Being Frank – What’s in a name?

Brent Graves
Brent Graves – President and CEO

Marketing and politics are considered dirty disciplines by many, but they can be used for positive results – well sometimes. However, what follows is my rant on how Marketing and its managers can become disconnected with product. This was sparked by reading about Cadillac’s new model naming philosophy (details further down) and sharing my candid thoughts with a friend who happens to be a strategic product planner at Toyota. He likely tires of my bombastic armchair quarterbacking of automotive decisions, but I can’t stop myself when I’ve got a smart guy on the inside to unload on. Here’s the meat of my rant:

“You’re right, it was an unfair characterization (calling Cadillac product planners “automotive flunkies”). But at the end of the day, the company size or complexity or culture or whatever doesn’t matter to the consumer facing something idiotic. What matters is that the product is right/well thought-out in the consumer’s eye. As with government bureaucrats who seem to forget what it’s like to be treated like a human when they go to work, it seems that many product people spend more time with spreadsheets than really thinking and remembering about how they interface with products.”

Like I said, a rant.

Being the pro that my friend is, he responded diplomatically. What stuck out to me in his response was this passage: “I tend to agree that the product typically strays from the consumer in proportion to how far we (product/brand managers) stray from actually using the product ourselves. I think the element of play, especially in product jobs, has been muted at best and eviscerated at worst.” Well, that’s depressing. I like to believe there are people at Ducati obsessed with developing sexy and fun motorcycles for themselves and me.

Let’s get back to where this started, Cadillac’s new naming philosophy. Cadillac’s new scheme uses numbers that first appear to be related to displacement or horsepower. But they are not. They are related to much less commonly understood torque. And, wait for it… are based off the torque output in newton-meters! No, Cadillac’s main market is not Germany or somewhere else that has an idea what newton-meters are. But Cadillac is a newcomer to the name confusion game. The current BMW 330i is named because it has a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine that BMW says delivers the performance of a 3.0 liter. And benefits from the legacy of those great 3.0 liter inline six engines. Traditionally the last two numbers in the BMW model name referred to the engine’s actual displacement. But now it refers to its virtual displacement. Furthermore, BMW also lays out odd model numbers (i.e. 3 series) for sedans (typically 4-doors) and even numbers for coupes (typically 2-doors). Nice. But in recent years BMW has twisted this by adding “4-door coupes” that are 4-door sedans with a coupe-like slope to the rear window. So you can buy a 4 series 4-door sedan that is basically the same as the 3-series 4-door, but you get to pay $4,000 more for the 4-series. And why not, 4 is higher than 3! And now Porsche’s first electric car the Taycan (how is that pronounced?) comes in a “turbo” version, but because it has only electric motors there is no turbocharger to be found in the car. However, the legendary 911 Turbo was turbocharged.

It appears that in the name (a pun?) of selling more units, some brands are leveraging the equity they have earned from years of well thought out models by creatively (or disingenuously if you’re so inclined) attaching those names to new models that are not what they once were. Don’t even get me going on the Mustang Mach E. Like appearances, names are not always connected to what’s within.

Not to imply that we are perfect here at Cane Creek. Back in 2014 we introduced a ground-breaking technology in the Inline shock. However, its design was not as robust as it could have been making it more susceptible to cavitation and stuck-downs. We took heat that was particularly hot on some rider forums. When we made the key improvements, the damage to our reputation had already been done. So when its replacement was being finalized in early 2017, we struggled with what to call it. It was basically all-new compared to the 2014 Inline, but it was still the same size and shape. So was it an “Inline” or not? Looking at it, one would say the new shock looked like an Inline. But we wanted to distance it from the Inline’s bad rap while acknowledging its clear lineage. We landed on Air IL with the “IL” referring to Inline. Not a great solution, but the best we could come up with at the time.