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North America :Name may not say it all for autos, but it can help

Friday, June 27, 2003
Changing monikers often boosts vehicle sales

By Ed Garsten / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- "I will not allow mere names to make distinctions for me," author Henry David Thoreau once declared.

That may be an apt philosophy on tranquil Walden Pond, but it doesn't quite work in the image-conscious world of hawking cars and trucks -- where a valuable brand name can play a large role in helping automakers keep longtime customers or target new buyers.

That's why the marketing philosophers and plotters at General Motors Corp. are keel-hauling some of the most recognizable -- but not necessarily most loved -- brand names.

Say goodbye to the Chevrolet Cavalier -- a name attached to the oldest small car on the market today -- starting in the 2005 model year. Its replacement will be called the Cobalt.

The Pontiac Grand Am is getting a face lift next year that includes an all-new moniker.

Cadillac's lineup is undergoing more name changes to avoid overshadowing the division's marque -- and to draw younger buyers turned off by the venerable Seville and Deville.

The CTS has already replaced the Catera. Now Seville will give way to the STS, the latest example of the division's move to a three-letter code.

Exceptions include vehicles in the Escalade family. They'll all carry the Escalade name, and high performance Cadillacs will belong to the V-series.

GM's top ad man says the name game is a key part of the company's desire to reinvent its passenger car lineup and build a new image with consumers. In many cases, a new name is adopted to underscore that a vehicle is all-new or dramatically enhanced.

"Either the product was different enough or, in the case of the Cavalier-to-Cobalt, we just wanted to reposition the product," said John Middlebrook, GM vice president of marketing and advertising.

For the Grand Am, "that one just feels right to have a new impression," said Middlebrook.

GM's latest shuffling act is not unusual in the auto industry.

Ford Motor Co. is dropping its long-successful Taurus, dubbing its replacement with a name borrowed from its archives -- the Futura. The Windstar minivan will become the Freestar.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group is bidding auf Wiedersehen to the names attached to its LH series: Intrepid and Concorde. Replacements haven't been announced.

To signal it had a more rugged full-size pickup in its lineup, Toyota Motor Corp. scrapped an alphanumeric designation -- T100 -- in favor of Tundra.

Other industries change brand names to reflect either a corporate restructuring or a change in product positioning or to simplify marketing.

In 1999, Nestle S.A. changed the name of its popular Quik chocolate milk powder to Nesquik to match the name the product had been sold under in Europe.

Entertainer Rosie O'Donnell changed the name of McCall's magazine to Rosie to leverage her fan base, but she folded it 20 months later in a dispute with the publisher over the direction of the magazine.

Indeed, simply plastering a new name on a product doesn't guarantee it will sell better, said Tim Robinson, managing director of CoreBrand, a brand marketing consulting agency based in Stamford, Conn.

"Changing the name by itself isn't going to do it," said Robinson. "Naming can do many things, but it can't fix a product that can't deliver."

One example: the late 1970's version of the Ford Mustang, which was briefly named the Mustang II.

"In part, because of the gas crisis, the Mustang was detuned and became almost an economy car," said Robinson. "It took Ford a while to turn that around to the sporty, powerful car for the younger generation that Mustang originally was."

Updating or replacing a product doesn't always mean the name will change.

The current Chevrolet Malibu is being replaced by an entirely new vehicle this year. It will have nothing in common with its predecessor, except its name.

"We looked at Malibu, and it was saying the right things and really didn't have any negatives," said GM's Middlebrook.

A more riskier gambit for GM may be attaching the venerable GTO name on a new muscle car based on an Australian-made vehicle.

"If you try to take the name and port it over to something new, it kind of leaves a question," said Robinson. "Are you simply trying to cash in on the old image?"

But GM's moves are all about cultivating new images and erasing old ones.

Earlier this month, the automaker launched a contrite advertising campaign admitting its products had quality problems in the past but that the company had made vast improvements in that area.

Together with its new naming strategy, GM may yet attain its goal of an image makeover, Robinson said, but only if consumers are convinced the name isn't the only thing that's changed.

Old name: Escort
New name: Focus
Why it changed: Ford desperately wanted to draw younger, more affluent buyers to its small car lineup and used an all-new name on an all-new model to convince buyers it was a radically new and more polished product.

Old name: Mazda 626
New name: Mazda6
Why it changed: Mazda wanted a simpler name that underscored its performance heritage for a new model that was substantially upgraded and designed to compete more successfully with the popular Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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