THE AUTOEXTREMIST BRAND IMAGE METER IV, OR, “HOW CAN WE GET THERE IF WE DON’T KNOW WHERE WE’RE GOING?”
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. In last week’s column, “Excellence Was Expected” I talked about the Porsche vs. Audi slugfest at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with the world witnessing advanced German technical automotive might on the sport’s greatest stage. I called it “a display of ultimate automotive branding that can’t be equaled” and indeed that’s exactly what it was.
But then again not every automobile manufacturer can burnish its reputation in the competitive arena. Most have to stick to their own devices when it comes to brand image wrangling, with some being naturally savvy stewards of their brands while others stumble around in fits and starts, and still others well and truly suck at it.
If we were a certain kind of publication, these awards would come complete with glittery trophies and massive publicity campaigns attached, and we would be Ka-Chinging a happy tune as auto companies advertised their success to the world, with the Autoextremist brand prominently displayed in those ads.
But, we’re not.
Be that as it may, we’re confident in the knowledge that the AE Brand Image Meter column is in the top three in unique visitors and page views each and every year that we have presented it, garnishing loads of buzz and in some cases, voluminous “woe is me” hand-wringing in executive suites throughout the industry.
As I said when we first introduced our Brand Image Meter three years ago, when it comes to the power of brands and the inescapable importance of brand image, “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.”
Not surprisingly, none of that has changed, and image wrangling is now the Number 1 priority in this business. Why? The democratization of technology and luxury has allowed auto manufacturers the world over to have access to the crucial ingredients that make automobiles desirable. And with supplier expertise greater than ever, any car company can dial up a witch’s brew of ingredients to compete in almost any given segment they set their sights on.
But does having the right cocktail of ingredients mean that success will be guaranteed? Not a chance, because the expertise of the rest of the organization in terms of design, engineering and product development comes into play. And even if the entire package is indeed thoroughly executed to the highest standards, the last and most meaningful ingredient – brand image - has to be there in order for the effort to come together.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Dial in brand image and everything will be good, right? Yes, but it is not that easy, far from it, in fact. This business is littered with strategic missteps, ham-fisted executions, an endless stream of miscalculations and that ever-present danger - rampant cluelessness – that can serve to impede a brand image from resonating in the market.
Get it right and a manufacturer can live to fight another day. Nail it perfectly and a company may be able to build sustained momentum for a brand for years to come. Get it wrong and that will guarantee a life of misery for a brand as it flounders and sputters in the market.
Winning car companies understand that expert brand image wrangling can make or break their efforts. Having outstanding products is a fundamental requirement, of course, but knowing how to present those products and being able to expertly nurture a brand’s image completes the equation. And less-than-winning car companies, or car companies only intermittently able to be on their games for whatever the reasons (infighting, lack of talent, abject stupidity or all of the above), pay for their mistakes exponentially, compounding their troubles with each misstep.
As I’ve said before, executives at the less-than-winning car companies get into trouble because they actually start to think that they’re selling something they’re not, which leads them to deluding themselves into thinking that their products are something other than what they are. In other words, an incurable case of brand delusion.
When the people running the company don’t know how and why the brand earned its chops to begin with and are confused as to what their brand stands for now, how can they possibly guide it properly? The short answer? They can’t. And even worse, they allow the wrong products to creep into their portfolios, which ultimately will lead to a corrosive level of brand dilution. The difference between getting things right and getting them horribly wrong when it comes to this brand image wrangling business is the finest of lines.
But then again people are paid very well to do these jobs, so it’s okay to expect them to know what they’re doing, even when they clearly don’t.
So who is on their game right now when it comes to this business of brand image wrangling? And who doesn’t even have a glimpse of a clue?
Let’s find out. The updated Autoextremist Brand Image Meter IV ratings consist of the following: Hot. Cold. Neutral. Clueless. Delusional. WTF? And Pathetic. With a few surprises thrown in for good measure.
