June 6, 2012
The Autoextremist Brand Image Meter.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 6/5, 5:00 p.m.) Detroit. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of months hammering away about the power of brands and the inescapable importance of brand image when it comes to the automobile business. It’s the one thing that car companies – both good and bad – cannot escape. How a brand is perceived can make or break a car company, regardless of how long and illustrious a run that brand has enjoyed up until any given point in time, because one false move or one discordant note can be crippling in a matter of months.
Just look at what has happened to Honda of late, because it’s a classic example. A long-admired car company known for creativity and innovation, Honda suddenly went to sleep for a couple of model years and phoned it in. Creativity fell by the wayside, innovation took a back seat and mediocrity reared its ugly head. The end result? A meandering image and lagging car sales in a market that is hungry for – and especially rewarding to – great product. An unforgivable slide in my estimation.
But what about the rest? And what about this brand image thing? Who has a handle on it and who doesn’t have a clue? Who intermittently gets it and who is continually lost in the desert in search of The Answer?
Without further ado then, today we’re introducing the Autoextremist Brand Image Meter. Every year around this time we’re going to take the pulse of the business and see who is doing what when it comes to wrangling – or in some cases fumbling – their brand image. So let’s crank up the Autoextremist Brand Image Meter. The rankings are Hot. Cold. Neutral. Pathetic. And 66 shades of gray in-between.
Alfa Romeo: The brand that for the most part exists as a figment of Sergio Marchionne’s considerable imagination. Historically? A smokin’ hot brand image with a large measure of overt sexuality thrown in for good measure. Today? A once-great marque reduced to a sentence of underpinning Sergio’s incomprehensibly aggressive plan to dominate the automotive world. Somewhere in there the inherent goodness and likability of the Alfa Romeo brand lives. But the reality of today’s AE Brand Image Meter suggests that Alfa is the automotive equivalent of a shackled mushroom, kept in the dark and fed just enough to play a largely supportive, badge-engineering role in Sergio’s Empire. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Pathetic.
Acura: Surprisingly well-received ILX can’t mask the fact that the brand continues to operate in a limbo of space and time. Is it the best of Honda? And if so, what does that mean exactly? Not what it once meant, by any stretch of the imagination, so it’s up to Acura to give us all a reason to care. The NSX concept was dramatic, but what’s going to happen between now and 2015? The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Coldly brand neutral.
Aston Martin: Even the ill-advised, toy-like Cygnet can’t disrupt this uncompromising brand. Maybe not red-hot given the burgeoning ultra-luxury competition, but still an extremely warm brand to the touch on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Audi: Advanced technology wrapped in shimmering bodywork with interior accoutrements second to none, all due to a relentless product focus and consistency that stretches well past a decade now. An impeccable image that is the quintessential definition of brand hotness on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Bentley: At its low point reduced to being a moribund “little brother” to Rolls-Royce, then reinvigorated with a swift kick from Dr. Piech in a near automotive miracle. Things didn’t stay that way, of course. Bentley glowed hot, got greedy, oversaturated itself in the market, then turned lukewarm, but now it’s smoldering and heading toward brand hotness once again on the AE Brand Image Meter.
BMW: The car company that invented brand image focus before Audi discovered it was cool. When firing on all of its Ultimate Driving Machine cylinders, BMW remains white hot, and still thrives in the ultimate position on the AE Brand Image Meter, tied with one other automaker. But one false move and Audi is so ready to pounce.
Buick: Lost in the brand wilderness trying to convince young consumers that it’s worthy of consideration, Buick suffers from a lack of passion and a blurry, disjointed focus. Buick is icy cool, but not in a good way when it comes to the AE Brand Image Meter. Close your eyes and conjure up one Buick in your mind. The Enclave? Perhaps. The LaCrosse? Maybe. Verano? Not yet, but possible. The rest? No. Buick needs a defining moment, an automotive design milestone that will crystalize the brand for the next generation and make the industry sit up and take notice. I expect to see a new Riviera concept at the Detroit Auto Show next year. Until Buick has that car on the street it will be lost in an automotive limbo, which, according to the AE Brand Image Meter, can be a cold, disheartening place. Memorable, passionate products will be the only way out for Buick.
