No. 902
June 21, 2017
 

About The Autoextremist

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Autoextremist.com, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  witchhuntbook.com). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Monday
Jun122017

THE AUTOEXTREMIST BRAND IMAGE METER VI: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE CLUELESS.

Editor-In-Chief's Note: Since last week's column is one of our three biggest of the year in terms of readership, impact (and length), WG and I have decided to leave it up one more week. As predicted, after the debut of the Autoextremist Brand Image Meter VI some car company marketers are smiling this morning, glowing with the knowledge that The Autoextremist confirmed that they indeed have it goin' on, while others are seething because they are absolutely convinced that they have it goin' on and no one - especially Yours Truly - is going to dissuade them from that notion. While others are still wandering around lost in the marketing desert, muttering to themselves that the turnaround in their fortunes "won't be long now!" As I've stated repeatedly, this automotive marketing business is tough, unforgiving and relentless. Hundred-million-dollar marketing campaigns can be left in a smoldering heap by the side of the road because of a bold miscalculation, a flat-out wrong-headed decision, or auto executives egos running amuck. Or, as I like to call it, The Trifecta of Not Good. That last one can be particularly devastating, because as smart as some of these people think they are, their ability to sort through the real from the imaginary sometimes gets lost in translation. Much of this is the result of a completely unrealistic assessment by these executives of their talent and their brand's place in the automotive world. They are so buried in the day-to-day minutiae of it all at their respective companies that they simply don't have the wherewithal to step back and objectively see or understand what's really going on. And to compound that, they don't really like people telling them what to do or that they're wrong either, because after all they're geniuses, remember? Just ask them. I find the insularity at the auto companies to be astonishing. Understandable mind you, but still astonishing. That's really the only adjective that fits. This insularity causes major missteps and blown opportunities left and right. When I see an iconic brand offering so much to work with, with so much historical relevance to bring to bear and yet it is so misguided and mishandled, it is simply unconscionable. Squandering a legacy is unforgivable in my book. I would suggest that the brand marketers that got hammered in our latest Brand Image Meter go back and reread my words carefully, because though painful, half the battle is realizing what you're doing wrong before you can even begin to see your way clear to making things right. As for the rest who fared better I wouldn't get too complacent, because you're only one bone-headed decision away - or a runaway ego unchained - from disaster. And that's the (updated) High-Octane Truth for this week. -PMD

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. As I mentioned at the end of last week’s eighteenth anniversary column, it’s time for our annual Autoextremist Brand Image Meter, which, as hard as it is to believe, is now in its sixth year. This column grades the efforts of hordes of marketers and brand image wranglers at the various car companies who work long and hard, day after day, in order to make their respective brands the Bright Shining Stars in the market.

Some of the people toiling away in this pursuit are actually qualified and bring a certain sense of gravitas to the proceedings, but those executives are admittedly few and far between. Others are unfortunately assigned to the marketing function as part of a woefully misguided corporate effort to “round” executives’ experience resulting in ill-equipped operatives who stumble along wreaking havoc on everything and everyone in their path while attempting to learn the business of marketing by “feel,” which translates into making a bumbling mess of things over the duration of their assignment. That companies persist in this folly instead of recruiting and nurturing marketing talent remains one of the unsolved mysteries of this business. And unfortunately the rest, of course, are flat-out poseurs who inevitably turn up lost in the marketing desert in search of a clue.

That there is such a wide range of talent in the auto marketing ranks is no surprise, because it’s indicative of the general reality for the business as a whole. But this gaping disparity between a few star performers and the rest in the automotive marketing arena can have a devastating affect on a brand’s image, as you’ll see below.

Yes, some of the brands I’ll talk about today are blessed with auto marketers who actually get it and who know what their brands stand for (and almost more important, what they’re not) and the understanding that sometimes it’s better not to screw things up rather than set the world afire with their “I’m a genius, just ask me” brilliance. Other brands mentioned suffer the consequences of marketers who careen around throwing ideas and executions up against the wall to see what sticks, and their respective brand images pay dearly for it.

In this column I grade automotive brands on their fundamental raison d’etre, and of course in turn the people responsible for shaping what those brands stand for are directly or indirectly graded too. And believe me, no matter where these marketers fall on the competence spectrum, many of them believe that they’ve got it goin’ on, even though that isn’t even remotely the case.

Automotive marketing is a very big deal. And expert brand image wrangling is a crucial part of making all of the effort to design and engineer great products worthwhile. Billions of dollars are spent on brand image wrangling by the auto companies each and every year. Why? Because having the “right” brand image is absolutely essential for market success.

