Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Peugeot maker PSA Group reached for the stars when conceiving the name of the newly merged company. The new corporate moniker, Stellantis—which recently became official—comes from the Latin word “stello,” which means, “to brighten with stars.” But any corporate rebranding exercise risks becoming a cosmic flop, at least initially, with made-up names often the subject of mocking ridicule.
The Stellantis moniker was met with plenty of snark. “Take 2 Stellantis and call me in the morning,” stated one Automotive News headline after the name was unveiled in July. (The merger was finalized on Jan. 16.)
"Stellantis? It sounds like an undersea Atlantis resort," quipped Rebecca Lindland, founder of auto-industry review site RebeccaDrives.com in an interview with Detroit radio station WWJ. Mondelēz International dealt with similar jokes when it rolled out the name in 2012 for the then-Kraft Foods global snack-company spinoff, which like Stellantis, also came from Latin inspiration; "Monde" evokes the Latin word for "world.”
But corporations would be wise to ignore the jokes and early criticism when rolling out new names and instead focus their attention on their internal goals rather than the reactions of external parties that aren’t stakeholders, according to corporate branding and communications experts. New names at the corporate level often follow mergers and acquisitions, as is the case with Stellantis, and can help employees and shareholders from the previously separate organizations unite.
Stellantis is “a bit of tongue twister but like a lot of other made up names, the world will get used to it—think Exxon, Mondelēz, etc. In a year it will seem perfectly normal to those who care,” said one ad agency executive who works on automotive brands.
Below, some factors companies should consider when coining new corporate names.
Keep brand names out of it
Plenty of big, multi-brand companies are named after their top brands, like Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and Facebook. But when given the chance to create a company name from scratch, it’s not a bad idea to ignore brand names. That is because if a single brand runs into a PR crisis, it risks tarnishing the entire company if they share a name. This is especially true in the modern era, when so much backlash plays out on social media.
Stellantis includes 14 brands, including Jeep, Ram, Dodge, Fiat, Chrysler, Alfa Romeo and PSA's brands such as Peugeot, Citroën, DS, Opel and Vauxhall.
For Stellantis, “whatever happens on any individual brand—whether it’s Jeep or Fiat—any potential negative impact or crisis will not impact as much the corporate brand and vice versa,” says Michael Fassnacht, former CEO of FCB Chicago, which had worked on Fiat Chrysler brands in recent years. “So if Stellantis gets into any issues it will not have any negative halo effect on all the individual car brands. It was the right approach … despite the snickering about the particularity of this name,” adds Fassnacht, who is currently the chief marketing officer for the City of Chicago and interim president and CEO of WorldBusinessChicago.
Signal a broader vision
“When you’ve got a lot of confidence in the sub brands you want to have the bigger corporate brand as a philosophy and unifier of the vision at the top,” says Molly Rowan Hamilton, strategy director at BrandOpus, an agency whose services include brand strategy and brand creation. When it comes to automobiles, people have specific loyalties that might even pre-date their own lives based on what their parents or grandparents chose to drive. “It’s really important to allow those brands to be self-sufficient,” she says.
Just ask Mike Mitchell. He was a spokesman for Kraft Foods when the snack business spun off as Mondelēz, and notes it can be challenging for a corporation to find a new name that’s unique, can be trademarked all over the place, and resonates. It took longer for the name to be understood in the U.S., where Kraft was already familiar, than it did internationally, where Mondelēz does the bulk of its business. There were apparently discussions whether to embrace one of the big brands as a corporate name. But something such as Oreo Inc. wouldn’t have served as an umbrella. “That’s another reason why you come up with a completely different name,” says Mitchell.
A new name can also help unify people who worked at various predecessor companies. At Mondelēz, those included Cadbury, Kraft and Nabisco. At Stellantis, there’s a mouthful of automotive brands with storied histories of their own.
Another reason to craft a new name from scratch is that it avoids suggesting that a single brand at a company is better than any other brand. Consumer tastes shift so rapidly that today’s hot brand could be tomorrow’s dud, so it does not make sense to tie a company to a single offering. Case in point: The previously named Fiat Chrysler used two brand names that are on the wane. Jeep and Ram are by far the automaker’s hottest U.S. brands.
“If they had chosen or conjoined any bit of Chrysler, Fiat or Peugeot, it could connote control, favoritism, power,” says Amy Cheronis, founding partner of The Scratch Collective, a communications firm. “By choosing something agnostic, Stellantis is not constrained by the past or tied to reputational risk of one car brand or another.”
Consider the audience
Changing a company name can be expensive, especially if the name is used in consumer-facing assets, like signs and ads. Kimberly Whitler, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, recalls her time at PetSmart when the retailer repositioned the brand “PetsMart” (which she described as pet version of Walmart) to “PetSmart” (helping pet parents become better pet parents). “This seemingly small brand shift required a new logo. A new logo meant that we had to change all of the signage in/on our over 1,000 stores. The cost was millions of dollars. Companies don’t change them unless it is really important to the business.”
Stellantis had to come up with a new corporate logo (above), but it’s doubtful the money spent will approach the kind of investment PetSmart had to make since the automaker will still lead its consumer marketing with individual brands, whereas Stellantis is more for employees, investors and others such as the media. Says Fassnacht: “I assume they will not invest true marketing dollars behind the Stellantis name—if they would do that, I would not recommend it.”
In a July press release, Fiat Chrysler credited Publicis Groupe for being involved in the name change. A U.S. representative for the holding company did not respond to a question about the details of its role. A reprentative for the automaker did not provide any more details beyond those in the press release.
Think far ahead
Right now, Stellantis is an automobile maker, and a massive one at that. But it is clearly looking beyond traditional cars and trucks. Here’s how the company defines its vision: “Stellantis is one of the world’s leading automakers and a mobility provider, guided by a clear vision: to offer freedom of movement with distinctive, affordable and reliable mobility solutions.”
“They’re very clearly trying to say ‘We’re going in a new direction,’” says Rowan Hamilton.
Stellantis isn’t the only automaker distancing its name from current modes of transportation. Kia Motors Corp.— which traces its roots back to bicycles—this month dropped Motors from its name as it emphasizes electric vehicles and new mobility.
When Google changed its corporate name to Alphabet in 2015, the company signaled broader ambitions, including that it was more than a search engine. (Today, the company operates in myriad industries, from its Nest smart home products to the recently acquired Fitbit wearable device brand.) But the new name kept a link to its search business, however subtle. “We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity's most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!” Google co-founder Larry Page wrote when announcing the change.
Companies should be careful not to eliminate their heritage altogether when changing names. WW International still includes wording such as “formerly Weight Watchers” or “Weight Watchers reimagined” in press materials more than a year after its corporate makeover.
“It’s a big mistake to just remove meaning without adding new meaning,” says Rowan Hamilton.