The Name Game

Hello, PQR.  How is the family, SD 405?  Good to see you, Bill.

Now you tell us, which of these three is the easiest to remember and the most convenient to say?  Yes, after this simple experiment we suggest that naming your next child Bill (or Karen or Marv or Angelina) is a better choice than naming that child with a combination of capital letters (e.g., PQR, BVD or SOS) or a combination of capital letters and numbers (e.g. SD 405, I 95 or 7 UP).

While the convention of applying word-names to people has really taken hold over the past 4,000 years or so, many car companies have decided to eschew this practice when it comes to naming their new models.  Some think this is progress and makes cars easier to sell worldwide, but others suggest that it is another cloud in an already cloudy picture for automotive consumers, who have enough trouble trying to distinguish between all the vehicles on the market.  Kelley Blue Book says that as we speak there are some 250 individual models on the market in the United States.  To that m‚lange just add the further complication that many of them don't have conventional names but are identified by a series of letters, sometimes accompanied by numbers.

Take, for example, the venerated Cadillac brand.  It has decided to straddle the fence on this issue by offering the popular and easy-to-remember Escalade while also featuring the SRX, XLR and CTS.  The fact is the SRX is a terrific cross-over sport utility vehicle; the XLR is a well-received two-seat sports model and the CTS a fine mid-sized sedan.  But even Cadillac admits there is some confusion in the marketplace over its naming scheme. 

"They (the alpha names) can be difficult for consumers to remember," said Schryse Crawford-Williams, Cadillac marketing manager.  "It will be an educational experience for them.  It will take some time."

The question is, do consumers want to take the time or will confusion leave them frustrated?  And what about the most effective type of advertising, consumer word-of-mouth?  Will potential buyers hear good things about the SRX only to walk into the Cadillac dealer and ask to see the XLR or the SXZ or the TWA?

We only cite Cadillac because it is an obvious example, but the car industry is full of them.  Another perhaps even more obvious case is Acura, Honda's luxury division.  There was a time that Acura had a leadership position in the Japanese luxury segment on the strength of its Legend and Integra models.  In fact the Legend was the first icon of the segment.  But then competition entered the segment in the form of Lexus and Infiniti, both using alpha-numeric model designations, so Acura executives decided to adopt an alphabetic scheme to identify their vehicles.  Now, in place of the Legend, Acura offers the RL.  It's a truly fine car with many advanced features but no longer is it the segment's top dog.

Certainly ill-chosen names can create their own problems.  Witness the infamous Edsel or the much more recent Buick Lacrosse, which is Quebecois slang for self-gratification of a sexual nature.  And, too, choosing names for models implies those names necessarily have to be changed in other markets.

But it seems clear that in America the use of a well-crafted name can help a car achieve all the success it deserves.  Unless the letters have been cemented in the public mind for decades like, for example, BMW.

When working undercover Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley has occasionally adopted other names.  He writes on the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.