As you’ll see in my following commentary when a company does it well, it shows, but if a company misses even by a little, it can be very costly. And if a company’s marketers screw up, the effects can not only be devastating, they can linger for years.

Without further ado then, let’s see who’s doing it right, who’s doing just okay, and who is doing it so wrong that it hurts.

Acura. I’ve been asked repeatedly, is the Acura NSX sports car a fitting halo for the brand? On the one hand, I can say yes, yes, it is. The car is a little porky but overall it’s an excellent effort. But on the other hand, is there really any connection between Acura’s show pony sports car and the rest of the lineup? The answer unfortunately, is not much. Burdened by design mistakes from its recent past and constantly operating on the fringes of the top tier luxury-performance brands, Acura remains an enigma. Does Acura offer good cars and SUVs for the most part? Yes, of course, in fact some of them are truly excellent. But it isn’t enough, because the Acura brand image remains cloudy and unfocused to this day. And to make matters worse, there’s not enough differentiation from Honda’s regular lineup to justify the price. The Bottom Line? Where’s the juice with Acura? Why isn’t the passion that comes shining through in the NSX visible in the rest of the Acura lineup? I am astounded that after all of these years “the best of Honda” doesn’t resonate as the focus of the Acura brand.

Alfa Romeo. That this brand remains “Sergio’s Folly” is undeniable. Despite the media fanboy slobbering that went on after the carefully orchestrated advance drives for the Giulia, the ugly reality for FCA is that the car is s-l-o-w out of the gate. How slow? Well, at the current selling rate the brand isn’t sustainable, that slow. Now what or who Sergio is going to blame this failure on is pure conjecture at this point, but I’m voting on the “sun spot” defense, because he certainly isn’t going to assume responsibility for anything. After all, he hasn’t up until now so why mar a perfect record? But if you listen closely to the Italian PR wattage being generated in Auburn Hills, we should all move on from worrying about the Giulia, because – hallefrickinluja! - the new Stelvio SUV will project Alfa Romeo to the glorious heights Marchionne has been promising for oh, going on eight years now. As if. Alfa Romeo remains a fringe brand with a wonderful history that was hijacked by carpetbagging mercenaries with visions of fantastic profits dancing in their heads. No brand can live up to that pressure, especially one whose historic peak was five decades ago. Suffice to say I’ve seen this movie before, and it never ends well.

Aston Martin. The decision was taken to make Aston Martin even more of a luxury brand of late, which means besides cars there will be Aston Martin luxury boutiques, luxury yachts and well, luxury everything. CEO Andy Palmer knows that Aston Martin, as an independent luxury automobile manufacturer, can just barely survive in its present guise, which is also why Aston is introducing the DBX super luxury SUV in 2018. Aston desperately needs more of a limited volume play in the market and the DBX is the ticket, Palmer figures. He’s probably right. But here’s the thing, as long as Aston Martin continues to make some of the most stunningly beautiful cars on the road, machines that unquestionably live up to the legacy of the brand, it will be fine.

Audi. Audi seems to be chugging along with its brand mojo intact, despite the stain of the VW Group’s Diesel fiasco. Now fully ensconced in the top tier of mainstream luxury brands along with BMW and Mercedes-Benz here in the U.S., Audi continues to do what they do. Does it all work? For the most part, yes. Audi has even polished its own version of the classic German automotive arrogance to a new sheen, which is not unexpected, but that translates into higher prices, higher doses of attitude and a lingering feeling that the brand, though still hot, is headed for a cooling. The Marketing Meisters at Audi are still on course, except for when they take themselves much too seriously and allow their “holier than thou” attitude to creep into their advertising, which results in smarmy and annoying work. A B+. For now.

Bentley. Some people thought that with the arrival of the Bentayga SUV, Bentley would suffer immeasurable image damage, but instead the brand has been made even stronger. This is a classic example of image stewards for a brand displaying the kind of focused consistency – combined with savvy product decisions – needed to forge one of the most desirable luxury brands in the business.

BMW. The ubiquitous German brand, which once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away created its destiny with the funky little 2002, has shockingly become the Chevy of German luxury brands, the result of leadership teams over the years pushing the brand into every segment – both real and imagined – that seemed to make sense. This quest to be in every garage in every toney community in America has delivered vast profits for the propeller brigade, but it has gutted its brand integrity. Yes, they still crank out “M” versions to remind everyone of what they used to be, but they’re not fooling anyone anymore. BMW’s brand image is lost in a choking haze of profitability over integrity, and it’s not likely to find its way back anytime soon.

