May 2, 2012
How brand delusion can lead to brand dilution.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 5/1, 5:30 p.m.) Detroit. After talking about the critical importance of design over the last three weeks I feel it’s perfectly natural to make the transition in the discussion to the importance of brands, because the impact of design and brands together is inseparable and inescapable.
You only have to look as far as the meteoric success and continued momentum of Apple to see that. Yes, of course Apple has had the uncanny knack of delivering superb products at exactly the right time but make no mistake, the design aesthetic of Apple has played an inexorable role in its success as well. Not only have Apple products performed as advertised, it’s the way they’re packaged and presented that puts the brand over the top.
Every single piece of Apple packaging is thought out to the last detail to the point that consumers have grown to expect a presentation and a distinct point of view each time they come in contact with the brand. And of course it has been extended to the nth degree in their retail stores as well. It’s the Apple “way” and consumers not only revel in the simple design elegance of Apple’s products, they love to wallow in the presentation. There’s a reason consumers clamor for the latest Apple products around the world and it’s certainly has nothing to do with the deal; it’s about the performance of the product as well as the experience.
And what auto manufacturer doesn’t lust to have the brand power of Apple? Auto company marketing executives whimsically daydream of the time when their products are so wonderfully wrought and their product presentations are so exceptionally executed down to the last detail that their brands will one day be magically transformed into marketing powerhouses on the scale of Apple.
And I’m here to tell you that it’s never going to happen.
Yes, some automotive brands will occupy at least a distant place in the Apple solar system of branding success but they will never get close, and they will never achieve the kind of consumer idolatry that Apple enjoys. Why? Because auto companies are such vast enterprises containing a plethora of divergent silos and fiefdoms that no matter how well-intentioned and visionary their executives are – marketing and otherwise – getting everyone on the same page to the point that they could deliver and execute down to the level of detail that Apple does is simply an unattainable goal. Not to mention the fact that automobiles are intensely complicated devices that interact with consumers on a kaleidoscope of levels and elicit a wide range of opinions and reactions. And the majority of manufacturers are unable to deliver their wares with a consistency of purpose and execution.
Just one example? It’s much easier to orchestrate an Apple store than it is wrangling automotive dealers. I don’t care how specific a manufacturer gets with the kind of tile flooring that’s to be used in showrooms and the look and feel of the brand identification outside, etc. There’s no denying that a fundamental disconnect exists between auto manufacturers and their retailers and it’s a chasm that will never be bridged or solved. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t players on both sides who are relentlessly well intentioned because there are plenty who are and many who have signed up and believe in the program top to bottom. But that doesn’t mean they can or will get to the kind of seamless execution that Apple achieves. There are simply just too many variables in play.
But shouldn’t there be points for trying? Maybe. Or maybe not. It depends on who we’re talking about. For far too many in this business brand delusion leads to brand dilution, unfortunately. Let’s take a look at some automotive import brands and see what’s up. And no, I’m not going to cover every brand, just the high hard ones. So if your particular favorite Belchfire 8 isn’t represented, you’ll just have to get over it.
Mercedes-Benz is a perennial puzzler. Here is a brand that once was on the mountaintop of the automotive kingdom, a brand that enjoyed an impeccable reputation fueled by one of the greatest automotive advertising themes of all time: “Engineered Like No Other Car in the World.” And then things got weird. Some lesser lights within Daimler at the time (back in the late 90s and early 2000s) – led by the ill-equipped Joe Eberhardt and others – decided that the Mercedes ad theme was too imperious and that it would be better in the long term if the brand became more “approachable.” It was then that the company embarked on a path of progressively insipid and dumbed-down ad themes combined with some relentlessly bad product decisions, and to disastrous results, I might add. By the time Mercedes finally got the hint that their brand meanderings had taken their toll, it was almost too late. Dieter Zetsche – admittedly not a marketing guy by any stretch of the imagination – can crow all he wants about luxury sales, but the bottom line is that the Mercedes brand reputation was squandered terribly under his watch. Now Mercedes has brand religion again and is regularly espousing founder Gottlieb Daimler’s mantra “Das Beste oder Nichts” or “The Best or Nothing.” But can anyone honestly say that Mercedes enjoys the bulletproof reputation it once did after being too often lost in the brand wilderness over the last 15 years or so? No frickin’ way. Not even close, in fact.