Cadillac: A brand that has been to the mountaintop during its heyday in the 50s and 60s, Cadillac almost fell off of the table completely by the late 90s when it mortgaged what little soul it had to become a volume brand. Cadillac was on a Vogue whitewall train to nowhere – next stop brand oblivion – when savvy divisional operatives led by John Smith decided to reinvent America’s luxury standard in 2000, because there was simply nowhere else to go. What has transpired since should be a lesson for every aspiring automotive brand out there. GM has spent billions with a “B” on Cadillac in order to transform it into a brand capable of going toe-to-toe against the European luxury-performance juggernaut. And it has been successful to a large extent in terms of delivering some absolutely stunning machines, with the CTS-V Coupe being example No. 1. But after all of that is Cadillac accepted beyond its well of domestic-oriented consumers as being worthy of import intender consideration? Not really, no. Certainly not enough anyway. To its True Believers Cadillac is back and red hot. Stepping back and considering the entire luxury-performance universe, however, Cadillac is a second-tier brand that deserves better. The XTS will sell, but a big rear-wheel-drive statement machine (which is in the works) is what Cadillac needs above all else. Cadillac’s luxury-performance Euro driving positioning is pretty much etched in stone at this point, but like Buick, Cadillac desperately needs that drop-dead design statement, a car that is unmistakably Cadillac through and through. In terms of the AE Brand Image Meter right now, Cadillac veers between neutral and lukewarm depending on which model you’re looking at, with isolated incidents of hotness. And that must change to the hotter side of the equation, all the time, for Cadillac to make serious inroads in the market.
Chevrolet: Consistently inconsistent thanks to a complete frickin’ quagmire of an advertising agency arrangement, plus saddled with a theme line that has failed to resonate and gain traction, Chevrolet is a brand that should be rockin’ the charts right now. Instead, except for a few product highlights it seems to be floundering and flailing. Is it because American consumers don’t care enough anymore? Is it because GM marketers are too busy trying to project the Chevy gospel globally? Or is it just because GM marketers have failed to connect American consumers with Chevrolet’s raison d’etre again? I do know this: Chevrolet is one of the most iconic automotive brands in history and they have some of the best products they’ve ever had, but I have yet to feel moved. The official AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Lukewarm brand neutral, deserving so much better.
Chrysler: The True Believers in Chrysler product development and design have kept it afloat, Olivier “I’m a genius, just ask me” Francois has banged his celebrity drum incessantly, and Chrysler seems to be rising from the ashes yet again in the market. But when it comes to the AE Brand Image Meter, Chrysler is still stuck in that “interesting alternative” zone. Somewhat feisty, but largely confined to its own little world of self-congratulation, Chrysler, after all is said and done, comes in as glorified brand neutral on the AE Brand Image Meter, despite all the cash spent on Marshall and Clint.
Corvette: Yes, despite GM and Chevrolet marketing operatives’ vehement cries of “foul” - I absolutely consider Corvette to be a separate automotive brand. And perhaps if GM had treated it as such Corvette would have finally been able to shed the “great high-performance machine for the money” moniker that it’s saddled with. But make no mistake, even though I personally view the Corvette as one of the most desirable sports cars in the world – especially in ZR1 and 2013 427 convertible versions – in the U.S. most auto enthusiasts, except for the intense Corvette True Believers, of course, view it as an American “nice try” when compared to Porsche and Ferrari, even though it will run right with the competition – and in some cases right past – in most performance measures. Is that incredibly unfair? Yes. But it’s the reality of Corvette’s brand image. So the AE Brand Image Meter glows extremely warm for the Corvette, which takes into account that reality. But there is one place where the Corvette brand image glows white hot, and that’s a half a world away in Le Mans, France. Thanks to the incredible performance by Corvette Racing over the last twelve years, Corvette is viewed as a reputable, prestigious and desirable high-performance sports car. We’ll see if Corvette can move that brand image needle to hotness with the seventh-generation model, which will be unveiled next January in Detroit.