Buick. No brand wranglers pat themselves on the back more than those toiling away at Buick (well, not more than Chevrolet, but I’ll get to that in a minute). They will be the first to tell you that they have it so goin’ on that it’s a wonder they have to drive into work anymore. Instead, they should be able to float in to work riding the platitudes and accumulated “attaboys” that dominate their thought balloons. Contrary to those thoughts, and contrary to GM’s upper management who actually do believe that Buick really does have it goin’ on, the so-called marketers have dumbed down Buick only to occupy star status in Payment Land. As in “I can’t believe I get this much faux luxury for this little money!” GM Design has managed, by presenting some compelling concepts over the last few years, to imagine a Buick that simply doesn’t exist. Buick is yet another GM brand that exists for the edification of the Chinese market. Nothing more, nothing less.

Cadillac. Divisional honcho Johan de Nysschen has made no bones about the fact that he is on a mission to remake Cadillac in Audi’s image, a state of mind that he’s intimately familiar with, given that he was greatly responsible for Audi’s rise in this market. The problem is that Cadillac isn’t Audi, which - if some of the operatives involved at Cadillac would step away from the program long enough would realize - is a very good thing and something to be grateful for. Cadillac has a historical legacy unmatched by few automotive brands in the world, but many of de Nysschen’s initiatives are designed to suppress that fact, or ignore it all together. This is a giant wreath and crest of Not Good. Look at Cadillac’s lineup today - the ATS, the CTS, the XT5, the CT6 and the Escalade. (I left the XTS out intentionally.) Which one of these products has the can’t-mistake-it-for-anything-else street cred worthy of the brand? A hint: It’s the only one with a name. The XT5 is riding the SUV/Crossover craze somewhat successfully, but the rest? Damn-near dead in the water. (What about the CT6 you say? It’s technically impressive but uninspired and underwhelming.) Cadillac is another one of GM’s brands that has more going for it in China than anywhere else, and even though that’s an inevitable industry reality, the fact that this brand is squandering its legacy here is unconscionable. As an enthusiast, the superb Cadillac “V” cars are noteworthy and highly desirable, but they’re wasted in Cadillac showrooms because they have no context there, despite all of the money GM is pissing away on Cadillac’s so-called racing program, which is another foray into the Audi-ness of it all that isn’t working. (Now, take those “V” cars and remake them into Corvette coupes and sedans as part of the new Corvette Performance Division, and you’d have something, but that’s another column.) There are so many things wrong with Cadillac right now that I don’t know where to begin. I have one question: How can a brand that has displayed the industry's most compelling concept cars of the last decade – with equally compelling names, by the way – stumble along with a bunch of cars in the market that have nothing going for them? I’m sure Cadillac will heel to de Nysschen’s push into AudiLand as long as he’s there, but it’s not the right path. In fact it’s not even close. What a waste.

Chevrolet. No marketers have done less with more than the people charged with nurturing one of the most iconic American brands of all time. Think about that for a moment. These stumblebums have taken a larger-than-life brand that has thrived over the years with some of the most heroic, memorable car advertising campaigns of all time, and turned it into a sick version of marketing “small ball.” Chevrolet’s once-proud image has been reduced to a series of glorified retail spots that insult our intelligence and annoy with equal aplomb. Throw in the insipid “most rewarded” angle and it’s a marketing cocktail that absolutely no one is interested in except the so-called “marketers” down at the Silver Silos, who are absolutely convinced that they have it goin’ on. This just in: They don’t. We have been inundated of late by stories by our resident local media homers touting how wonderful Mary Barra is, how smart, how enlightened, how visionary and the usual blah-blah-blah. That’s all well and good and only somewhat deserved, but as long as she – and “Dan I Am” Ammann – continue to ignore the blatant mediocrity on constant display by GM’s so-called marketing troops, I will give them a big fat “F.” And as bad as that grade is, that’s more than Chevrolet’s brand image merits, unfortunately.

Chrysler. The “C” of FCA is a one-trick pony now as defined by the Chrysler Pacifica. The goodness of the Chrysler minivan brand image goes only so far, meaning the Pacifica is part of the competitive set of minivans to consider if one is interested in those particular vehicles. Not much to go on, is it?

