Background / Challenge:
Samsung Group was founded over 50 years ago in Suwon, South Korea originally as a trading company specialized in fertilizers and sweeteners. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the business expanded into numerous industries and categories, including semiconductors and electronics.
In the early 1990s, Samsung’s Chairman Lee Kun-hee recognized the auto industry as a strong potential area for growth. Initially, Kun-hee tried to take control of Kia, but competition from other bidders led to him dropping the idea so plans moved ahead for Samsung to create its own car division that would enable the chaebol (conglomerate) to leverage resources and technologies from the entire group, including the Electrics & Electronics divisions. Samsung planned to market cars in the local Korean market as well as secondary markets in Latin America such as Mexico & Chile.
Jonathan Bell was a member of the Brand Strategy & Naming team that worked with Samsung and their in-house agency Cheil Communications on brand and naming strategy for the car business.
Rather than develop a car business from square one, Samsung partnered with Japan’s Nissan group with the intention of using its Maxima sedan platform as the first car in its line-up. Jonathan Bell and the brand strategy team traveled to Seoul numerous times to meet with Samsung leadership and understand the vision/strategy for the new car sub-brand.
We examined and dissected the different naming strategies deployed by other leading car companies. A critical binary decision had to be made: should Samsung adopt an alpha-numeric model system (like BMW and Mercedes-Benz) which would put stronger emphasis on the Samsung parent brand?, or should a sub-brand naming strategy be deployed that would enable each car to develop its own distinct personality (like Ford and others had done e.g. Fiesta, Explorer, Thunderbird). There were strong reasons to support both naming strategies. On the one hand, the alpha-numeric system would emphasize the Samsung corporate name and continue to build strength in the brand, on the other, did the Samsung brand have enough permission to extend and be a legitimate automaker to compete against entrenched competition?
Samsung asked us to not only consider and recommend which of these two naming strategies would be the strongest, but also create alpha-numeric naming systems as well as actual sub-brand name ideas. The naming project tasked us with considering as many as five vehicles in the future line-up.
For the alpha-numeric approaches, we looked at hundreds of options, one of which included abbreviating the Samsung name to ‘SM’ and adding a number and sometimes letter scheme to denote different sizes, classes and types of vehicles. For the sub-brand names, we looked at both non-linked brand names that were inspired from real words as well as invented, made up ideas. We also created name systems names that could link to one another as a family – either by association or through construction or style (as Ford had done with its SUV line-up where all the names start with the letter ‘E’, i.e. Explorer / Escape / Expedition).
Through careful analysis and consideration, we recommended an alpha naming system using the ‘SM’ initials that would underscore the Samsung corporate brand. The logic was clear: build one brand, in this case Samsung, rather than trying to create numerous brand names for cars across the line-up.
Interestingly, one of the name sets we presented to Samsung was astronomy related (Galaxy / Altair / Proxima / Polaris / Centauri). A decade after our project, Samsung adopted the name Galaxy for Samsung’s initial smartphone.
Launched in 1998, the Samsung SM5 sold over 100,000 units in its first two years. But, due to pressures from the Asian financial crisis in 1999, Samsung decided to sell its car division to Renault. The deal closed in 2000 and the brand became Renault Samsung Motors or RSM. The SM5 continued to be a high performer in Korea and parts of Africa and South America with almost 680,000 cars sold between 1998-2012.