What’s in a name? Here’s a question without notice from the floor: How many different models of car are there on sale in the Australian market? (Not talking about model variants here – just Commodores, Camrys, Corollas, etc.)
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Take a moment to revise your first answer; it’s probably more than you think. The answer is … wait for it … 270 – not including utes and vans. The actual number at any time lately is within a bull’s roar of 270. It varies – models come and go all the time, and it also depends on precisely how you define what vehicles qualify as cars.

Anyway, despite what cars specifically are in or out, with 250+ ‘cars’ for consumers to choose from you can see how uphill the battle is for marketing managers in car companies. Competition is rife. Choice is something consumers are bombarded with. Often it’s overwhelming – as in, impossible or at least too hard to quantify the competitors, and then whittle them down to the right one. Once you take out the somewhat irrelevant (to the mainstream) cars like the Maybach and the La Joya – you’re still left with many more than 200 cars vying for the attention of a broad range of average buyers.

Here’s the thing: Your textbook-average car buyer usually doesn’t even think about cars. They own cars, sure, but they’re just not especially interested in them (which explains why there are plenty of people on their fifth Corolla). Cars don’t blip on an average car buyer’s radar unless there is money in a bank account with ‘car’ written on it, ready to spend. Most people are blind, or at least only partially aware, of car companies’ attempts to be noticed (a.k.a. ‘marketing’) unless they are actually in the market and actively looking for a new car now.

When the money is there, allocated, for an average non-enthusiast car buyer it’s very much like going to Bing Lee in search of a 42-inch flat-screen TV. You think it’s going to be easy. After all, you need a TV; Bing Lee sells them. How hard can it be? Then you get there, and you’re confronted by a virtual infinity of choice. There will be, like, 35 of the damn things up on the wall. All, apparently, identical. At least so it would appear.

It’s the same, only worse, with cars – because at least at Bing Lee they’re all under the one roof. There are nearly three dozen notionally acceptable small cars on the market, and most people wouldn’t go to more than four dealerships to sample the wares. Just placing awareness of one particular car in the mind of a suitably receptive potential buyer costs millions. For example, a relatively large car company might sell 100,000 cars this year. Its marketing budget might be something like $50 million. This means $500 on the price paid for every car sold is for the marketing to get the deal across the line, broadly.

This ‘Bing Lee factor’ with cars plays to one of CarAdvice’s core roles – to help intending buyers cut through the tsunami of choice and into a rational short list of the most suitable cars – which, obviously varies from buyer to buyer. It’s something we grapple with every day.

Of course, names can help perception and recognition immeasurably. ‘Commodore’ is obviously the most popular car in the market. It’s also one of the most widely recognised. Maybe the one begets the other. The name itself is largely irrelevant, given that an actual commodore is likely to be the old fart who terminates your membership at the yacht club if you play up once too often. Same with ‘Falcon’ (a bird that eats rodents and lizards), and ‘Corolla’ and ‘Camry’, which have no real-world relevance to most people (although 'corolla' is a noun steeped in botany).

It’s interesting that although those two last names are either made-up or chronically obscure it doesn’t seem to matter. One of them – Corolla – is the best-selling nameplate on Earth despite really being about flower petals, collectively. So success is obviously not dependent on taxonomic roots in the real or mainstream worlds. (Marketing props don’t matter either – Toyota established its dominance in the Australian market using ‘oh what a feeling’ backed up by a rubber chook.)

Still, some of the old names are the best, at least in my view. Mustang – the wild horse. Perfect. And Bel-Air – who hasn’t wanted an address there? Stingray – another ace name, given the then trend-shattering shape of the car and prevailing styling at the time of its release.

There are interesting trends in names, these days. Alphanumeric codes are becoming increasingly popular. Ze Chermans have adopted these, together with Peugeot, Volvo and Mazda. Hyundai appears to be halfway through a transition to a similarly alphanumeric range. This approach can be something of a hurdle to buyers when it comes to appreciating individual models, however. After all, the A3, M3, C 63, 308 CC, C30 and i30 sound pretty similar to the uninitiated, yet each issues from a different manufacturer, yielding a collection knee-deep in taxonomic onomatopoeia and yet spanning the gulf from $20k to more than $150k. With alphanumeric codes, it all hangs off the brand. That’s what gets you to the dealership; after that a salesman has to steer you through the maze. You have to want, say, a BMW and then have a salesman tell you which one of the several hundred permutations of numbers and letters suits you best. (Or at least you need the capacity to do some heavy-duty, diligent research.)

Animals and the animal kingdom were once a popular font for car names but are now a dwindling subset – the Spider, Falcon, Tiburon, Yeti, Colt, Cayman, Jumbuck, Beetle and Flying Spur (if you count animal parts) linger in the market today. In fact, ‘sloth’, ‘earthworm’, ‘slug’, ‘cockroach’, ‘slater’, ‘jackal’, ‘buzzard’ and ‘hyena’ are all still sitting on a shelf somewhere patiently awaiting their turn on a fender; and the Chinese are coming so maybe hope for these automotive outcasts from the animal world remains.)

Even less popular are names relating to people and vocations – Commodore, Picasso and Cooper being some of the remaining few.

Place names have also almost dried up. Perhaps geography can’t be counted on to sell cars on a global stage. The California and Santa Fe might not be too popular in dealerships in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Somalia or Syria…

Geography isn’t the least popular category for car names, however. A cursory inspection of the market yields only one car apparently named after a condiment – the Cayenne. (Also the capital of a former French colony.)

Good, old-fashioned emotive, descriptive names were a former core of the market, and still make a good case in the English-speaking OECD domain. The Golf, Lancer, Discovery, Focus, Grange, Legend, Forester, Defender, Outback, Typhoon and Wrangler all make a statement about what the car in question purports to be – even if perception and reality diverge in some cases. And having a name that actually starts telling you the message about what a car thinks it is has to be more than half of the battle in terms of mainstream recognition.

The remaining category, however, is the one that really worries me – the nouveaux, made-up, nonsense name. Or the highly obscure, irrelevant name. Both are very popular, lately. Frankly I find this makes about as much sense as Twitter (and, yeah, I have tweeted and enjoyed it – I just wonder why). This is the category responsible for the anorexia in the other categories above (although condiments were never especially mainstream even when all car names made sense, and animals whose principal dietary requirement is carrion and/or vermin are a perennially hard sell).

Here’s the acid test of whether those marketing dollars are working. Can you picture the following cars in your head? Do you know, instantly, who makes them? Say the names fast.

These are just edited highlights of the ‘nonsense name’ category. See how many you know: Mito, Epica, Evora, Tiida, Satria, Stavic, Brera, Captiva, Panamera, Murano, Fluence, Berlingo, Elantra, Grandis, Koleos, Kyron, Kluger, Exiga, Avensis and Tiguan. Can you picture each car right away? Do you know every badge? Are those marketing megabucks doing their job on you?

How did you go, out of 20? Of course, if you’re a car nut or industry insider, you pretty much get 20 out of 20 here. That’s a given. But ask your spouse or non-car-addicted workmates. See how well car model recognition permeates the market. That’s a marketing opportunity right there – provided you can figure out how to crack the code for ordinary mortals.