Zica-Zika Fiasco: How are cars named, anyway?

By Ashwini Gangal and Ashee Sharma , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing | February 04, 2016
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As Tata Motors gets back to the drawing board to come up with a counter plan for the Zica-Zika misfortune, we take a look at how cars ought to be named anyway.

When naming a brand, any brand, the team has a choice – pick a word that has a pre-existing, universal meaning (like say, Vistara, which means limitless expanse) or pick a word that's gibberish in the dictionary sense of things (like say, Pepsi, which is essentially an amalgamation of two syllables), but grows to take on a systhesised meaning, over time.

Lionel Messi in Tata Motors MadeOfGreat ad

In the case of Tata Motors' to-be-launched hatchback, while the plan was to go with the latter kind of brand name, Zica, the word suddenly had a meaning, a devastating one. Acoustically similar and just a letter apart, Zika is the name of a dangerous virus, one that's surpassed the World Health Organisation's threshold for an 'international emergency'.

Tata Motors' official statement, released on February 2, on the matter, reads: 'Tata Motors today announced that it has decided to rename its soon-to-be launched hatchback. The car's acronym was"ZICA", derived from "ZippyCar". Empathising with the hardships being caused by the recent "Zika" virus outbreak across many countries, Tata Motors, as a socially responsible company, has decided to re-brand the car...'

Lionel Messi is the global brand ambassador for Tata Motors

The car is being showcased publicly for the first time at the (ongoing) Auto Expo 2016, in New Delhi.

The statement goes on: 'While it carries the 'Zica' label for the duration of the event, the new name will be announced after a few weeks, ensuring all necessary consumer/branding and regulatory aspects are addressed, and the launch will take place thereafter.'

Screenshot of Tata Motors' web page for Zica

Branding and design expert Sujata Keshavan says, "It's just coincidental. The timing is very unfortunate. When you think of naming a brand, the first thing you do is test it for gross negatives. You check whether there are any negative feelings or perceptions around it. You start of on the defensive." Her firm Ray+Keshavan worked on naming airline brand Vistara, over a year back.

Though Tata Motors has decided to re-name the car, the future, for the name 'Zica', from where Keshavan's standing, is not that bleak, after all. "I think they should just go ahead. Fortunately, the spelling is different (Zica and Zika). And the virus story will die out after some time," she says, adding about the brand's impending communication, "They could communicate the fact that Zica stands for 'Zippy Car' and emphasise on how they got that name. They have to decide what are they going to say when questioned. They can also convey it in a funny way. It all depends on how they position it; they can make it peppy and trendy."

As Tata Motors gets busy with its re-branding process, an expensive one, no doubt, we take a look at how cars ought to be named anyway. Popular trends, as Wiki reports, are: names of founders (Ferrari, Ford, Lamborghini, Porsche, Honda, Rolls-Royce, Renault), animals (Jaguar, Cobra, Viper, Mustang) and places (Montreal, Tucson, Malibu, Ibiza, Monterey, New Yorker, Murano, Cambridge).

Some famous fiascos include Nissan Homy Super Long (the 'm' in 'Homy' looks an awful lot like the letters 'r' and 'n' fused together), Mazda Titan Dump (to 'take a dump' is urban slang for defecating), Ford Probe (reminds one of an invasive medical procedure), Ford Escort (ahem!) and Daihatsu Naked (self explanatory).

Earlier this week, Peter Wilkinson, senior producer, CNN Digital, wrote about Mercedes, in his article titled 'Virus, genitalia, prostitute: Car names with unfortunate meanings', "The German automaker's van has never entirely overcome the alarming effect its name had on the population of Sweden when it was launched in 1996. 'Vito' translates as... female genitalia... Honda was also on the verge of calling its city car the 'Fitta' in 2001, before it realised what the word meant (it has similar anatomical connotations) in Swedish and Norwegian. It was eventually launched as the 'Fit' in those markets, and as 'Jazz' elsewhere."

In his piece, he also talks about why brands like Chevrolet Nova, Mitsubishi Pajero, Mazda LaPuta and Nissan Moco faced problems in various markets because of what the names meant in the local languages in question.

Anthony Jackson, freelance automotive journalist and corporate recruiter, in a (2015) post on Quora.com, says, "The naming of cars is much the same as any other product you would care to buy and a lot of times is heavily influenced by the market in which they are (or are going to be sold). Some names are very market specific, some more worldly and some just plain made up... The nomenclature of the 'big four' (in the '60s and '70s) is a good example of this in its purest form. Mustang, Challenger, Charger, Thunderbird, Impala and Corvette, all generate a sense of power and dynamism closely related to the image of the car they are building."

By the way, 'Zaikaa' means flavour in Urdu, doesn't it?

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