Auto brand similarity. They share the same Non-Brand
By Tom Dougherty
Ford, Pontiac, Chevy, Chrysler, Dodge, and Mercury all share the same bland brand. Sad isn’t it that the U.S. automotive industry, once the envy of the world, has begun to see itself relegated to also ran status. The truth of the matter is that all of these automakers simply make cars and the customer who purchases them sees no difference in them, regardless of the brand they buy.
This was not always the case. When my father was young, there was a difference in these brands. A man thought of himself as a FORD man, a CHEVY guy, or a CHRYSLER man and the very idea of buying a different brand seemed like a form of emotional suicide. And it was. Not because the actual automobile was any better or different but because the buyer saw themselves as different.
That was real brand definition and not the convoluted brand management that rules automakers today. They have come to confuse product and corporate identity with brand and, as a result, have left the customer’s self-description completely out of the equation.
The have come to believe that the automotive buyer is buying steel and leather (or molded plastic and vinyl as the case may be today) and not a brand at all. So, the automakers plow on, selling glitz, shiny paint, and automobile glamour shots and have left the self-description of the buyer out of the formula. (Read abut BMW here)
Cars Get Better—Brands Don’t
Here is the oddest fact of all. In a world of more and more disposable products and increasingly shoddy workmanship, cars are one of the few categories that, experience tells us, have actually improved. Owning a car that lasts a 100,000 miles 20 years ago was room for celebration. Today, it’s a matter of course.
Today there is a booming secondary market for cars with 80,000+ miles and the value in this market is still commanding big bucks. Twenty years ago, this used car was relegated to becoming a gift to a nephew who enjoyed working on cars under the shade tree rather than as a $10,000 sale.
Even more telling was the cost of maintenance. While we still need to change the oil, replace the brake pads and monitor fluids, the Precision Tunes of the world have had to find another raison d’etre. Too bad they have not re-created their brand because a tune up is a thing of the past, about as relevant to today’s car owner as the rumble seat. Cars are simply built better, are more reliable, and need less service today than just a few short years ago. The product differentiators are just not there.
Meaningless Tag Lines
Old trite ideas like “the quality goes in before the name goes on” or “the heartbeat of America” do not resonate anymore because they no longer identify the customer. Instead, they are about the manufacturer, making a claim that is today a table stake.
Is GM any more American than Ford? Is the VW that is built in the U.S. any less a part of the American heartbeat than a Dodge? Is anyone building poor quality? Hardly. There is room for real brand. The kind of self-identification that once separated the Ford owner from the Chevy owner is still viable.
However, that sort of brand will require leadership from the BIG 3, and brand management that looks far beyond the current structure. To understand the problem, all one need do is ride down an American highway to notice that every car on the road today, regardless of manufacturer, looks like a Honda.
The brands have become fat and lazy and, instead of real change, they place the blame of lower sales on the dealerships — the very system that the manufacturers themselves created. Choice, real choice, means that the customer should be able to choose differently and that difference must be a clear self-identification.
How Did This Happen?
Why are the Big 3 in such dire straights? Because they think they know what they are doing and, therefore, look for answers in the same places. The clues to brand are not found in the mind of myopic engineers or on the laptops of traditional automotive brand managers. The clues are to be found in the precepts of the target audience — the beliefs and yearnings of the very customers they need to engage.
Had these manufacturers developed products and brands based on the beliefs of their customers, they would not have been left holding the bag when the heady days of the SUV passed away. They would have led the revolution rather than reacted to it. “If you always do what you have always done you will always end up where you have always been” — so says John Wooden, and never was it more true than in the automotive industry today.
As long as you have the deep pockets to produce and air generic-looking ads selling generic-looking speeding cars on generic, winding mountain roads — everyday of the year – there is no need to create and manage a compelling and powerful brand.
Effective branding can be found in the difference between awareness and important recall. Awareness is the ability to name the brand when asked and important recall is the non-cognitive ability to hold the brand in a place of importance even when you are not in the shopping mode.
The former requires unlimited ad spending and constant repetition because you must have your message in front of the customer when they are in the market to buy. Why? Because the rest of the time the message is seen as unimportant and is filtered out as so much noise. When the customer is not shopping, it is seen as irrelevant. Important recall happens when the brand is so intrinsic to the customer’s self–description that they maintain an active hook in their mind, a hook that compels them to retain the information as important.
What is the latest Chevy model? Hard to say. Ask a MacBook owner to tell you the latest computer model — they know what it is because they covet it. Not because they need it, but because the brand speaks to them and reminds them just who they are. (Read a detailed market study on the auto industry here)