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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Brands: cars as a microcosm 

Wired Cola was created as a branding exercise, and I still flatter myself that, along with the co-conspirators, I have a certain understanding of how to name a product.

Today, let's talk about car branding.

There are car model names that have persisted for a very, very long time. Chevrolet Corvette. Sixty years, and a consistent concept from 1955 to today: 2-door sports car. It's fairly easy, it seems, for prestige cars like the 'Vette (or a Mercedes S-Class) to keep their identities. For one thing, these cars, though usually profitable in their own right, are also kept around in hopes their cachet will also reflect well the rest of the marque. The history and reputation of these models is excellent, and they have a good focus.

The real action is in mainstream cars, the kind of vehicles that sell annually in the hundreds of thousands per model, and compete in categories (mid-sized sedans, for example) that have existed recognizably pretty much since the 1950s. Down here, cars are competing in a niche where they are built to a price, and where virtually every manufacturer has one or more products.

Despite the competition, some makers have managed to maintain a high reputation for certain of their cars in these classes. Honda has called its small and mid-size vehicles "Civic" and "Accord" pretty much since their introduction. Those are two brand names with both name recognition and a favorable reputation, and they have survived for years. Toyota's Corolla name has been around for about as long, though Camry seems to be a successor to the former Corona and Crown marques. Their Tercel became the Echo after a major redesign and direction shift a few years ago, and maybe that's for the best, since a lot of commentators thought the Echo ended up being a worse car than its predecessor (the Echo is known as the Yaris in Europe, and the Vitz in Japan; it also took Toyota a couple of years to start selling the hatchback Echo in North America. It's a far prettier car than the dumpy sedan version).

Mazda has had a sort-of consistent naming convention since the successor to the GLC became the 323. But in the last few years, they decided their mainstream models, formerly the 323, 626, and 929, would get actual names (Protege for the 323; the other names were even more forgettable) but they just reverted to a variation of the old convention: their cars are now simply the Mazda 3 and 6, and they have currently dropped their luxury sedan (for a while they actually had two slightly different luxury models, the Millenia and the 929) in this market.

The big German marques are semi-consistent. Both Mercedes and BMW have settled into consistent and generic car name conventions, based on letters for Mercedes and numbers for BMW. Both brands' cars encode their engine size and other notable details in their nomenclature (e.g. "330td": BMW 3-series car, 3.0 litre engine, turbo diesel). Volkswagen changed its main hatchback model name from Rabbit to Golf in the 1980s, and hasn't changed a thing since, except when actually introducing new models (notably the bigger Passat and the even bigger Phaeton).

But for amazing wandering brand names, nothing can touch what the big 3 American-based brands have done with their mainstream North American models. I think the brand drift (if I may coin a phrase) has a lot to do with the fact that all three makers have spent time in the last few years trying to sell unlovable models.

Ford has had the least drift in some ways, if you just disregard their compact cars (Escort, Fiesta, Festiva, and the current, reasonably persistent Focus). The Taurus name has been borne by their mid-sized Accord competitor since the 1980s, when it was introduced as their first big front-wheel-drive car. The Crown Victoria name has graced their big rear-wheel-drive car for even longer, though that model seems to exist now primarily for fleet sales (it's commonly used for police cars, taxis, and full-sized rental cars). But this year they introduced a new mid-large model, the Five Hundred, which seems to be an uneasy attempt to replace both of the other cars. The name references Ford's history, specifically the Galaxie 500 of the 1960s. This fits with a slightly retro theme Ford has going right now in the styling of its GT and Mustang, both of which faithfully knock off their 1960s predecessors, though the Five Hundred itself is a styled in a generically contemporary fashion.

Chrysler has pretty much completely reinvented its mainstream sedans several times since the 1980s, when they introduced the K-cars, and each iteration seems to have had a new name, too. This year they brought out another all-new big sedan, and called it the 300. They've actually been using that name on slightly obscure models for several years, but now it's on this flagship model. For history-minded fans of the brand, that name conjures up some very big, very fast cars from the 50s and 60s, and they have even continued the concept of "letter cars", wherein the hottest (V8-powered) version has a letter appended to the name (300C this year: in the old nomenclature the particular letter was incremented each year, so next year's hot rod should be the 300D).

In a lot of ways, these branding exercises suggest just how unimportant the name is. There's still a Honda Accord because Honda wants you to think about the current car's lineage of decades of class-leading, reliable cars. The new Ford is the Five Hundred because Ford opted to add it to their existing model lineup, but wanted a name that reflected a long history of much-loved family sedans.

And then there's Chevrolet. What a mess. First of all, it must be said that most of Chevy's cars have been pretty lacklustre for quite a long time. Not that I'm in the market, but the last sedan I would have considered from Chevrolet was the rear wheel drive Impala SS, long gone from the lineup.

Second, Chevrolet has a mess of mid-sized cars right now. They have introduced new Cobalt and Malibu models to replace the boring old Cavalier and Impala, but they haven't cut the Cavalier or Impala yet. They also have a rather odd sort-of sports coupe called the Monte Carlo, but I think it's just a two-door Impala.

The churn of GM's mid-sized brand names is pretty amazing. The Cavalier name has been in the lineup since the early 80s, presumably because it has a good reputation for being really cheap, but after that it's pure chaos. Off the top of my head, here's a list of the model names that have graced a mid-sized Chevrolet sedan from the 1980s to the present: Corsica, Beretta, Lumina, Malibu, Impala. They have used some of those names more than once, the Impala name was (as mentioned above) recently used on a now-defunct full-sized rear-drive car, they got sued out of using Beretta by the firearms manufacturer, and the last two names are also echoes of brand names that have been used as far back as the 1960s. Indeed, the Malibu name has been used on many disparate cars for quite some time, though none of them are particularly famous.

Looking back, I see that I have been a lot harder on Chevrolet than Chrysler, despite similar numbers of names in recent years. But Chrysler's names have mostly changed when their car models underwent major transformations. Chevrolet has called the same basic platform Malibu, Lumina, and Impala, while also using the Lumina name on a minivan at the same time (?) and using the Impala name on a full-size car, and the car currently called the Malibu is a new model based on a new chassis, unrelated to the current Impala, which has a pretty straight succession to the car previously called the Lumina and Malibu. Confused? I think GM wants it that way.

I think that of all the brands out there, Volkswagen and Honda are doing the best job of consistent branding. It's sometimes hard to separate good branding from good products, though. BMW and Mercedes deliberately give their individual models generic names, probably figuring that the cachet of their marques is greater than that of any individual model.

If I ran the zoo, I would probably follow the Honda/Volkswagen model of model naming, but the hardest part is not so much finding a reasonable name (Golf? Accord? Jetta? Civic? Car names are forgettable, at best trying to suggest durability or speed) as building a car good enough that you want buyers to think next year's model is of the same lineage.

the best car naming out there may be by Lotus. Their car models from the 1960s to the present day: Europa, Excel, Elan, Esprit, Elise.

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