Corvette. Once upon a time, the Corvette was the quintessential definition of a “halo” vehicle for Chevrolet. The notion that “there’s a little bit of Corvette in every Chevrolet” was used to great effect back in the day. Not so much today. Despite the fact that the Corvette is one of the best high-performance cars in the world, with an impeccable and accomplished record in racing, GM – and Chevrolet – really doesn’t do much with it. Oh sure, the enthusiast press and enthusiasts in general are well versed in the goodness of the Corvette, but you’d barely notice it exists at GM. It’s very strange in fact. It’s as if they’re afraid to talk about it too much or admit that it represents the very best thinking of GM’s True Believers. Why? Well, why ask why? It has been like this for the Corvette for decades. Despite this cloud of negativity, the Corvette name and image shine through. In fact it shares the top tier in our AE Brand Image Meter with five other brands. I am not kidding when I say that I would form a completely new GM Performance Division with the Corvette as the foundation. As long as Chevrolet marketers continue to squander the image of an American icon, why associate the Corvette with that relentlessly clueless marketing mediocrity? As I suggested five years ago I would take the Cadillac “V” cars and remake them as Corvette models, and I would add the outstanding Camaro into the mix too. If Mary Barra wants to be truly “visionary” she could start by shaking up GM’s “we’ve always done it this way” mentality and let GM’s exceptional performance cars have an arena that they can call their own.

Dodge. Muscle cars and cop cars are this brand’s thing. Is that enough to go on? Will Dodge survive once Sergio and his espresso-swilling minions finally find a dupe, err, I mean a buyer so that they can cash out for good? With now-ancient chassis underpinnings and a ton of cash needed for a completely new vehicle architecture, I wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime Dodge is the brand for people who don’t want to live in today’s world. Can’t say I blame them, but the harsh reality is that the life expectancy of this circus is short.

Fiat. A complete waste of time, no matter what the fanboys in the media say about the 124 Spider. Notice how Marchionne isn’t saying much about Fiat anymore? Remember when he was promising dealers the brand would be the stepping stone to untold riches once they started selling Alfa Romeos too? Fiat is the forgotten Italian brand that had its day in this market decades ago, that is until people started discovering that there were small cars out there that were light years better in terms of quality, reliability, desirability and overall value. Funny how nothing has changed. There are a lot of pretty smart dealers out there talking to themselves right now about how they could let Marchionne – a known carpetbagging mercenary – take them to the cleaners with the complete fiasco known as Fiat. Oh well. Brand image? Fiat is dead to me. And everyone else too, apparently.

Ferrari. The brand with the impeccable legacy and unequaled image, at least for the most part, seems to find a never-ending supply of moneyed fanboys and girls to seduce. That the true Ferrari enthusiasts are drifting off to other shiny automotive objects, or drifting off of this Mortal Coil permanently, is not lost on Ferrari management. Unfortunately for the proud, prancing horse brand and the enthusiasts who desire it, the term “management” means that the dreaded Marchionne is now in charge, which lends a certain unmistakable foreboding to the proceedings. What does it all mean? More tchotchkes, more Ferrari “Worlds” and ominously, much more volume, as in almost 50 percent more volume. This is, in case you forgot, what flat-out greed looks like in the car business. I would have put Ferrari at the top of the AE Brand Image Meter along with the other select few, but as long as Marchionne is involved the chances of this brand being screwed up are better than 50-50. So the Ferrari brand is still red hot, at least for now, but how long that lasts remains to be seen.

Ford. Sad to say, but Ford is another iconic American brand that has lost its way. Except for the F-150 pickup - which boasts an image that is simply unimpeachable, and when considered on its own ascends to the top tier of the AE Brand Image Meter, and except for its performance cars, including the evergreen Mustang - Ford seems to be wallowing in abject mediocrity. Why? For one thing Ford design is decidedly lackluster (except for the two aforementioned star vehicles and the Ford GT) and forgettable. If I said that Ford design suffers from being too derivative, that would be kind. The ugly reality is that Ford models don’t look fresh and new, they just look old and tired, which is simply inexcusable. And Ford marketing has taken a decided turn toward the forgettable, too, which is equally inexcusable. Except for the F-150 work, which is still outstanding and befitting of the nameplate, the Ford advertising work is comprised of a bunch of scattershot executions that do not add up to a cohesive whole. Bill Ford’s insistence that the Ford legacy of putting America on wheels will continue isn’t nearly enough. In fact that notion counts for exactly nothing and is flat-out obsolete in the Silicon Valley-tinged world we live in today. Here are a few questions for the marketing types at Ford that should be answered immediately: What is Ford's compelling reason for being? And what differentiates it from the other brands out there? And why should we care?