Without further ado then, let’s get on with it, shall we?
Alfa Romeo: As you read this, a handpicked group of automotive reporters from around the world – including many from the U.S. – have been summoned by Sergio The Great to Milan, Italy, for the press intro of the Alfa Romeo Giulia midsize sedan, which is allegedly going to make its debut in Europe next spring, followed by its debut in the U.S. one year from now. I say “allegedly” because reports already indicate that these dates are certain to slide as insiders at contributing suppliers insist that myriad executional problems remain unresolved with the Giulia. I for one will be shocked if the Giulia arrives here before the late fall of 2016.
Now, of course, Alfa Romeo consists of the boutique 4C sports car here in the U.S. and that’s it. The 4C is a nice little Ricky Racer toy but expecting it to deliver enough substance to hang the brand on is unrealistic. But Marchionne is hinging FCA’s future on launching multiple competitive Alfa Romeo-branded entries into a market that is already saturated within an inch of its life in the hottest segments with such players as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Lincoln, Cadillac and higher-end Hyundai and Kia entries. Marchionne actually believes that he’ll flip a switch and glorious, winning Alfa products will start flowing out the door and that salivating customers will come running.
But, as is his wont, Marchionne’s delusions of grandeur get the best of him every time. The promise of Alfa Romeo has been CEO Sergio Marchionne’s Groundhog Day for a full eight years now. As I’ve said repeatedly and I have to say again: the idea of Alfa Romeo existing as a global volume player is a figment of Sergio’s considerable imagination.
This is the same imagination, remember, that has Marchionne and his espresso-swilling minions deferring spending money on future Jeep, Chrysler and Ram pickup product programs and instead pouring everything he’s got into Alfa Romeo.
The true meaning of the previous paragraph resonates to a level of flat-out stupidity that is simply impossible to comprehend. Delaying future Jeep and pickup development alone is suicidal, but to do so in order that the company can execute Marchionne’s warped “vision” for Alfa Romeo?
The latest chapter in Marchionne’s “folly” that will be unveiled to the press in Milan has him insisting that Alfa Romeo will be the next Audi, not only in terms of brand stature - which, considering it has taken Audi 30 years to get where it is today, is a level of delusion that is jaw-dropping even for this town - but also in actual sales, as in real live market share. In fact, Marchionne is now promising that FCA will be selling 400,000 Alfa Romeo cars worldwide and upwards of 150,000 Alfas in the U.S. by 2018. (Just to be clear, Alfa Romeo sold 70,000 cars total last year.)
As I stated a few weeks ago, pinning the future of FCA on having the Alfa Romeo brand going from zero-to-Audi in less than three years is not just “folly” – it is pure, unadulterated, egomaniacal absurdity. (Read more of Peter's take on the press unveiling of the new Giulia in "On The Table" -WG)
Once upon a time Alfa Romeo had a smokin’ hot brand image with a large measure of overt sexuality thrown in for good measure. Today? This once-great marque has been reduced to a sentence of underpinning Marchionne’s incomprehensibly delusional plan to dominate the automotive world.
Somewhere in there the inherent goodness and likability of the Alfa Romeo brand lives on, but the sad reality is that Alfa is now the woefully ill-equipped pawn in Sergio’s rapidly teetering Empire.
As for the AE Brand Image Meter? For the romantic, historical notions of what Alfa Romeo used to be back in the day? Hot, even heroic. Now? It’s Sergio’s Grand Delusion. And it’s just plain pathetic.
