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A Marque of Luxury--the Utopian Turtletop : Autos: Coming up with a car name isn't as easy as you might guess. What does 'Inferno' make you think of?

April 26, 1993|From Associated Press

DETROIT — Marianne Moore was among the top poets in the United States when Ford Motor Co. asked her to help pick a name for its super-secret experimental car.

Honored, she used her vast knowledge of language to match names to colored sketches of cars Ford sent her to review.

Her favorite was Silver Sword, the name of a mountain weed. She also offered Resilient Bullet, Andante con Moto, Varsity Stroke and Utopian Turtletop.

Ford rejected her--and 6,000 other--suggestions. Against the recommendations of marketing experts, Ford decided to call the new car the Edsel after a son of founder Henry Ford. The car flopped, and the name became synonymous with automotive futility.

"The car didn't fail because it was called the Edsel, but I'm sure it didn't help either," said Ira Bachrach, president of Name Lab Inc., a San Francisco consulting firm that helps Ford and other auto makers pick car names.

The Edsel gaffe occurred nearly four decades ago, but Ford product planners can easily recall it as they christen new vehicles. The name game in the car business hasn't gotten any easier.

"It sounds simple--just pick a name and use it," said Bruce Gordon, marketing plans manager for Ford's Explorer sport utility vehicle and Ranger compact pickup. "Usually it isn't."

Ford's newest name entree will be revealed at the May 13 annual shareholders meeting, when the company announces the North American Ford and Mercury versions of its "world car," which has already debuted in Europe as the Mondeo.

Gordon said that before Villager was picked as the name for Mercury's new minivan, the name Columbia was a finalist. Mercury liked it because of the symbolism of the space shuttle.

It was scrapped when consumer research suggested a link with drugs, as in Colombia's cocaine trade.

"That's the kind of association you want to flag before you get too far into the process," Gordon said.

What's in a name is a time-consuming and expensive question. Selecting, researching and legally claiming a name for a new vehicle can cost as much as $200,000, auto executives say.

Picking a name, called a marque, usually starts with the people most intimately involved with the vehicle: the designers, engineers and product planners. A company's advertising agency usually adds a few names to the list. An outside consultant such as Name Lab is often retained to add others, including some generated by computer--nonsensical words called neologisms.

Executives, advertising strategists and assorted others meet to make the first cuts--paring a typical list of a hundred or more names to 10 or 20.

Consumer research, usually conducted in shopping malls, comes next. Surveyors try to pick people the demographers say are likely to want the new car. A key question: What does the name make you think of?

The next person quizzed is told the same things about the vehicle but given another name to ponder. And on and on.

"There are very few situations where you can get people to check a box on the piece of paper," said Oldsmobile market research manager Doug Schumacker. "There's almost always some texture to the response."

Survey feedback is compared with anecdotal and previous survey research about other models in the same segment. That process drops more names from the list, usually leaving about half a dozen.

Legal research on the rest--a specialty of companies such as Name Lab--begins with checking trademarks to see if anyone else already owns the name. Bachrach says most names show up as belonging to someone else, but this is important only if that someone else is another car company.

"Trademark law says ownership of a marque in one category doesn't give you rights in another," he said.

There are four grades of trademark, ranging from least to most legally protected. Descriptive names, such as Diehard and Sugar Twin, are at the bottom. Fanciful names with no pre-existing meaning but created for a specific product, such as Yuban and Exxon, have the most protection.

Name challenges, while often heavily publicized, rarely stand.

In 1988, for example, Toyota's new Lexus luxury car division was sued by Lexis, the information retrieval service owned by Mead Data Central Inc. A federal court restrained Lexus from national advertising, saying it would dilute the effect of the Lexis name. An appeals court reversed the decision.

Last year, Nissan was challenged by Altima Systems Inc., a Concord, Calif., computer business that claimed it had the name Altima first. The two reached a confidential settlement. Altima the car is one of the year's hottest sellers.

"It is extremely difficult to find a name that is crisp, appropriate, not offensive and doesn't belong to someone else," said Earl Hesterberg, general manager of Nissan's American division.

A California auto security company's challenge of Chrysler Corp. over the name Viper was closer to a real fight. Directed Electronics Inc. owned a trademark for a line of auto security alarm systems before Dodge claimed it for its modern-day muscle car.

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