013
Would car buyers love the Lincoln MKS if it were more Continental?

Should the Acura RLX give in to ego and pronounce, "I Am Legend"?

Does an Infiniti G37 by any other name sound as sweet?

Car names aren't just clever or memorable. They're a critical piece of multi-million-dollar marketing strategies meant to influence the way you think about a car before you've ever driven it.

As such, new car names are decisions not taken lightly. When a name isn't resurrected or simply carried over, it can turn into an onomastic quest for the holy grail. Sometimes millions of dollars are spent, and dozens of names are generated, in the pursuit of one good one--a simple, non-copyrighted, inoffensive, catchy, short, numerologically favorable, pleasant-sounding noun or alphanumeric combination.

It's a difficult task, which is why changing car names can be doubly tough, and why car companies try not to rename whole brands or even models very often. It dislodges returning customers, costs millions in change-orders for everything from badging to stationery, and can evaporate good word of mouth. When it happens, it's due to dire circumstances, a need to reintroduce a nameplate to a new audience, or to weed out decades of illogical naming conventions.

As complex a task as it can be, renaming has taken place at least five automotive brands in the past generation--for all those reasons, and some unique ones.

It's happening this year at Infiniti, where the company hopes to fix some mission creep in its badging while it underscores an expansion in its lineup. At the same time, it's having to divorce itself from its best-selling nameplate in its history.

Does changing car names smudge the past, or does it blur the future? Do name changes give car companies the chance to forge new identities--or does it just kill good ones?

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."

Ben Poore, Infiniti, 2013 Detroit Auto Show

Ben Poore, Infiniti, 2013 Detroit Auto Show

Infiniti changes names

The latest example of changing car names is Infiniti, which is hoping to reignite interest in its vehicles while it solves some longstanding issues with naming.

With the 2014 model year, nearly every Infiniti will receive a new alphanumeric badge beginning with either Q for sedans and coupes, or QX for crossovers and SUVS. There will be no more JX35, even though it was new for 2013; it's now on sale as the 2014 Infiniti QX60.

"We just couldn't continue on with our nomenclature," Infiniti vice president Ben Poore told The Car Connection earlier this year at the Detroit auto show.

Poore said the decision to change names was made before Johan de Nysschen became president of Infiniti in 2012. De Nysschen had been the head of Audi, where he had overseen the introduction of that company's Q-badged crossovers.

In the past, the naming system had used engine displacement as a suffix to model letters. The Infiniti G35 became the G37 over time, for example. Under the new system, the alphanumeric name will remain the same, though other badging will indicate powertrain, giving Infiniti shoppers a clear idea of how vehicles relate to each other within the brand, Poore explained.

It also leaves more room for logical expansion.

"We did it because we're going to expand the lineup, it's just that simple," he explained. But, Poore also suggested, it's a way to mask the downsizing of engine displacement coming in future cars, without implying any loss of performance.

"The key for me is, we have Infiniti first...we really want it to be clean," he explained, but added that individual models may have other designators such as "S" for sport models or "e" for efficient models, even electric cars.

The new names establish a hierarchy that had been missing from the Infiniti lineup, he continued. At the same time, it strips Infiniti of its best-selling nameplate, one that arguably has kept the division relevant as a resurgent Cadillac and resilient brands like Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi have continued to dominate U.S. luxury-car sales.

"It was a tough decision, particularly on G," Poore said, "but there is strong heritage with Q as well."

That's a point with which Lexicon's Placek readily agrees. Lexicon worked with Hill Holiday Advertising in the late 1980s to help pick the letter Q for the new brand's flagship sedan--and that sedan still resonates with car enthusiasts, nearly 25 years after its debut.

"Q was the right choice then and now," Placek says. "I think this will bring order to a chaotic system and bring a new level of sophistication to the line."

A hiccup or two

Renaming is fraught with millions of small tasks and sometimes it creates major problems of its own. It's a point both Poore and Placek readily admit. Finding a new name is difficult enough, according to Poore.

"There's almost nothing left in automotive," he said.

Once the new name is taken, everything from business cards to entire Web sites must be redeployed for the seemingly minor change. New catalogues are printed. New PowerPoints are drafted. For the single task of making sure car shoppers follow Infiniti from the G37 to the Q50, its agencies have embarked on a multi-year project to solve potential web-search problems that may never have been experienced by a car company on this scale. Simply put, when buyers search for the 2014 Infiniti JX35, there isn't one--and Infiniti's web sites must send those shoppers correctly to the new Infiniti QX60.

No matter how well-prepared it may have been, Infiniti's timing has not been perfect. The 2014 Infiniti Q50 is now on sale, but the G37 sedan still sells well--and it's still without the compact-car rival to the likes of the Mercedes CLA and upcoming Audi A3 sedan that it will need to compete.

As a result, Infiniti has retrenched on its massive renaming plan slightly. All its products have been renamed--but Infiniti will now continue production of the G37 sedan through the 2013-2015 model years. The G37 will be repackaged and repriced, and will remain in the lineup through the 2015 model year until Infiniti's new Q30 compact makes its debut--first as a compact concept car at the 2013 Frankfurt Auto Show, likely as a 2016 model in showrooms.

The last-minute hedge has created the unique situation of a brand almost--but not completely--converted over to new names. Infiniti will be selling competing cars alongside each other as awareness ramps up for the new Q50, though there will be a substantial difference in the sticker price.

Ultimately, it's the product, and not the names, that must win over new customers, Poore and Placek agree. Infiniti hopes its new Q50's exotic styling cues and steer-by-wire system will give its whole renaming strategy a very visible boost. It's a once in a generation chance to start the branding process all over again, more or less, for better or worse.

According to Poore, it was the only chance.

"If we didn't do it now, it was, forever hold our peace."


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