Acura: Somewhere in the brief that underpins its existence, Acura is supposed to be the very best that the Honda Motor Company can muster when it comes to building automobiles. But as I’ve said repeatedly, it’s safe to say that the brand has excelled only in intermittent bursts over the years, with the misses far outweighing the hits. It will take years of product goodness to make consumers forget about the boneheaded decision-making, the crushingly mediocre design efforts and the incomprehensibly average entries that wore the Acura nameplate. Unfortunately, it appears that Acura’s new formula for future success is driven by a belief in technology for technology’s sake, that by ladling on large amounts of gee-whiz “stuff” they can deliver a genuine driving difference with real conquest appeal, even though they’ve demonstrated repeatedly that they can’t. And has anything really changed when considering Acura design? Uh no, it’s still an oxymoron. Remember, we’re supposed to be talking about the best of Honda here, but it still doesn’t resonate as such. Will the NSX change that? Only somewhat, because the NSX will exist in a vacuum, one that offers little rub-off for the rest of the brand. Where does the spinning wheel stop on the AE Brand Image Meter for Acura? As I said last year, “memorable” is right next to “forgettable.” I’m still waiting for Acura to show me something different.
Aston Martin: I said in the last edition of the AE Brand Image Meter that Aston pretending it is something it’s not nor will ever be is not a value-added activity. Aston shouldn’t have to play that game, right? In the past, all Aston had to do was keep coming up with variations on its time-honored theme of hot-looking luxury GT cars that were true to its brand image. And it was good. Except today’s reality suggests that good isn’t good enough. Variations on a theme won’t sustain the brand in this SUV/crossover-crazed world we live in today, which is why the powers that be at Aston Martin are feverishly working on a plan to build a luxury crossover/GT in the brand’s idiom, taking a page right from the Porsche SUV playbook. Will they succeed? This just in: They have no choice, because without this vehicle Aston Martin may not survive at all. But if they succeed – and I have every confidence that they will – then Aston Martin will still be Aston Martin, which is something to celebrate. Remember, there will always be someone who just can’t wait to answer when asked at a cocktail party, “I drive an Aston Martin.” Not red-hot on the AE Brand Image Meter given the burgeoning ultra-luxury competition and the excruciating wait for its crossover, but for a select few – and us - Aston Martin remains plenty hot enough.
Audi: Audi’s commitment to its fundamental beliefs was on display at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago. The Audi R18 e-tron Quattro racing machines exemplify the Audi philosophy to a “T.” Advanced technology in a performance package delivering high overall operating efficiency, all wrapped in shimmering bodywork not only defines the Audi product mission, it speaks to its corporate soul. Throw in interior design second to none in its glittering array of street machines, and you have an almost unbeatable combination in the market. Audi’s relentless product focus and executional consistency is now stretching deep into its second decade, which is indeed impressive. Are there chinks looming in Audi’s armor? Like its German rivals at BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Audi seems to be dangling between just enough and way too much when it comes to creating new products, veering dangerously close at times to the dreaded “being all things to all people” disease that leads manufacturers to drop their guard and make mistakes (see BMW below). As long as the Audi overlords refrain from going down this road they’ll be just fine. Audi’s impeccable image has gone from being very warm to the touch on the AE Brand Image Meter last year to again being the quintessential definition of brand hotness this year.
Bentley: Bentley has righted itself big-time with a delectable array of updated and ever desirable machines, but in the process it has also learned a valuable lesson: there are too many competitors in the ultra-luxury segment to just phone it in now. The AE Brand Image Meter? Hot, as long as Bentley doesn’t try to be something it’s not.
BMW: No automobile company portrays the burgeoning Dr. Jekyll & Hyde disease that’s infecting the German luxury-performance brands better than BMW. The dichotomy that exists at BMW is also evident at Mercedes-Benz (and to a lesser degree Audi too). German auto executives believe with absolute certainty that if they cover every niche in the market – both real and imagined – it will ensure their survival and profitability, brand image be damned. But they’ll find out the hard way that there are painful ramifications that come with their actions. Having a BMW in every garage is a recipe for Not Good, not a grand plan for long-term success. The journey that the Bavarian company has been on, from purveyors of the original sport sedan – the vaunted 2002 – to the ubiquitous luxury brand that it is today has been well documented, and BMW certainly has its much-copied act down cold. But the magic formula of ingredients that made BMW a BMW has been lost in translation in too many of their models today. The light, nimble, tossable sedans that launched the company have given way to bloated, techno-overkill sedans, SUVs and crossovers that have about as much in common with the original idea as today’s O.J. Simpson has with the legendary USC football star. Will BMW continue to sell prodigious amounts of BMWs? Yes, of course they will. But people are buying BMWs because they think they should be driving them, instead of lusting after the vehicles because they can deliver a driving experience like no other. That’s a huge difference. There are still enough “authentic” BMWs being built to keep the BMW faithful happy, but how long will that last? The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Chilly to very hot, depending on which BMW we’re talking about.