Dodge: Seemingly content up until now with its badass muscle car image and its equally badass cop car alter ego, the Fiat-Chrysler brain trust is now going to try to convince us that the new Dart represents a kinder, greener and a little more of-the-moment hip Dodge. Whether the Dart is successful or not (I happen to think it will be, at least to a point), I don’t think the Dodge brand image is ultimately going to change one iota. To its hard-core fans, the Dodge brand image is hotter than anything else out there. But for the majority of consumers, Dodge is still a purveyor of badass cop cars and throwback muscle cars, and a good place to get financing if your credit is less than stellar. The AE Brand Image Meter? Neutral on a hot plate.
Fiat: Oh my, the answer to Sergio’s prayers and a vital cog in his machine of world auto domination, Fiat is the little engine that wants to be, fulfilling a role that it’s not quite cut out for. As cute as the 500 is and as fun as the Abarth version of it is, Fiat is a decidedly pedestrian brand trying to pretend it’s something else in this market. Why? Because Sergio’s “vision” insists this is the way it will be. Despite hot, sexy ads for the fun-to-drive Abarth – and the flat-out dumb one using Charlie Sheen – Fiat is a sub-niche of a niche desperately seeking more. Ranking? Cool. But not in a good way.
Fisker: A boy’s automotive wet dream brought to life courtesy of Other People’s Money coupled with a wing and a prayer. There’s absolutely no reason in the world for this vehicle to exist other than to assuage Henrik Fisker’s considerable ego. The AE Brand Image Meter? In this case, smokin’ hot is not a good thing.
Ferrari: Majestic, heroic, sensational and passionate machines, Ferrari is the quintessential definition of Italian smokin’ hotness. But there’s trouble bubbling up in the lasagna, because Ferrari insists that it can maintain its impeccable brand image while chasing new markets and cranking out more and more cars. Except that there’s always a point of diminishing returns, even for a reigning brand star like Ferrari. The Italian sports car manufacturer is on the verge of having too many models, too many Ferrari experience parks, too many mini-monuments to itself, and it’s just being too frickin’ greedy besides. Still white hot on the AE Brand Image Meter, but teetering on the edge of becoming just another luxury performance brand if it’s not careful.
Ford: The quintessential American brand that went from being a scrappy fighter that refused to let go of its soul to a purveyor of shockingly competitive cars that impress with their design vision and detailed execution. Ford is the iconic American brand that is garnering newfound respect with each new product iteration. Brand Image Meter? Very warm to the touch.
GMC: Slick trucks, SUVs and crossovers – especially in the Denali configurations – but generally a brand that’s lost in the wilderness as well. It used to be just the thing for Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile dealers who wanted to sell trucks but who couldn’t or wouldn’t go near Chevrolet, but beyond that, what? Professional Grade? Please. The moment Cadillac revises its Escalade is the moment GMC becomes irrelevant, again. But it won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last. GM makes money off of GMC, which is why the Obama administration mercenaries charged with carving up GM during the bankruptcy wouldn’t kill it. As for the AE Brand Image Meter? Boredom to neutral.
Honda. See above. Brand Image Meter? Impaled on icicles.
Hyundai: The car company with a voracious appetite for everything including building mainstream vehicles that are just too damn good to ignore, and with the unabashed goal of building competitive luxury vehicles with all of the prestige and desirability of the world’s best, Hyundai’s ambition knows no bounds. Ten years ago Hyundai was a joke. Five years ago they were getting “attaboys.” Now? With each passing day Hyundai is becoming a force to be reckoned with. Brand Image Meter? Extremely warm to the touch.
Infiniti: The perennial luxury-performance contender just got a huge boost with the appointment of Audi’s Johan de Nysschen as its global brand leader. But that doesn’t mask the fact that it’s just another brand in the luxury segment in search of its place in the world, with extremely aggressive near-term sales goals to boot. Johan will have his hands full but all of the growth for Infiniti will come from Asia, which is why Infiniti’s headquarters has been moved to Hong Kong. The AE Brand Image Meter says neutral to lukewarm.
Jaguar: Against all odds Jaguar is polishing its brand image with aggressive cars and an even more aggressive advertising and marketing campaign. Left for dead after flailing about for years in its inimitable Jekyll and Hyde fashion, Jaguar seems focused and ready to become a thriving brand for years to come. It all comes down to the product, as it always does, but for now Jaguar is very warm to the touch on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Jeep: Jeep has succeeded because the True Believers in Auburn Hills charged with stewardship of the brand have managed to keep the non-believers - and there are plenty - from screwing it up. The AE Brand Image Meter? Right behind BMW and Porsche, which means Jeep is a shade shy of the top of the meter. Jeep is an impeccable brand that is likely to stay that way, thank goodness.