Genesis.  A year ago I was convinced that Hyundai was playing it right with its new Genesis luxury brand, and I still think the brand has huge potential. But not with just two cars that appear to be too close together to the average consumer, and not with the limited advertising and marketing Hyundai has undertaken for this new brand. I get the efficacy of avoiding the overpromise, underdeliver train wreck that so many manufacturers willingly embrace, but really, this is the best they can do in terms of marketing? Genesis is still a very new brand. But it’s destined to be a Lost Brand without more product and better marketing.

GMC. This brand just keeps going on, in some cases even defying rational thinking. Everyone knows that GMC vehicles are massaged versions of Chevrolet models, but for some that’s clearly more than enough. Granted, the exterior and interior designers at GM Design assigned to work on GMC have made the most of what they’ve been given, but even that doesn’t explain the brand’s consistent success in the market. And it’s certainly not the advertising and marketing either, lest GMC marketers start patting each other on their backs, because that stuff is eminently forgettable, when it’s not annoying. (The new "Like A Pro" campaign? It's visually better, but I'm not so enamored with the words. I need to spend some more time with it, but right now it seems a little awkward and forced.) I chalk up GMC's success to a very clear-cut marketing reality: For consumers GMC isn’t a Chevy, which apparently counts for a lot. And it’s not a Cadillac, either, which in their minds counts for even more, not being showy types and all. A solid brand, which in this chaotic marketing world is really saying something.

Honda. The brand that has such a rich legacy seems to be on the rebound with consumers, which is noteworthy. Honda is touting that it is getting back to its roots, which company operatives are insisting is why things are on the upswing for the brand, but I’m not going to go along with that assessment completely. I think that is true, but only intermittently. In fact, Honda Design has taken a giant step backwards with the new Civic, which, though an excellent car, looks so uncomfortable in its own skin that you can almost hear them squeal “help me!” as they drive by. If Honda insists that they have their mojo back I’m going to at least give them points for the thought, and maybe even the benefit of the doubt. But I’m not buying into the “it’s a new day at Honda” mantra just yet. Honda enjoys a positive brand image for some very good reasons. That’s still the case, but it's still a giant "we'll see" proposition.

Hyundai. Such a once-promising brand, what the hell happened? Was it the constant cries of “we got it goin’ on!” which were part of the rote speech at every press conference that everyone grew tired of five years ago? Was it the Too Many Models Syndrome, which resulted in a confusing showroom filled with too many cars that blended together and that no one wanted? In fact it was all of the above, and more. The reality is that there’s no use telling Korean auto executives what to do. They know absolutely everything there is to know about absolutely everything, and if, as an American car executive in their employ you don’t concur, you are jettisoned in favor of someone who will. Hyundai has been careening around like this for years, and there’s no relief in sight. The other major problem that the powers that be at Hyundai would never admit to is that Kia and Hyundai are interchangeable in most consumers’ minds. And now that Hyundai is pushing its Genesis division that problem is even more pronounced. Brand image? Ugh. Hyundai showrooms are where consumers go to get financed, and get a deal. And that’s all.

Infiniti. Quite simply Nissan’s luxury (sort of) brand has its following, a core group of consumers who, for some reason, can’t be bothered with other Japanese brands, let alone with the go-to German luxury brands. Normally you would call Infiniti the “marching to a different drummer” brand but that would be attaching too much gravitas to it. No, it’s a cynical play by Nissan to grab their share of a market that they believe they have just as much right to as any other manufacturer. Except everything about Infiniti seems like Nissan operatives are phoning it in, and devoid of a single original thought. I consider Infiniti a “ghost” brand, one that’s invisible except for the select few who have been issued the special glasses from the factory so that they can appreciate the inherent goodness of the brand. Brand Image?  A well-intentioned afterthought.

Jaguar. Who would have thought that Jaguar could be on such a roll? But with a brace of excellent vehicles, including the F-Pace SUV, which is a runaway hit, and an image that has been well defined and polished to a high gloss, this brand definitely has it going on.

Jeep. This American icon is another brand that occupies the top spot in the AE Brand Image Meter. It is truly amazing – and I hate that overused word – but that’s the only explanation for this brand to have survived upheaval after upheaval and multiple stewards, and still emerged intact and stronger over time. It’s no secret that this brand, with the impeccable credentials and unrivaled imagery attached to it, has benefited from some superb image wrangling too. Jeep is the sole focus of Sergio Marchionne’s vision for untold riches when The Giant Payoff – aka when FCA parts the company out – occurs. It’s the only sure thing that he has, in fact. What’s it worth? Who knows? $10 - $12 billion with a capital “B” maybe? (Remember, Sergio and his Fiat heir overlords only paid $6 Billion for Chrysler, all in.) That could be, but there are storm clouds gathering for Jeep too. FCA has pushed out more Jeeps with questionable quality – and pushed more subprime financing to pump sales – than at any point in the brand’s history. Marchionne has pumped up Jeep’s volume to make it even more attractive to interested suitors, except that now that the market slowdown is accelerating, Jeep sales seem to be cooling at an accelerated rate too. Jeep is still at the top tier in the AE brand Image Meter, but beyond that anything can happen to derail Sergio’s grandiose plans for the iconic American brand.