BMW “i”: This new, electrified brand from BMW has put Tesla in perspective for a lot of the green-tinged hordes lighting votive candles to Elon Musk in their backyards. The avant-garde “i” brand from BMW is technologically rich, wildly inventive and it represents nothing less than the future of automotive transportation on our way to the Hydrogen Age (especially the i8). The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Extremely cool but very hot to the touch – the rolling automotive equivalent of dry ice.
Buick: That Buick survived the purging of brands during the GM bankruptcy was simply due to the fact that the brand had an established presence in China, and to walk away from that would have been absurd, given the upward trajectory of that market. And though Buick is showing some definite signs of life in this market, the lack of a show-stopping image car is still glaring. As we’ve learned, GM Design troops are focused on making the Buick brand one of beautiful design statements that people will desire. All well and good but what does that really mean? Certainly the current Buick lineup is competent and in some cases tasteful to look at, but it still suffers from a lack of passion and generates little desire. Buick still needs a defining moment, an automotive design milestone that will crystallize the brand for the next generation and make the industry sit up and take notice (and no, the terribly overrated Avenir concept shown in Detroit isn’t it). A new Riviera would do wonders, but don’t hold your breath that will happen anytime soon. Buick remains in automotive limbo for now, which, according to the AE Brand Image Meter, can be a cold, disheartening place. Last year I said “Memorable cars that bristle with passion will be the only way out for Buick.” That’s still the High-Octane Truth.
Cadillac: GM has spent billions on Cadillac in order to transform it into a brand capable of going toe-to-toe against the European luxury-performance juggernaut. And to a large degree it has been successful in terms of delivering some absolutely stunning machines. But is Cadillac any closer to becoming accepted beyond its well of domestic-oriented consumers? Is it really appealing to import-oriented consumers? No, not really, certainly not enough to matter anyway. The “let’s go after the German luxury-performance automakers with a vengeance” positioning has run its course, and even though its V-series work has indeed yielded impressive results, Cadillac has been wise to walk away from constantly going toe-to-toe with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Are the True Believers working on Cadillac capable of creating desirable machines? Yes, they’ve repeatedly demonstrated that they’re very adept at it. But it’s up to Cadillac marketers to translate that into consumer desirability. The “Dare Greatly” marketing push is an excellent first step at finding Cadillac’s voice. Unfortunately, the conundrum for Cadillac is that the upcoming CT6 doesn’t dare greatly at all. In fact its painfully conservative and “restrained” design language will be its biggest limitation in the market. The good news is that the powers that be at Cadillac have finally discovered that it can exist just fine in this new automotive universe, by being Cadillac. But if Cadillac marketers are going to stick with this “Dare Greatly” business, then they better make damn sure that they do, in fact, dare greatly. Pulling up short and playing “small ball” isn’t going to get it done for Cadillac. Half of this image wrangling business hinges on knowing what you’re not as much as it is knowing what you want to be. In terms of the AE Brand Image Meter right now, Cadillac is warm depending on which model you’re looking at, with only isolated incidents of hotness. Memo to Cadillac: Hotter is Better.