Kia: Take everything said about Hyundai above and add in a large measure of feistiness and a dollop of march-to-a-different drummer attitude and you have a brand that is on an upward trajectory like a rocket. And make no mistake about the difference between Hyundai and Kia. Hyundai yearns, make that craves respectability from the global automobile community and will go to great lengths to get it. Kia on the other hand will do its own thing at its own pace, and if the rest of the auto world acknowledges it, well, even better. The AE Brand image Meter? Very warm to the touch.
Lamborghini: The Italian sports car manufacturer that has, oddly enough, stayed more true to its mission than Ferrari despite being controlled by the German VW conglomerate, Lamborghini has gained a noticeable measure of respect in recent years for its unwavering passion and focus. Yes, they could go off of the rails at any moment, but all signs indicate that won’t happen anytime soon. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Smokin’ hot.
Lexus: The Japanese luxury arm of Toyota, Lexus has turned into the Eddie Haskell of the luxury auto space. Smiling, complimentary, overly solicitous and definitely annoying to enthusiast consumers who actually care about cars, Lexus has nonetheless proved to be a goldmine for Toyota’s coffers. Lexus is fine if your favorite luxury flavor is vanilla, but beyond that? Not so much. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Coldly calculated. And icy cold to the touch.
Lincoln: We could talk about the 60s and 70s Lincolns, the ones that captured the fancy of the American consumer public and even stirred the soul more than a little, or we could talk about the more contemporary Lincoln, which became known more for its livery duty than anything else. Or we could talk about the next Lincoln, which is very much a work in progress as you read this. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking for Lincoln is stuck in neutral until further notice.
Lotus: So much promise, so many promises, so many good ideas, so much wasted time, money and effort. To older enthusiasts Lotus will always be the legacy of the brilliant Colin Chapman, one of the most innovative minds this industry has ever seen. To newer, somewhat interested consumers Lotus is an automotive oddity that pales in comparison to a host of other machines out there. It doesn’t help that Lotus as a company is in complete and utter financial chaos, but that’s neither here nor there when it comes to the AE Brand Image Meter, because the ranking is damp and cold.
Maserati: Another plank in Sergio's grand plan for world domination, Maserati is a somewhat attractive Italian sports car brand name with a historical legacy that repeatedly suffers in comparison to the rest of the competition. Does Maserati have attractive cars? Yes, of course, but the brand is not top of mind. In other words Maserati exists, but in a galaxy far, far away from the real luxury-performance retail action. Can Maserati see an upswing? Perhaps, but it will be excruciatingly slow, and it cannot possibly live up to the aggressive sales plans Sergio and his minions have for it. The AE Brand Image Meter? Warm, but only for those who care.
Mazda: Another automotive puzzler. Mazda makes some excellent, even outstanding cars but the brand always seems to be scrambling for respectability, in spite all of its product goodness. Now, it’s about to be swallowed whole by VW, Nissan, Kia and Hyundai. Zoom-Zoom was lively as an ad campaign. “SKYACTIV” is nonsensical and flat-out dumb. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? The glow is off of the coals and Mazda is cool to the touch.
McLaren: Derided as coldly efficient and lacking emotion, the new MP4-12C sports car is still brilliantly conceived and executed and will eventually prove to be one of the most desirable sports cars in the world. But that’s eventually. For now, McLaren gets an “incomplete” because it’s a brand that has yet to develop. And a neutral ranking on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Mercedes-Benz: Speaking of Jekyll and Hyde car companies, Mercedes is the most wildly inconsistent auto manufacturer in the world. When they’re on they build absolutely glorious machines that live up to one of the great automotive legacies in the world. When they’re off, well, they can stink up the joint like no other. Part of the problem is the fact that Daimler is forced to stretch out its model lineup because it’s trying to fight a brutally competitive auto world without the resources of the other auto manufacturer conglomerates. But the majority of the problem lies in previous piss-poor marketing and advertising strategies that have deeply damaged the brand. The AE Brand Image Meter? Red hot on occasion, icy cold the rest of the time.