Kia. As I mentioned above, Hyundai’s foray into the luxury arena spells trouble for its Hyundai and Kia brands. Before Genesis there was at least an attempt at differentiation between Kia and Hyundai, with Kia allegedly skewing younger. But now? Consumers don’t care how Korean auto executives parse their brands because Kia and Hyundai both fall into that subset of “deal” brands in the American market. The Korean auto executives with genuine decision-making power in this situation are too arrogant and shortsighted to see that having two brands stepping all over each other in the American market isn’t going to work. Brand image? Nonexistent, unless looking for a deal qualifies as such.

Lamborghini. This exotic, high-performance Italian supercar brand is the one for knowledgeable enthusiasts who don’t worship at the altar of the Prancing Horse. Since the VW Group took over, everything about Lamborghini has been elevated, from the products to the brand image itself. In ancient times, the name Lamborghini wouldn’t have been uttered in the same breath as Ferrari. Now? There are plenty of enthusiasts out there who consider Lamborghini to be the most desirable exotic Italian sports car.

Land Rover. That these super luxury crossovers and SUVs have found such favor in the suburban jungles across America is still a little bit hard to believe. It wasn’t too long ago that Land Rovers were something to appreciate but not drive, because they were too problematic for most people to deal with. Now, bristling with cachet and boasting sumptuous interiors, Land Rover has become one of the touchstones of affluent suburbia, and another brand at the top tier of the AE Brand Image Meter.

Lexus. Toyota’s luxury brand is going all-out to reinvent itself as something more than the “excellent service and customer care” brand. That’s all well and good, and maybe Akio Toyoda’s drive to make Lexus into a high-performance brand will succeed, but even if it doesn’t there are plenty of people who like Lexus just the way it used to be and still is. Impeccable customer service still resonates.

Lincoln. Still a work in progress, the Ford luxury brand can point to a lot of positives since it almost got axed in Alan Mulally’s “One Ford” era. But even though Lincoln has come a long way in just four years, there are still some glaring things about the brand that are irksome. First of all, when the revised MKZ came out a year ago featuring the new “Continental-esque” front end before the Continental came out, it was a blown opportunity. I’m well aware of the dictates of product cadence, but that one decision spoiled the impact of the Continental’s debut. And as well received as the Continental has been, Ford’s current weakness in design shows in the back end of the car, which is completely uninspired and forgettable, and decidedly unworthy of the Continental name. While I’m at it, there are negatives about the new Navigator SUV design, too, which is a mishmash of at least three other luxury SUVs. I was expected something more. Much more. And the advertising? Well, there's no doubt that some of Lincoln's advertising has been a cut above Cadillac's, especially when it stayed in the pure image play arena, as with the Annie Leibovitz photography campaign. But they've stayed with Matthew McConaughey far too long, which is annoying. Why not use him as a brand ambassador and keep him out of the advertising? But still, those problems aside, at least Lincoln has a name with historical relevance in Continental, one that it embraces and nurtures to great effect. That’s more than can be said for Cadillac, which clings to its Audi-esque naming regimen that resonates with exactly no one.

Lotus. Talk about your quintessential “marching to a different drummer” car company, Lotus is that and more. Colin Chapman, who rightfully sits among the greats of automotive history, was the brilliant innovator whose designs for Lotus racing and street cars remain legendary to this day. The fact that Lotus still exists with its founder’s name on it is one of the miracles of the modern automotive age, as its tumultuous history can attest, but there have always been True Believers associated with the brand it seems and they have managed to keep the flame alive through some very lean times. Lotus cars aren’t for everyone, thank goodness, and it’s easy to see why people seriously looking at the Porsche 718 Cayman don’t even give the Evora even a sideways glance. But that’s okay and probably as it should be, because Lotus has always appealed to iconoclast enthusiasts, those who march to a different drummer themselves. Now that Lotus has a fresh infusion of deep-pocketed investors from China, I believe the future of the brand is secure. And speaking of that brand, it has a new glow and new hope.

