Citizen-Times, 12/2004

[Long since retired but still with opinions]

I name things for a living. Over 22 years, my colleagues and I have named hundreds of products and companies – from NationsBank to a paint color for an airline.

So I like to think I know a winning name when I see one. And losers, too.  I watch commercials, sometimes nodding with admiration, sometimes muttering, “How much did they pay for that dog?”

In the late 1980s and interviewer asked me to rate the names given to four new entry-level luxury cars – Acura (from Honda), Infiniti (from Nissan), Lexus (from Toyota) and sterling (from Britain’s Rover, which was a repackaged Acura).   I rated them, in order, Lexus (easy to pronounce and the middle X says “sex”), Acura (if they spend the money to teach us how to pronounce it, which they did), Infiniti (too many syllables) and, finally, Sterling.  This last one had nothing to recommend it.  Focus groups predictably said it was the most British.

So you see, I[m pretty good at predicting success,. Which brings me to Chevrolet’s new Cobalt, the new replacement for Cavalier.

I understand why they’re changing the name. General Motors can’t upgrade the Cavalier and set the price they want for it.  To do that they need to introduce an entirely new car.

But why Cobalt?  It violates almost every rule of good naming.  OK, it’s easy to pronounce.  But all words out of the dictionary come with baggage, and cobalt’s baggage is heavy.  The Cobalt Bomb, developed in the ‘50s, was never tested because it’s incredibly “dirty,” some say even capable of ending life on earth.

Like Sterling, there are hundreds of products named Cobalt – including an upscale boat and a car audio system.

My thumb was about to turn downward when a little light went on somewhere deep back there. I remembered a condominium developer who hired my partner in New York to evaluate names he was considering for new properties – Ice, —, Blue —  These are names designed to appeal to young, affluent buyers.  So is Cobalt.

I still don’t like it. , but oh my, am I not their target customer!