Chevrolet: Unlike certain aforementioned German automakers that have no business being in everyone’s garage, that is in fact, Chevrolet’s raison d’etre in this market. But being something for everyone and having something for everyone can’t be predictable, or boring, and fortunately Mark Reuss seems to have his product troops understanding that. That said, Chevrolet is another brand that needs to be careful of being something it is not. The global brand push for Chevrolet has been a bust almost from the beginning. And I’m not sure anyone down at the Silver Silos gets that. GM marketers should focus on the fact that Chevrolet is one of the most iconic automotive brands in history and that they have some of the best products they’ve ever had. I want to feel moved by that, yet I don’t. Why is that? It’s because “Find New Roads” undersells the brand to the point of invisibility, that’s why, and it remains one of the most dismal, excruciatingly ill-fitting brand themes in this business. And the harder Chevrolet marketers try to pound it into the American psyche, the worse it gets. The fact that the powers that be at Chevrolet haven’t admitted defeat with “FNR” is yet another glaring example of how not having a Chief Marketing Officer is absolutely killing GM – and GM’s brands. The official AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Hot with its performance cars, but lukewarm-ish overall.
Chrysler: Fiat-Chrysler’s mainstream American brand has struggled mightily in this market, despite the best efforts of Olivier “I’m a genius, just ask me” Francois as he banged his celebrity marketing drum incessantly. The much-touted Chrysler 200 is better than what came before, but it’s no brand savior, now, is it? All it managed to accomplish for Chrysler is for FCA to be represented in the mid-size segment, and nothing more. Certainly not the game-changing stuff that was promised. Marchionne and his espresso-fueled minions are absolutely desperate to have Fiat-Chrysler be more than just a Jeep and Ram truck company, but now that Sergio is going “all-in” on Alfa Romeo, where does that leave Chrysler? How about nowhere? As for the AE Brand Image Meter, Chrysler is perpetually stuck in glorified brand neutral, largely confined to its own little world of self-congratulation.
Corvette: Unlike other parts of GM, the True Believers who actually design, engineer and develop the Corvette understand what it is and what it is not. They are perfectly content to let the Corvette be the Corvette, which is so refreshing it’s still somewhat of a revelation, especially in this town. And that has become easier to do since the new Corvette is clearly among the world’s great sports cars, by any measure. And yes, I’m again listing Corvette as a separate brand despite GM and Chevrolet marketing operatives’ vehement cries of “foul.” Too frickin’ bad. Corvette deserves better and it deserves to stand alone. And even though some of the unenlightened out there still dismiss it, the Corvette is now one of the most desirable high-performance sports cars in the world, with a glorious track record at the 24 Hours of Le Mans - eight wins in sixteen attempts - to back up its hard-won reputation. The AE Brand Image Meter? It’s glowing red-hot for the Corvette
Dodge: The High-Octane Truth about Dodge is that until further notice it’s a purveyor of badass cop cars and throwback Hell Cat muscle cars. The AE Brand Image Meter? Hot, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Fiat: Allegedly a vital cog in Sergio’s vision for world domination, Fiat is essentially free falling and near dead in this market. The 500 - Abarth version or no – couldn’t sustain the brand and the dreadful 500L is, well, dismal. Olivier “I’m a genius, just ask me” Francois tried to sell Fiat as something special, but the reality is that it’s a decidedly pedestrian brand trying to pretend it’s something else. Why? Because Sergio insists this is the way it will be. Fiat is a sub-niche of a niche desperately seeking more. If FCA stopped importing everything but the 500x, Sergio might have a shot at saving Fiat over here, but then again he’s moved on to Alfa, remember? Fiat is the little engine that wanted to be, fulfilling a role that it was never really cut out for. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Non ci capisco niente.
Ferrari: Purveyor of majestic, heroic, sensational and passionate machines and the jewel of the FCA crown, Ferrari is still the quintessential definition of smokin’ Italian hotness. But, and there’s always a “but” - 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. Although the Italian sports car manufacturer has taken a decided step back by actually reducing the number of cars it produces - which is a bit of a revelation – still, there are too many Ferrari “experience” parks and too many mini-monuments to itself to think that they won’t eventually screw things up. Ferrari management scoffs at the idea that the brand might become oversaturated. Duly noted, but guess what? It already is. Still white-hot on the AE Brand Image Meter, Ferrari is veering dangerously close to the edge of becoming ubiquitous, which is anathema for any high-performance luxury brand, especially one that bases its entire reputation on the notion of exclusivity.