Maserati. This luxury performance machine is the 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, somewhat, 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. Will the brand be able to live up to Marchionne’s typically over-aggressive projections? Not a chance. The AE Brand Image Meter? A glimpse of warmth, but only for those who still give a shit.

Mazda. Even though Mazda builds some notably outstanding cars, the brand always seems to be scrambling for respectability. Will it ever be more than it is right now, the scrappy purveyor of interesting cars if you would just take the time to look, and a media fanboy favorite? I seriously doubt it. But now that it’s about to pirouette off a cliff in its pursuit of elevated legitimacy, what are the Mazda overlords thinking? Sometimes big league brand image wrangling involves knowing what the brand isn’t. If you’re into the brand, it’s hot. For most of the rest of the automotive world it’s - did you see the Warriors game last night?

McLaren. This exotic English sports car micro-manufacturer keeps pouring on the credibility by building formidable high-performance machines that supersede the one before. And even though Ferrari may dismiss McLaren as a legitimate threat to its perpetual dominance of the hyper-exotic car market, the British supercar maker boasting the legacy of one of racing’s true legends keeps making serious inroads into Ferrari’s turf. I wouldn’t bet against McLaren, because the entire organization is focused on delivering excellence. And they don’t have a Marchionne to deal with, which is even more of an advantage.

Mercedes-Benz. As I’ve said countless times before, when Mercedes is “on” – see the magnificent new S-Class Coupe and the Mercedes-AMG GT, for instance – 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 Mercedes-Benz brand is in perpetual turmoil, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Mini. The brand that was initially successful beyond all expectations has now fallen to earth with a thud. The powers that be at Mini have learned a very painful lesson, and that is that not every niche product idea they come up with is brilliant. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow for most car executives, especially since they’re constantly reminded of their brilliance by hordes of bootlicking minions looking for their next promotion, but for Mini executives it had to be a humiliating blow. Mini exists in its own little world, which seems to be shrinking by the day.

Mitsubishi. Why?

Nissan. This company has slowly but surely become a mainstream force in the U.S. market despite flying almost completely under the radar. And I can’t for the life of me understand why. Is it great products? No. In fact they’re mediocre and for the most part, hideous to look at. I mean, let’s face it, Nissan is building some seriously ugly looking vehicles. Is it brilliant marketing? Are you kidding? Nissan marketing is a dismal exercise in futility, and that’s on a good day. So what is it, exactly? The only rational reason – and I am paraphrasing a hoary adage by H. L. Mencken here – is that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. As in, mediocrity, when it comes to automobiles, is bliss for most consumers, because at the end of the day too many of them don’t understand the difference and couldn't be bothered to care. Confounding and tragic, but there you have it. And despite Carlos Ghosn’s promises of global dominance, nothing has changed to alter my assessment. (Can’t auto CEOs just be content with doing well without veering into talk about dominating the market? Ha! What was I thinking?) For those who revel in abject mediocrity, Nissan is just the ticket.

Porsche. No automotive company is better at executing a vision for its brand and staying relentlessly focused to the task at hand than Porsche. The company’s mission is to build the most enticing enthusiast machines they can muster, and in the process of doing so it has made Porsche the most desirable automotive brand in the world and one of the top performing brands on the AE Brand Image Meter. Every time I think Porsche has lost it with a new model, they just keep digging deep to reestablish the brand. Thankfully, even Porsche’s savvy marketing operatives are acutely aware that this roll won’t last indefinitely without consistent efforts at shoring up the brand’s legacy. 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. The powers that be at the company know that the profitability from selling SUVs is a blessing, and that it gives Porsche the luxury to create ever more desirable sports cars and compete in major league races around the world. But it comes with a heavy cost too. And Porsche operatives understand that they have to fight and claw to maintain their grip on the soul of the company. At least Porsche understands the task at hand. That’s more than most other companies can muster.

Ram Trucks. As I've said repeatedly, crafting a brand image is one of the most challenging tasks in this business. The True Believers out in Auburn Hills know trucks, and they're building a first-class pickup truck. But there's more to it than that. Not only are they executing their trucks almost flawlessly in terms of design, engineering and features, they've managed to hit it out of the park when it comes to image wrangling. It doesn’t hurt that FCA marketers are putting more cash on the hood than a down payment on a small house, but who’s counting? The only question remaining is which manufacturer will scarf up this brand when Sergio has his fire sale.

