For car manufacturers, the most crucial period of a model's lifespan is the launch. Launch strategies were worth £35bn in the UK last year, according to Mintel. Among those hitting the showrooms soon include the Audi Q7, BMW 3 Series Touring, Fiat's Grande Punto, the Mercedes S Class, the Porsche Cayman S and the new Renault Clio.
With so many launches every year, ensuring differentiation is essential, and success can be attributed to one outwardly simple element: the name.
Getting the name right is one of the trickiest parts of bringing a car to market, according to Tom Blackett, deputy group chairman of Interbrand.
'There is something deeply personal about car names. The process of buying a car involves far more than just rational consideration of price and performance; it frequently incorporates complex issues that lie deep in the psyche of the prospective owner.'
As a branding expert paid to come up with impactful names for models, Blackett may not be the most impartial commentator. But there can be no doubt that making a mistake with a name - either because it does not fit with the brand's positioning, does not work linguistically or has not been trademarked properly - has proven to be costly.
The industry abounds with naming clangers that have not been researched properly. When General Motors launched the Buick LaCrosse in Canada in 2003, marketers had overlooked the fact that 'LaCrosse' was actually a slang word for masturbation among teenagers in French-speaking Quebec.
It pulled the name and had to think of another at the last minute - and at great expense.
With technology no longer a great differentiator - many car manufacturers share the same production lines, such as Volkswagen and Skoda - names are increasingly being used to make models stand out. For this reason, the number of car names in the market has increased considerably over the past 15 years, despite the number of independent car manufacturers decreasing, according to TNS.
'The choice of a model name is important, as it will affect the creativity of advertising agencies, awareness of the model and whether or not there is spontaneous and clear association in people's minds between the model and make, which will in turn have an impact on the strength of the umbrella brand,' says Remy Pothet, global head of TNS' automotive sector.
This is becoming ever truer in the current marketplace, which is now at its most competitive. Consumers today are less loyal to particular marques. They are better informed, more demanding in their product specification, more price-sensitive and holding on to their cars for longer.
'The increase in the number of models constructed by each manufacturer has created an even more competitive environment,' says Pothet. 'Manufacturers are forced to reinforce and sometimes reinvent brand positions.'
TNS research shows that consumers develop loyalties to brands with similar personalities to themselves. 'Defining a brand like a person with specific traits and values allows manufacturers to create a relationship based on emotions with the consumer. If a brand personality is well defined, a powerful connection is made,' explains Pothet.
The research indicates that manufacturers will not win customers with design or product features alone, if their brand image does not support it. So marketers must understand what drives consumer behaviour and position their launches accordingly, rather than flagging up functional needs such as fuel economy or engine power.
Naming strategies fall into two distinct groups: those that refer to cars by model number or letter, such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes; and those that create entirely new names. There has been a shift to the latter over recent years, with manufacturers such as Renault and Porsche ditching numbers for names.
One reason that names are proving popular, believes Ford marketing director Steve Hood, is that they provide a 'handle' for creating a personality.
Naming is not something Ford takes lightly, spending an average of nine months to a year choosing a name such as Ka - an ancient Egyptian symbol meaning 'life force'. 'We will always use names strategically,' says Hood.
'As Ford, we have to be careful. Names are big decisions with a lot of media investment.'
Ford's ambition is for its names to become shorthand for the category, with consumers referring to their requirements as, for example, a 'Fiesta-sized car'. 'Once you have that, it's so powerful, because consideration in people's minds is much higher,' says Hood.
Name changing can reinforce corporate objectives, as was the case with the launch of the Ford Focus in 1998, replacing the well-known Escort.
'Moving away from Escort was a big decision. We had to strike a really delicate balance. We had a position of strength with the Escort but we wanted to signal the change in our design, style, quality and performance level, so we chose the name Focus to break with the past,' says Hood.
Similarly, in 1995 Renault ditched the Renault 5 in favour of the name Clio. It had previously tried hard to create a personality around the car, running a campaign with the strapline 'What's yours called?', which encouraged buyers to give their Renault 5 a name themselves. The fact that it now pursues a name strategy suggests this campaign was not successful.
'There is no emotional attachment to a number. Renault used to have numbers for all its range. We felt people can't have an emotional attachment to all the numbers in the range - 19, 14, 21 ... It's just too much,' says Jeremy Townsend, brand manager for small cars at Renault UK.
For most manufacturers, managing a diverse portfolio is the biggest challenge.
'It used to be small, medium and big cars. Now there are all sorts of cars you can buy: five-door, three-door, estate, cabriolet, coupe. Different body work. It makes communications much more difficult,' says Townsend.
In carving up his ad budget, Townsend prioritises Renault's volume models and those that have a strong brand image in the hope this 'rubs off onto product we can't afford to put on TV'.
Heavyweight advertising is critical when launching a model. 'To establish a model as a serious contender, you need considerable spend to be up there with the big boys,' says Alistair Bryan, client services director at Archibald Ingall Stretton, whose clients include BMW and Skoda.