Mini: Came on like gangbusters from the moment it was introduced and has been successful beyond all predictions. With each new iteration, BMW pushes the envelope of what Mini is and what it should be. The AE Brand Image Meter? Still hot but in danger of careening off the road at any moment due to a product mistake.
Nissan: What can be said about Nissan except that slowly but surely it has become a mainstream force in the U.S. market while flying almost completely under the radar? Solid products and even better (for Nissan) a burgeoning acceptance among consumers that it’s a more than just an acceptable choice, but a desirable choice. Nissan gets a very warm ranking on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Porsche: Porsche operatives are brilliant at executing the vision for the brand and staying relentlessly focused at the task at hand, which is to build the most enticing enthusiast sports cars they can muster, while making Porsche the most desirable automotive brand in the world. At times arrogant as it goes about marketing its brilliant array of vehicles, Porsche nonetheless delivers on its brand promise repeatedly and with unwavering consistency, which means it is tied for the top spot on the AE Brand Image Meter with BMW.
Range Rover: Formerly known as a maker of clunky, cantankerous, bloated SUVs with faux status apropos of some other era not our own, Range Rover has now done a complete 180-degree shift with the dramatically designed Evoque. With the impressive concept car-like street presence of the Evoque the brand has gone from stuffy without a clue to slinky crossover statement of-the-moment. Old AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Forgettable and eminently so. New AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Hot and waiting for more.
Rolls-Royce: Old School before Old School was even remotely cool again, Rolls-Royce has stayed firmly planted in its own little brand world – especially since its rejuvenation due to BMW ownership and the debut of the iconic Phantom – and what a wonderful, splendiferous world it is. The AE Brand Image Meter? Impeccable and smokin’ hot in a sexy-flirty Helen Mirren kind of way.
Scion: The original and most successful of the “clean sheet” youth-targeted brands – even though most buyers were over the age of 45 – Scion’s time has well and truly passed. The FR-S could have been the start of a renewal for the brand, but ultimately it won’t be because it’s a singular product that suggests nothing about the future direction of the brand. The AE Brand Image Meter? An ice-cold soy latte.
Subaru: Except for the rally-oriented cars, which exist in their own little enthusiast enclave, Subaru has attracted loyal followers by being the sensible brown shoes of the automotive world. Subaru understands who it is and what it can and should not do, and because of that focused consistency it has been rewarded with intense brand loyalty. The AE Brand Image Meter? For us personally, the brand doesn’t even register. For the Subaru faithful, it’s like a warm campfire with s'mores and chamomile tea.
Tesla: Blue-sky thinking, old-time religion, and enough smoke and mirrors to last this industry a frickin’ lifetime. Any success accrued by the Elon Musk SpaceX Falcon 9 mission does not automatically translate to four wheels. The AE Brand Image Meter? The car built for politicians in Washington and Northern California, and Hollywood-types in search of a clue.
Toyota: It was a Juggernaut, then it was a Juggernot because it forgot about what it did best while trying to be something else. How did that work out? But make no mistake, there are legions of Toyota buyers out there who relish the opportunity to own a bland-tastic appliance that blends into the woodwork, no matter how much Akio Toyoda tries to juice things up. The AE Brand Image Meter? For Toyota brand loyalists the brand is a white-hot bowl of oatmeal. For everyone else it’s what they used to drive before they drifted off to Nissan, Kia or Hyundai.
Volvo: The AE Brand Image Meter? It’s the brand for people who question why they even bother to own a car anymore.
VW: Forgetting the world domination plans of the VW Group for a moment, which admittedly is hard to do, stepping back and seriously considering what VW has been doing of late product-wise is a sight to behold. The cars are very, very good with a level of execution that resonates down to the last detail. If they can deliver what’s promised without the service hassles, they are going to be unstoppable. The AE Brand Image Meter? Warm to the touch and getting more so by the minute.
As I said last week, the companies that are overflowing with True Believers and that focus every moment on the integrity and the fundamental desirability of the product are doing very well right now in the brand image department, and they'll continue to do so. The rest? Well, for them flailing and floundering about seems to be a full-time career trajectory.
Brand hotness is a fleeting thing, except for those brands that understand how they got it, what it took to get it to that point, and what it will take to keep it.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.