Thinking up car names can be a difficult business
Car names can seem abstract but often say a lot about model and maker, Pyrah explains
Seat’s decision to let the public choose the name of its new seven-seat SUV could be deemed either commercial suicide or a masterstroke in social engagement.
Granted, the likelihood of Seat ending up with ‘Cupra McCupraface’ was nil; the Spanish car maker carefully corralled proposals from the public through a selection process that culminated with a vote for four possibles: Alboran, Aranda, Avila and Tarraco. Nevertheless, the naming exercise is a break from convention, something that is increasingly important when it comes to dreaming up new model names.
When a car company needs a name, it will often call on a branding expert such as Robert Pyrah, head of strategy at creative agency Brandwidth. While it might seem curious that a car firm would invite an outside party to christen its multimillion-pound baby, it is a legally complex and potentially fraught process that’s best handled by specialists.
“There’s a whole set of strategic considerations that come in,” says Pyrah. “A model name needs to appeal to the market space, to capture the essence of what the car is trying to do, but at the same time it must sit within the manufacturer’s corporate portfolio and perhaps a set of car naming conventions as well. And the other element is trademarking – is the name actually available?”
Traditionally, most manufacturers would favour consistency of naming. For example, Volkswagen would often name models after winds (Scirocco, Passat, Jetta), or Lamborghini would use the name of bulls. “There are historical heartlands where brands have tried to have product families, but they then try to stretch their portfolios,” says Pyrah. “Ford for years went with names beginning with F – Focus, Fusion, Fiesta – but then it has things like the Kuga and C-Max. Ford is trying to say: ‘Look, our core products are over here – these reliable-sounding, real words starting with F – and out here is a different name to signal a different kind of product’.”
The rise of model names based on invented words or adapted versions of existing ones is due to the dearth of real words that remain viable for use.
“In the mid-1990s, we hit peak trademark availability in terms of using real words,” says Pyrah. “Most real, emotional, fun, obvious words have gone. It has become harder to find natural-sounding words.”
The industry has adapted, but conventions run through market segments. Letters such as Q and K often denote ruggedness in the SUV sector (think Qashqai and Karoq), whereas E and I are common signifiers of electric and hybrid cars, which tend to have scientific- sounding names (Ioniq or Volt). “It only takes one company to stick its neck out in a particular style of vehicle and then everyone else starts doing it,” says Pyrah. “Nearly all SUVs have technical-sounding names. Graphically challenging letters like K and Q have become a convention. Also, changing the name [in this way] makes the word easier to trademark.”
As well as ensuring that the name is more emotionally resonant than one that a computer might generate, a brand expert will also ensure that the name works as well in Beijing as it does in Bayswater. In the past, there have been names that just haven’t translated well from one language or alphabet to another.
“You become aware of what works and what doesn’t,” says Pyrah. “For example, in the past we’ve looked at a name with a variation of ‘curve’ in it, but in some languages that is close to the word that means ‘prostitute’, so it just doesn’t work.”
And what of the future? With the trend towards ride sharing and autonomous vehicles, will people care what kind of vehicle they are in? “You’ll still interface with a brand, it is just a question of which one it is,” says Pyrah. “It could be the ride- sharing brand. This is probably why we’re seeing car firms inventing their own mobility companies, as VW has done with Moia. It wants to own that intermediary level.”
Pyrah admired Kia’s approach of putting disruptive punctuation into the middle of Pro_cee’d and Cee’d, even though the awkward convention was largely ignored and appears to have been dropped: “You’re always trying to do something different. With the likes of Kia, it is to some extent what their master brand gives them licence to – it is being different, because how else does Kia look to capture market share? It does so by being the cheeky, quirky brand and daring to do what its rivals won’t.”
How reductive can car companies dare to be as they seek to differentiate their products? Pyrah says he has toyed with ideas based on symbols such as the equals sign and even a Morse code-style dot-dash – names that would make that staple dinner party conversation about which car you drive rather interesting...
How to create a new car name:
RP: “Vauxhall [until recently] had models that ended in ‘A’, such as Meriva, Mokka, Vectra and Insignia. The Adam was [an attempt] to launch a car that for Vauxhall was quite different, to capture the market niche that Fiat 500 and others were owning. The name was a signal that it was trying something different.”
INVENT A WORD
RP: “I really like Verso as a name. Toyota has been quite good at stretching naming styles without breaking its conventions. Verso isn’t a real word, but it is close enough and it has enough meaning – it sounds versatile – so Toyota has been quite clever.”
RP: “The Quattro is a name from the past that I love and that really resonates, but it also helped Audi to elevate itself from the middle market. The name was different – it says ‘four’, stands for power and speed, and just sounds dynamic. It did wonders for the brand.”
PLAY TO YOUR HERITAGE
RP: “Renault always used to use numbers as model names, but it later went to French-sounding words, such as Zoe and Espace. I would imagine that in a crowded market, with plenty of rivals also using alphanumerics for their models, Renault decided to make a virtue of being French.”