Honda was once the little motorcar company that could. Boasting artful engineering beautifully executed, liking Honda was easy for hard-core enthusiasts because any car company that excelled in racing and delivered brilliant everyday engineering to its customers at reasonable prices was a company to love. And its brand image was impeccable. But again, well meaning (and not so well meaning) Honda executives completely forgot what Honda is and should be all about, and the company got lost in a fog of mediocrity and relentless average-ness. In other words their brand delusions led to the creation of a mishmash of poorly executed facsimiles of Hondas, products that did not even begin to live up to their founder’s vision. And the brand was diluted down to being just another car company, one now being overrun by the savvier and hungrier Korean manufacturers. Not Good doesn’t even begin to cover the scope of just how badly Honda has lost its way.
Acura has been a star-crossed car company since its inception. Once known for being the best that Honda had to offer, Acuras were that much more desirable to enthusiast/aficionados who knew what they were looking for and why. For a brief, fleeting moment in time – especially when the NSX was at its peak and Honda was powering Formula 1 World Champions – Acura had a definitive reason for being. But that was a long time ago. Acura’s brand image is in tatters because clearly no one at Honda has a clue as to what to do with its allegedly premium brand. When you’re delusional about your brand – which Honda executives clearly are – then it’s no wonder why Acura’s impact in the market has been diluted down to being almost inconsequential. It’s going to be a long, hard road back for Acura. And new NSX or no by 2015, it’s a toss-up as to whether they’ll even remotely get there.
BMW seems to be constantly teetering on the brink of screwing things up when it comes to its image. Arrogant German-based marketing executives (really, is there any other kind?) have seemingly forged careers around the fact that they have a terrible time understanding the power of the BMW brand image here in the U.S. and how it got that way. How else could you explain the fact that they tried to shove their European-sourced “Joy” campaign down U.S. customers (and dealers) throats? It failed miserably, thankfully, and BMW has returned to one of the other great automotive advertising themes of all time: The Ultimate Driving Machine. BMW heretofore has enjoyed one of the most extraordinary brand images in this business, despite the obvious missteps, boneheaded product and marketing miscues and the “best” thinking that well-meaning but underserved German marketing execs bring to the table. But it’s right on the edge, and at any moment brand delusion threatens to result in brand dilution for this admired brand.
Speaking of impeccable brands, Audi has been on an upward trajectory for the better part of a decade and a half. Resolutely focused on who they are and what they want to be and better still, where they want to go, Audi is one of the glittering stars of the VW Group. Why is that, exactly? Is it the array of excellent and even outstanding products? Yes, of course that has everything to do with it, because they’ve led with arresting designs and often-brilliant engineering. But it’s also because Audi executives consistently understand their brand’s promise better than anyone. They have no illusions about how far they’ve come since the “60 Minutes” hatchet job almost put them out of business in the U.S. market at the end of 1986, and they have no intentions of going back, either. They’re also not delusional in the least, and they know and understand that if they lose their focus, even by a millimeter, that it could all turn to crap overnight. With that consistency of mindset I don’t expect Audi to dilute their brand image anytime soon with “off” products that misrepresent the brand.
And finally (at least for today anyway) there’s Porsche. Confounding critics (including myself) Porsche has managed to stay true to its brand ideal despite aggressive forays into segments that at first glance seemed completely wrong for them. And perhaps some of those segments are still wrong for Porsche, but they have an uncanny knack for making it all work. Somehow, some way Porsche managers not only know how to make their products true to the essence of Porsche the brand, they’re able to retain the integrity of the brand’s image throughout. Is it seamless and foolproof? Absolutely not. Right now Porsche’s current ad campaign revolves around the idea that you can use a Porsche every day, that they don’t have to be coddled or kept as garage queens. The thought behind that campaign idea is well taken. You can use and enjoy Porsches every day. But Porsche marketing execs are walking a very fine line here. Porsches are impeccably rendered in every respect, there’s no doubt whatsoever about that. The delusion part comes in when those same execs think they can project this “every day” Porsche campaign theme indefinitely, that they will never reach a point when touting the “daily driver” aspect of Porsche also manages to degrade the specialness of Porsche at the same time. And they would be wrong. I would re-think this campaign immediately, because Porsche is in imminent danger of diluting its brand with this campaign’s train of thought. And by the time they wake up to that fact – if they haven’t already – it could just be on the verge of being too late.
As I said, no automotive brand will reach the level of Apple. A focused consistency down to the very last detail, from top to bottom and throughout every aspect of the brand is the key to Apple’s success. There are just too many variables involved and too many “interested parties” who want a piece of the action when it comes to forging a brand image within these auto companies. The companies that well and truly suck at it fail miserably and flounder about not really understanding why they can’t ever seem to get out of the downward spiral they find themselves in. And it’s pathetic to watch.
On the other hand, the automobile companies that truly understand the power of brand image, that understand who they are and how they got to this point, what their brand represents, what they need to be and where they want to go, these are the companies that will continue to succeed and stand out as desirable in this brand inundated world we live in today.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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