In automotive circles, the Cherokee name has a lot of history and brand equity.
For almost 20 years, Cherokee carried a certain rugged, functional swagger for Jeep, featuring a simple squarish design that grew old but never seemed dated.
When it was time for a new model in 2002, Jeep put the Cherokee name in storage, choosing to call its new Toledo-built vehicle the Liberty. Now as Jeep launches its next-generation SUV, the company is dusting off — and redefining — the Cherokee for North America.
The new Cherokee is more streamlined, more car-like, and much more focused on creature comforts and fuel economy. While it’s certainly not the Cherokee of old, Chrysler Group LLC executives have offered assurances the vehicle they'll officially unveil Wednesday at the New York Auto Show is still very much a Jeep, and one worthy of the Cherokee name.
But what’s really in a name? And how does a carmaker take a name from the past and apply it to an all-new new model?
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David Placek, the president of Lexicon Branding in Sausalito, Calif., said building that bridge is dependent on the story that Jeep tells.
“You have to ask yourself, what’s our message going forward here?” he said. “How do we link the future with the past of Cherokee and the image of what it stands for. That is the ultimate frame of reference they have to think about. If it’s just putting an old name on a new car, all they're doing is driving into the future looking through the rear view mirror.”
In that regard, Mr. Placek said the look and design of the vehicle matter less than the values for which the vehicle stood.
“If they can take those and say we’re pulling those values forward, yes it’s a different look, it’s different performance, it’s different materials, but those underlying values, that heritage is still there,” he said.
Mr. Placek, whose firm helped name the Subaru Outback and Forester and created the Scion brand for Toyota, isn't particularly fond of reviving old names for new cars, but said Cherokee has potential to work. Chrysler has reused other names from its past in recently years; its Dodge brand has brought back the Challenger, Charger, and Dart.
What cars are called can make a big difference in how consumers view them. Ford realized that a few years ago, admitting it had made a mistake dropping the Taurus name for its family car in favor of the Five Hundred. It quickly brought the Taurus name back.
One of history’s best examples of a poorly named car was the Edsel, which Ford introduced as a mid-level brand for the 1958 model year.
“It didn’t say anything particularly positive and didn't say anything cool, even in 1957 terms of cool,” said Jack Nerad, market analyst and executive editorial director at KBB.com.
The name wasn't the only thing that plagued the Edsel brand, which was gone by 1961, but it certainly didn't help.
Likewise, a bad car can be a poison pill for an otherwise good name. Ford’s Pinto and Mustang shared much by the way of name. But while the Mustang closes in on its 50-year anniversary, its a safe bet we'll never see another Ford Pinto.
“They have very different reputations not because of the name, but because of the car,” said Laurel Sutton, a founder and partner of Catchword Branding in California. “The Pinto wasn't a car that failed because the name was bad. It failed because they were terrible cars.”
Ms. Sutton said a good product name — automotive or otherwise — has to match up with the product, even when it's a made-up word. It also has to be appealing to the target audience. Sound easy? It's not.
“People are always astonished when we tell them how much work goes into it," she said. "Part of it is availability issues. As the world becomes more globally connected and there are more products for us to buy, it’s much, much harder to find a name that’s appropriate and matches up with the product that’s also available.”
Choosing and establishing a new name can be a long and expensive process. Some are done in house, others rely on consultants. Focus groups are often used. Chrysler isn't commenting on exactly how the company came to pick the Cherokee name, though it’s been clear for some time that the new SUV would be called either the Liberty or Cherokee. Officials said a year ago they weren't really considering anything else.
Between the two, Mr. Nerad thinks they made the right choice.
“I don’t know that Liberty resonated the way Chrysler executives hoped it would,” he said. “We at Kelley Blue Book expect the new Cherokee is going to do significantly better than the Liberty.”
Chrysler's expecting that, too. Jeep brand Chief Executive Mike Manley told The Blade in January the Cherokee is very important to the company's sales goals both in the United States and internationally.
“It has a huge role to play," he said. “It’s one we have to get absolutely right.”
Officials haven't given any sales projections, but they are hiring 1,100 new workers at the Toledo Assembly Complex to meet the expected demand. No specifications or pricing have been announced yet, though Chrysler did say the Cherokee should get 45 percent better fuel economy than the Liberty.
The company released that information along with a handful of photos last month, a move prompted by unofficial photos leaking on an automotive Web site.
Analysts say there's little risk for Jeep in bringing back the Cherokee name. The biggest danger of recycling a name of yore is bringing back the baggage comes went with it. In the case of Cherokee, there’s not much worry there.
“The previous Cherokees weren't the most wonderful of all vehicles ever made, but they were very successful for Jeep, carried the Jeep name well, and were successful as a sales product,” Mr. Nerad said.
Though there has been chatter — much of it online — that Jeep is doing itself a disservice and disgracing the legacy of the old Cherokee by putting the name on a vehicle so different from the original, analysts say that's not likely to hurt Jeep's sales.
“It’s something the majority of buyers will not consider, and I think those people who are saying that probably wouldn't consider this product anyway, no matter what the name was," Mr. Nerad said. Dirk DeYoung is on the board of directors of the North American XJ Association, a nationwide club for Jeep enthusiasts that centers on the Cherokee. Jeep’s code name for the Cherokee was XJ.
Over the years, Mr. DeYoung, who lives in Tennessee, has owned three Cherokees, including a 2001 Cherokee Anniversary Edition he uses for off-road trail runs.
Speaking for himself and not the group, Mr. DeYoung said it doesn’t bother him that Jeep is using the Cherokee name again — but he’s not about to rush out and buy one. “At first glance I'm not a big fan of the vehicle itself, but I haven't been a big fan of the Jeep brand since the Liberty came in anyway, with the exception of the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee,” he said.
Those two vehicles, he said, are the ones that continue the brand’s go-anywhere tradition. And while he understands that most buyers don’t take their four-wheel drives off the pavement, he does wonder what enthusiasts like him will turn to when the supply of original Cherokees dries up.
“I don’t know that [Jeep] would have expected 11 or 12 years after the demise of the XJ that there’s still be such a huge following and such aftermarket support for that particular vehicle,” he said. “As they start to take vehicles out of production, they need to look ahead 15 years [and ask] are there still going to be available vehicles for enthusiasts?”
To be fair, this will be the third Jeep Cherokee sold in the United States. From 1974 to 1983, the Jeep Cherokee was a full-size SUV.
Also, the recently discontinued Liberty was called the Cherokee outside of North America.
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