Rolls Royce. Nothing new here. Old School before Old School was even remotely cool again, Rolls Royce is still firmly planted in its own little brand world – especially since its rejuvenation due to BMW ownership and the debut of the iconic Phantom followed by the Ghost, the majestic Wraith and the seductive Dawn. And what a wonderful, splendiferous world it is. The Rolls-Royce brand Image is impeccable and smokin’ hot, in a sexy-flirty Helen Mirren kind of way.

Subaru. The most successful brand that no one thinks about (except for its rabid owners), Subaru has attracted loyal followers by emphasizing function over fantasy, and detailed execution over smoke-and-mirror gimmickry. More important, unlike some other automotive entities we know, Subaru marketers understand what the brand is and what it isn’t, and because of this and its focused consistency, it has been rewarded with intense brand loyalty. Kudos to the Subaru marketers, because they clearly understand who its customers are and what the brand means to people. And this is no small feat, which is why Subaru has ascended to the top tier on the AE Brand Image Meter.

Tesla. Nothing new here, either. Blue-sky thinking, old-time religion, and enough smoke and mirrors to last this industry a frickin’ lifetime, Elon Musk is a huge success, dammit, and don’t you dare forget it. Tesla is the car built for politicians in Washington and Northern California, and EcoSwells needing even more validation for who they think they are. Remarkably enough, Tesla is still riding a generously positive wave, even though it doesn’t make any money to speak of, thanks to the denizens of Wall Street who have gleefully written off the domestic automobile industry as an expendable part of this nation’s past. To the green intelligentsia, Tesla is still The White-Hot Future. For the rest of us, well, it’s a great deal less.

Toyota. Toyota is back with a renewed sense that it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants to. Why? It is armed with the richest war chest in this business by far (it dwarfs the other top companies combined), which allows the company the wherewithal to pursue anything it wants to do, even though it is whining about the recent hit it has taken to its profits. Toyota’s resilience and success in the market are proof positive that there are legions of Toyota buyers out there who relish the opportunity to own a blandtastic appliance that blends into the woodwork, no matter how much Akio Toyoda tries to juice things up. For Toyota loyalists the brand is a white-hot bowl of piping hot oatmeal. For everyone else it’s what they used to drive before they drifted off to Honda, Hyundai, Kia or other automotive parts unknown.

Volvo. This car company has juiced its product focus to such an extent that it has become a force to be reckoned with again. Volvo used to be the brand for people who questioned why they even bothered to own a car in the first place. Not any more. Now, Volvo is the beautifully executed smart choice.

VW. After the serious financial hit and image headache from the Diesel cheating scandal, the VW Group and the VW brand is on the rebound. Despite having to shell out billions to satisfy the legal requirements of the settlements with the various entities due piles of cold hard cash, VW is still generating serious profits, almost shockingly so, in fact. In the U.S. the VW brand never really suffered permanent damage to its image because Diesel loyalists loved their cars and still do. It’s easy to see why people love the VW brand because it provides an interesting alternative to the American, Japanese and Korean brands, while adhering to the basic values of overall efficiency with a fun-to-drive component that still resonates with consumers. It doesn’t hurt that VW offers two of the best enthusiast cars in the market in the GTI and the R, either. And it’s not going to hurt at all when VW dealers start getting the new Atlas SUV in stock, which is going to fly off of the lots like free beer. The VW brand is alive and well. Hopefully, now that the company has been severely chastened, it will seize this golden opportunity to do even better.

As I’ve said previously, if this stuff were easy, everyone would have 30 percent market share and the streets in auto centers around the world would be paved with platinum. And when you listen to CEOs like Carlos and Sergio long enough, you get the idea that is exactly what they expect. But this just in: It doesn’t work that way, and when you have multiple manufacturers clamoring for the same slice of the pie and making the same sort of promises, something has to give, which means brand image becomes even more crucial.

Automakers who are in search of a brand image and understand the power that comes with having a solid one garner the tiniest bit of slack from me, because at least they know what they want and where they need to go. But the automakers that have a brand image and don’t have the first clue as to what to do with it, or worse - have squandered a great brand legacy because of cluelessness, ineptitude, or both - draw zero sympathy from me.

It’s duly noted that the companies that are overflowing with True Believers and that focus every waking moment on the integrity and the fundamental desirability of the product are doing very well right now in the brand image department, and they will continue to do so. (There are exceptions, of course, as inept marketing has a tendency to overwhelm great products. See the aforementioned Chevrolet example.) 

The rest? Well, for them flailing and floundering about seems to be standard operating procedure, if not a full-time career trajectory. And living in a world of reduced expectations is oddly comforting to them.

Brand image is a fleeting thing, except for those brand marketers 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.

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