Ford: Ford is the iconic American brand that has garnered newfound respect with each new product iteration, and it has now officially embarked on the Mark Fields era. Where Ford goes from here will be very interesting to watch. If it stands pat and allows itself to get complacent, its prospects will be less than stellar, because the competition is far too tough for that. If, on the other hand, it puts the pedal down hard and keeps its product focus and momentum, it will remain a formidable competitor for the foreseeable future. It will be up to Mark Fields and his team to define that future. The AE Brand Image Meter rating for Ford is a split. If we’re talking the F-150 pickup, it’s red hot and getting hotter. As for Ford passenger cars, it’s still warm to the touch, but not nearly as hot as it should be.
GMC: Slick trucks, great-looking SUVs and crossovers – especially in the Denali configurations – GMC is the brand that is constantly underestimated but one that consistently outperforms expectations. As for the AE Brand Image Meter? Warm. And remarkably so.
Honda: After insisting for years that it had its mojo back when it really didn’t, it appears that Honda actually does. American consumers clearly haven't lost their love for the brand despite its myriad missteps over the past decade, and with new Honda products showing well in the market, the brand’s upward trajectory is gaining strength. Honda’s competitors have been reminded that a focused Honda is a very dangerous car company. The AE Brand Image Meter? Mojo percolation.
Hyundai: Hyundai’s ambition knows no bounds, there’s no doubt about that. I used to think that Hyundai’s ascension to the next level was just a matter of time, but I no longer think that it will be automatic. It will take more than desire, much more, for Hyundai to get there. And I’m not sure they understand that even now, because the egomaniacal leadership at Hyundai is still writing checks that their product development troops can’t cash. Brand Image Meter? Lost in the desert and stumbling.
Infiniti: This car company is so hungry to be considered on par with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz that it’s starting to wear the ghostly pallor of desperation. Nissan's luxury brand keeps pounding away on the technology for technology’s sake drum, shouting from the rooftops that they belong. But none of it resonates much beyond the fact that Infiniti is just another brand in the luxury segment in search of its place in the world, with extremely aggressive near-term sales goals to boot. Infiniti is not any closer to moving its image needle with the consumer public than it was five years ago. The AE Brand Image Meter? Perpetually stuck in neutral.
Jaguar: Fantastic historical relevance with its beautiful D-Type racers, XK-120 sports cars and the timeless and fabulous E-Type. Now, its deep-pocketed ownership and rejuvenated brand leadership is starting to pay dividends for the brand. The F-Type seems to be moving the needle positively for the brand (I prefer the coupe over the convertible by a bunch), and with more new products coming, the future looks bright. Jaguar is out to attract the same “new” buyers that every other brand in the luxury-performance market wants - aka younger people with money - and the brand keeps hammering away at that theme. For now, it looks to be working. The AE Brand Image Meter? Definitely warm to the touch.
Jeep: Despite the best efforts of the prosciutto-fisted Italians marching to Sergio’s whims, Jeep has succeeded because the True Believers in Auburn Hills charged with stewardship of this iconic brand have managed to keep the non-essential combatants – aka those same Italians - from screwing it up. Jeep has an impeccable brand image and it’s likely to stay that way until further notice. The AE Brand Image Meter? Only second to Porsche, which means Jeep is just a notch below the very top of the meter.
