On September 30, the Fisker Automotive and Technology Group of Costa Mesa, California, announced a new corporate name and logo: Karma Automotive. The name reincarnates – sorry, couldn’t help myself – the name of Fisker’s only product, a plug-in hybrid that sold for more than $100,000 … when it sold at all. The model lasted only two years; just over 2,000 units were sold before production was suspended in November 2012. The company filed for bankruptcy and was eventually sold to a huge Chinese automotive-parts company, Wanxiang Group.
New logo. Application for trademark registration filed September 30, 2015.
Fisker Automotive had been named for its founder, the Danish car designer Henrik Fisker, who had previously worked for BMW and Ford and who resigned from Fisker Automative in March 2013 because of “disagreements with management.” At the time of his resignation, the New York Times noted that the Fisker Karma had received “mixed critical reviews” as well as “business setbacks and technical problems, including two recalls. In addition, the Karma’s federal fuel-economy ratings were disappointing and its all-electric range proved limited.”
That was then. This is … Karma.
“Renaming a failed company after its one car − which itself had a dubious record − is a strange move,” observed Alastair Charlton, a reporter for the International Business Times. “Either you can’t keep a good car down, or some people just don’t know when to quit,” marveled Jim Gorzelany in Forbes.
Inevitably, Karma’s chief marketing officer, James Taylor, took the rosiest possible view. In a press release, Taylor said the Karma name is “relevant” and “aspirational”:
“Karma is based on the principle of cause and effect, where your actions create your future,” Taylor explains. “This awareness of what we are doing and why we are doing it – which we characterize as acting with intention – is what we stand for, it’s authentic.”
Well … kinda.
“My karma ran over your dogma” bumper sticker. Via Zazzle.
Karma is a Sanskrit word that translates literally to “action” or “fate”; in Hinduism and Buddhism it signifies (per Collins English Dictionary) “the principle of retributive justice” or (per American Heritage Dictionary) “the totality of a person’s actions and conduct during successive incarnations.” Bad actions lead to reincarnation in a lower order of being; good actions lead to rebirth in the higher orders.
In other words, if in a past life (say, 2011) you manufactured an unpopular car, in the next life (say, 2015) you are unlikely to prosper.
Informally, here in the capitalist West, karma has a looser meaning: “aura” or “vibe.” But strictly speaking, lower-case karma is about cosmic justice, not happy endings.
Nevertheless, that grim reality hasn’t stopped some 460 companies from pursuing trademark protection for KARMA names.* Here’s a sampling of the filings in 2014 and 2015 alone:
KARMACRATIC (political party services)
CAMPAIGN KARMA (unrelated to the above; online community for political-campaign volunteers)
GREEPS THE GOOD KARMA (invitations in the form of fabric dolls)
KARMA AND LUCK (jewelry)
KARMA MAFIA (clothing)
SKIN KARMA (skincare products)
BUTTER KARMA (more skincare products)
KARMA AIR (inflatable cushions)
GRACE & KARMA (clothing)
PET KARMA (urine detection and removal)
KARMA SCORE (consumer product ratings)
KARMA CREW (online points system based on karmic good deeds)
KIMPTON KARMA (hotel incentive points)
BROOKLYN KARMA (clothing, shoes, and accessories)
CREDIT KARMA (free credit scores)
KARMA BLISS (clothing)
KARMA JUICE (energy bars and drinks)
DAILYKARMA (an app for charitable donations)
KARMA CAREERS (social networking)
KARMA CARMA (social networking)
KARMA GEAR (backpacks and bags)
KARMA KITTY (“interactive storytelling animals”)
JOHNNY KARMA (a reality TV series)
Not only that: Since 2006, “Karma” has consistently ranked among the top 1,000 names for baby girls in the U.S.
As for Karma the car company, it’s undeniably a more elegant-sounding name than “Fisker,” which has unfortunate echoes of “frisking,” “fisting,” and “fisking.” The company’s destiny, however, lies not in its name, or even its stars, but in its Chinese owners’ ability to propel it out of reverse gear.
* I get the same mixed signal from the several companies named Pandora, including the music-streaming service. They all ignore the meat of the myth, in which Pandora released evil and suffering into the world. Sure, she kept Hope in that jar of hers, but that’s not enough to build a brand on.