Nissan bet on raking in profits with Leaf name

by Kae Inoue, Makiko Kitamura and Yuki Hagiwara


After Nissan Motor Co. tackled technical restrictions on its first electric car involving range, battery life and temperature fluctuations, it still had to come up with a name. Choosing Leaf wasn’t easy.

Before settling on names for new models, the carmaker consults lawyers in as many as 200 countries or territories, including the Canary Islands, to make sure candidates aren’t trademarked or considered offensive in local languages.

“It was a minor miracle that the name was cleared,” said Kozue Nakayama, Nissan’s head of brand management. “We go through a vetting process to avoid words that have negative connotations or links to sex and violence.”

When carmakers come up with a possible hit name, they often trademark it regardless of whether an applicable model is in the works. Nissan has spent more than ¥500 billion developing electric cars to compete with Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius and Honda Motor Co.’s Insight hybrids.

The Yokohama-based automaker also had to consider the more than 1,000 team members who have been involved in the project and wanted a say, according to Nakayama. At Nissan’s annual shareholders meeting in June, Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn was pressed to explain why no name had been announced yet.

“When you name a child, isn’t it often the case that in addition to the parents, the grandparents also weigh in?” Ghosn said at the meeting, according to Nakayama. “Please understand that there are so many of us with strong feelings.”

Names can also have unintended connotations. When Volkswagen AG called its first luxury car bearing the company’s brand Phaeton after the son of Helios, the Greek sun god, analysts pointed out that in mythology, the boy was killed for driving his father’s chariot too close to the Earth. The model subsequently failed to meet sales forecasts.

Nissan drew from its own “piggy bank” of names in rechristening its Qashqai sport utility vehicle Dualis for the Japan market, when the model went on sale in May 2007, Nakayama said. Qashqai, which refers to a tribe of people in Iran, can be mistaken for the question “Is it cash?” in Japanese and is difficult to pronounce, she said.

When Honda renamed the Fit compact for markets outside Japan in 2002, it decided on Jazz, which was originally trademarked in 1986 for possible use for a 50cc motorcycle, according to the company.

“Japanese model names have often been amusing to non-Japanese,” said Ashvin Chotai, managing director of Intelligence Automotive Asia, citing names such as Daihatsu Motor Co.’s Naked minicar, Mazda Motor Corp.’s Bongo Brawny van and Isuzu Motors Ltd.’s Big Horn sport utility vehicle.

Trademarks explain why many car names contain Xs, Zs and acronyms, as most everyday words are already reserved, Nissan’s Nakayama said.

The Leaf is powered by lithium-ion batteries and has a range of 160 km on a full charge. It will go on sale in Japan, Europe and the U.S. next year, according to Nissan. The carmaker expects at least 20,000 U.S. orders for the model by the time deliveries begin by the end of 2010.

“Nissan is staking its future on the Leaf, and its name must match up with consumers’ needs and their subconscious,” said Tatsuya Mizuno, director of Mizuno Credit Advisory in Tokyo.

In addition to Toyota and Honda’s hybrids, it will compete against General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Volt, which will debut by late 2010.

Stricter emissions regulations are spurring introductions of electric cars. Starting with 2012 models, California state law requires 3 percent of vehicles sold over a three-year period to be “zero-emission vehicles.”

Sometimes, top executives get directly involved in the naming process. That was the case with Toyota’s new Lexus LFA, a $375,000 “supercar” unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show last week.

LFA stands for the Lexus F-series Apex, with the F referring to the Fuji Speedway racetrack. That F was suggested by Toyota President Akio Toyoda, a racing fan, during his days as executive vice president, according to the company.

Suzuki Motor Corp. Chairman Osamu Suzuki played a role in naming the WagonR, the company’s first wagon-style vehicle, which was first sold in 1993 and ranked as Japan’s best-selling car last year. “R” is pronounced “AH-ru” in Japanese, which sounds like a word that can mean “We have.”

“Suzuki has sedans. We have sedans, but we now also have wagons, so I thought we could just call it WagonR,” Suzuki wrote in his 2009 autobiography.

Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture-based Suzuki now plans to enter the midsize sedan market in the U.S. with its Kizashi model. The name means “good omen,” which the company hopes the new challenge will be for Suzuki, spokesman Takuma Mizuyoshi said.

“Names don’t make or break a car’s success,” analyst Mizuno said. “But they can certainly symbolize a company’s risk-taking attitude.”

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