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Porsche Cayenne, Renault Twingo, Smart, Evonic: Manfred Gotta and his agency “Gotta Brands” have been developing brand name s for car models, consumer goods and companies for over 30 years. We talked to him about how he goes about creating product names, what challenges determine his work – and why Gotta and his son Julian currently want to win Elon Musk for a major communication project.

Interview: Gerrit Terstiege.

Whether product or brand name: Manfred Gotta has been developing iconic names for 30 years
Whether product or brand name: Manfred Gotta has been developing iconic names for 30 years. Photo: Julian Gotta

Mr Gotta, colours and fonts play a major role in branding. But the name of a product or a company can make the difference between success and failure. How do you go about developing a name?

So the most important thing is to listen to the customer and understand what he or she really wants. It’s just that some clients think a name should say things that can’t be achieved at all. That’s why we give a presentation at the beginning of a project to make sure that the cooperation works. Of course, also in the hope that the personal relationship will work. Because if you don’t like each other, that will show through in the course of a project. And that’s why we also do this talk where we actually lay out everything we know about names and then the second part deals with how we work. But it is important to find out what the client really wants. That can only be done through listening and empathy.

The model name you came up with, “Twingo”, for example, doesn’t mean anything at first. It could also be the name of a brand of bouncy balls. But it certainly has something playful and cheerful about it.

Yes, a lorry called Twingo would certainly be inconceivable.

In contrast, the model name Porsche “Cayenne” is not a word you made up; it is, of course, a pepper and therefore meaningful. So here you have deliberately chosen a term that evokes very specific associations.

Exactly. We always look very individually at what a car should radiate: Do the associations fit together? Can a name be misinterpreted? You never see a name in isolation, but always in connection with a product.

“The most important thing is to listen to the customer and understand what he or she really wants.”

— Manfred Gotta

You have developed a whole series of “household names” for the automotive industry, including the name “Smart”. How did this focus of your work for car models come about?

I’m simply a car maniac and maybe that’s where you get that little bit more feeling for the subject. Creating a name is a very special, personal process. I lock myself in with the car at the beginning. I lie in front of it, I sit in it, I smell it, I stroke the car. Many cars have human features – you’re dealing with a real personality. I always call it “the soul of the car” – a name has to fit it.

The breakthrough for Manfred Gotta: the name of the Opel Vectra A
The breakthrough for Manfred Gotta: the name of the Opel Vectra A. © FCA group

If I’m informed correctly, many names for cars or for companies are developed by large branding agencies. How do you get your assignments?

My name has been around since my first name development for Opel: “Vectra”. That was a resounding project.

Names usually have to work internationally – but there can be surprises. A famous example is a Rolls Royce that was to be called “Silver Mist”. That would certainly not have been an ideal name in German-speaking countries (because in German, “Mist” means “dung” or “crap”). How do you check the international suitability of a name?

We have specialists in almost every country. They are sent a concept and the name suggestions and then have to check them according to various criteria. Can the name be pronounced well? How well can it be remembered in the respective national language? Does it have a negative meaning? And how does it fit into the concept? We get that back and I think in the case of the name “Evonik” that we developed, there were 165 countries for which we had to carry out this check. 

Are there actually such things as trends in the naming of products?

Trends often lead to copying – which weakens the distinctive character. So you shouldn’t be too attached to trends.

What is actually more time–consuming: finding a name for a company or for a product?

Clearly, finding a name for a company is more complex. Simply because you have nothing tangible. If a product stands in front of you, it triggers certain feelings. But when you think of companies, in the end there is only the company vision and there it is of course more difficult to grasp that. A brand name doesn’t have to please everyone! There are things in life that you like and others that you don’t. That’s why we visualise names in the presentation, simply to eliminate misinterpretations.

“A brand name doesn’t have to please everyone! There are things in life that you like and others that you don’t. That’s why we visualise names simply to eliminate misinterpretations.”

— Manfred Gotta

The brand name "Evonik" comes from Gotta. Here: Evonik's headquarters in RellingHaus II, Essen-Südviertel
RellingHaus II, Essen-Südviertel. Photo: Wiki05. Published by Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

In other words, you have your name suggestions properly designed for the presentation? With a font that matches the respective corporate design?

Correct. Let’s take “Kelts” – the name for a non-alcoholic beer brand. If we had simply presented the word as it is, the discussion might have arisen as to what beer has to do with wine (“Keltern” meaning pressing wine). But when the name is on the label of a beer bottle, it becomes believable. A visualisation that is as realistic and close to everyday life as possible promotes the feeling among customers that the proposed name could be suitable. That we are on the right track.

Are there any current product names or company names that you find inappropriate?

I would have to think about that now. I’ve gotten out of the habit of making such criticisms. Established names have their history – and if they are successful, that’s okay. I’m of the opinion that you should only change a name if it’s comprehensible. So if Ruhrkohle AG no longer has anything to do with coal, then you have to find a new one, as we did with Evonik. Then everyone follows suit. Changing a name just for fashionable reasons is more destructive than helpful. In principle, you start from scratch with a new name. You have to make it known and gain trust. That is a lengthy process.

But there are also companies that don’t have a good reputation and try to whitewash themselves with a name change. Have you ever experienced such a case or turned down an order because you didn’t want to work for a certain company?

No, but I once turned down an order from Korea. There, old Opel models were to be sold under new names. I said: everyone can see that these are the old Opel models, it doesn’t make sense. They left in a huff. If you support such an action as a name developer, it reflects on you. So, it’s better to do without.

Let’s move on to your current “Project 42” for Tesla. At the moment, this is actually not yet ready to be announced. When I heard the name “Project 42”, I first thought of the novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: funnily enough, the number 42 is the answer to all the questions.

You thought right. But now I’ll hand it over to my son, who’s in charge of the project.

With pleasure. What exactly is it about?

Julian Gotta: We would like to win Elon Musk over for a special project that we have conceived. To inform him about our ideas in the first place, we had a comic made, with 42 elements, and a poster in A-0 format. We delivered that to Musk’s office in the Gigafabrik in Berlin.

Does the whole thing also have to do with name development?

Yes, that was the starting point: a name that stands for clean propulsion but is not generic or old-fashioned. And within two months of work, we developed a concept that runs through the entire Tesla corporate structure. We found a way to communicate the message of “electric-powered mobility” through a brand that is protectable.

And that fits Tesla specifically?

Exactly. And around that we then developed a complete communicative concept. The advantage of this story is that if Elon Musk accepts it, it will revolutionise the communication of renewable energies globally.

We can look forward to it. Thank you very much.

The smart Fortwo
The smart Fortwo. © Mercedes-Benz AG
The Porsche Cayenne
The Porsche Cayenne. © 2021 Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG.

About Manfred Gotta:

Visit Gotta Brands, the agency of Manfred Gotta and his son Julian Gotta.

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