Mintel research supports Bryan's view. It concluded in its latest automotive report published in June that 'cars are classically highly vulnerable to prevailing economic cycles, advertising plays a key role in helping to stimulate consumer interest in them in the face of a raft of other consumer durables vying for share of consumer spend. In addition, the diversity of the UK car market in terms of price points and market positioning makes it all the more incumbent on car marketers to target specific, often niche, segments in terms of their above- and below-the-line communications strategies.'
Consumers are driving segmentation by demanding tailored models in the hope of buying a car that says something about their personality or social position.
Having worked on the Skoda account since 1999, Fallon's managing partner Karina Wilsher understands how the British obsession with social class affects the car-buying decision. When Fallon picked up the account, she witnessed children crying in showrooms because they didn't want to be picked up in a Skoda from school. Research revealed that 60% of consumers said they would never buy a Skoda.
As a measure of how the brand has turned these negative perceptions on their head to make Skoda synonymous with quirkiness and individuality, Wilsher cites the example of Toby Young, an influential journalist who writes for GQ and Vanity Fair, who now drives a Skoda. 'Our aim was for people to buy Skodas because of the badge, not in spite of it. It is now a badge that shows that you're happy to zig, while others zag,' she says.
In Wilsher's opinion, naming a car and creating a personality around it - rather than numbering the next model - is more risky because it is more subjective. 'People don't just buy a car for the engine size and metal. They're a badge and talking point. Class does come into it. They make a statement about who people are,' she adds.
Traditionally, buyers have progressed from the bottom of a range to the top, as they also progress in social standing and wealth. Arthur Parshotam, executive creative director at Draft, which holds the Saab account, believes that people who buy BMWs are 'always following the herd - if you have a 3 series, that tells people where you are at your stage in life - whereas Saab is more of an individual choice'.
BMW's marketing director in the UK, Uwe Ellinghaus, scoffs at this suggestion.
'I wish it were that easy. Then we could just ring the prestige bell and people would buy us,' he says. BMW believes consumers' attitude to status has changed significantly and marketers talk about a shift from 'outer' direction to 'inner' direction.
Ellinghaus explains: 'People today want to buy a certain car to reward themselves and to fit into their lifestyle and personality, not to show the neighbours they've made it. The major flaw of our competitors is they don't understand how middle- and upper-class people relate to status now; they feel their offers become premium if they just add the traditional cues of luxury such as wooden interiors and leather seats.'
While rivals may not appreciate the criticism, many would concede BMW knows what it is doing when it comes to marketing an aspirational brand, loaded with values that tap into the psyche of a prospective owner. Such personality in its cars has been developed without creating names for its models.
With media fragmentation that makes reaching consumers more difficult, and the plethora of car names making the market more cluttered, Ellinghaus is adamant that BMW will never switch to a naming system. He argues that the numbering system is clearer for consumers and makes an expanding brand portfolio easier to manage.
'Because the BMW brand is so incredibly strong, we see no need to give any of our cars a name or create any images around models which are different from the overall BMW brand. We have a suspicion that manufacturers using names to get a profile for the model do so because the parent brand is too weak and foggy to sell the car successfully. By creating names you dilute the overall brand and end up lost. So does the consumer.'
The strength of the BMW brand comes from its clinical, uncompromising approach. Despite requests from customers, BMW refuses to launch a multi-purpose car, believing this is too far from the 'ultimate' driving experience proposition. 'Family vans cry out "mum's taxi". That is not what the BMW brand is about,' says Ellinghaus.
Each communication is signed off against a master checklist. Rules include the fact that cars must never be shown in an artificial context, humans must only appear in the background and there must be no testimonials or celebrities.
'We don't need endorsers. It's only they who will gain from appearing in our ads,' says Ellinghaus. Such arrogance is palpable and very un-British, and Ellinghaus knows it. In fact, he relishes it. 'I know I sound damn arrogant but, to be honest, we are arrogant and that's part of our success.'
NEW MODELS - NAMING GAFFES
General Motors came up with the name Nova. Sadly, it translates as 'doesn't go' in Spanish-speaking countries. Vauxhall's range also includes a Nova model.
Mitsubishi changed the name Pajero in Spanish-speaking countries because it is a slang word meaning masturbator.
Toyota's MR2 is pronounced 'merde' in French, which translates as rather worse than rubbish.
Rolls Royce was forced to change the name of its Silver Mist model when launching in Germany, where it means manure.
Nissan chose the name Moco for one of its models - it means mucus in Spanish.
The Porsche 911 experienced a dip in sales after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US.
FACT FILE - BESTSELLING MODELS IN THE UK Rank Model Number Marketing spend sold (pounds) 1 Peugeot 206 4253 11,048,876 2 Ford Fiesta 4156 11,328,693 3 Mini 2770 3,977,946 4 Vauxhall Corsa 2442 10,874,669 5 Vauxhall Golf 2180 16,584,611 6 Ford Ka 1996 3,886,557 7 Toyota Yaris 1858 12,841,667 8 Honda Jazz 1787 25,543 9 Renault Clio 1772 7,090,147 10 Ford Focus 1643 23,905,013 Source: Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT)/Nielsen Media Research. Figures are for year to 31 July 2005.
This article was first published on Marketing