Kia: This adjunct auto company to Hyundai wakes up every day desperately wanting to put more distance between itself and its Korean cousin. Kia wants to be younger, stronger, faster, better looking and more luxurious. You name it and the overlords of Kia want it, bad. The feistiness and march-to-a-different drummer attitude that Kia seems to wear on its sleeve only goes so far, and the Kia brand image is still undefined because of it. Hot designers and hot development engineers have been brought in to make Kia look and drive like the Korean BMW, but that’s going to take some time, especially with the competition growing tougher by the day. The AE Brand image Meter? Tepid and not ready for prime time just yet.
Lamborghini: I believe this Italian sports car manufacturer owned by the VW Group has, oddly enough, stayed more true to its mission than Ferrari. 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. Do we care? Ultimately, no, but we’re glad they’re still doing it. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Still hot, especially if Ferraris are too ubiquitous in your burg.
Land Rover: Formerly known as a maker of clunky, cantankerous, bloated SUVs with faux status apropos of some other era not our own, Land Rover has now done a complete, 180-degree shift to become The Shit. Thousands of pounds lighter and more elegant than ever before, Land Rover are now highly desirable machines. The brand has gone from stuffy without a clue to the must-have SUV statement of-the-moment. Old AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Forgettable old-world schtick. New AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Hot and with more heat to come.
Lexus: The luxury arm of Toyota, Lexus is still 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, despite all of Akio Toyoda's recent efforts to project Lexus as being a performance car company (I will admit that the F cars are executed nicely). In the end, Toyota’s coldly calculated, blandtastic money machine churns on. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? If you’re a Lexus dealer, giddy. For everyone else, a shrug of the shoulders will suffice.
Lincoln: Everyone has been waiting for Lincoln to make some real noise in the market. The MKZ and now the MKC have at least reestablished the Lincoln presence here, but Lincoln still needs a full-size luxury statement vehicle, the kind that will make people take notice and say, “Did you see that new Lincoln?”. Lincoln operatives and Ford management discovered something critically important at the New York Auto Show, and that is that the Continental name resonates with real power. And that is key, because until they have that car Lincoln will merely be present and accounted for in the American luxury market, and that’s not good enough. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking for Lincoln? The burner was just turned on last year, but they still need more. Much more.
Lotus: Nothing has changed, unfortunately. 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, semi-interested consumers Lotus is an automotive oddity that pales in comparison to a host of other machines out there. When it comes to the AE Brand Image Meter, the ranking is damp and cold, just like a late fall day in Norwich, England.
Maserati: Another now-forgotten plank in Sergio's grand plan for world domination, Maserati 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 overly aggressive projections? Not a chance, because let’s not forget FCA is, repeat after me, “all Alfa, all the time” now. The AE Brand Image Meter? A glimpse of warmth, but only for those who still give a shit.
Mazda: Even though Mazda builds some 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? Mazda executives are taking a swing at major league image shifting with the new “Driving Matters” campaign, which is indeed excellent and one of the best automotive ads we’ve seen in a while. But saying that, it’s almost if that campaign should be attached to another brand, because it seems to be overreaching beyond Mazda’s station in the automotive world. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? If you’re into the brand, it’s hot. For most of the rest of the automotive world it’s - did you see the last three holes of the U.S. Open?
McLaren: This exotic micro-manufacturer has proved to be formidable, and even though Ferrari dismisses McLaren as a legitimate threat to its perpetual dominance of the hyper-exotic car league, I’m certainly not betting against them. McLaren gets a “smoking hot” ranking on the AE Brand Image Meter, if only because it’s nice to see Ferrari quake in its boots a little bit.
Mercedes-Benz: Speaking of Jekyll and Hyde car companies, Mercedes is the most wildly inconsistent auto manufacturer in the world. When they’re “on” – see the magnificent new S-Class Coupe, 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 AE Brand Image Meter? Only intermittently hot, and that’s not even remotely good enough.
Mini: Came on like gangbusters from the moment it was introduced and was successful beyond all expectations, at least for a while. But the powers that be at Mini have since 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 crushing blow. BMW seems to have quit pushing Mini for more volume, which means that the brand can exist in its own little space in the market for the time being, which is as it should be. The AE Brand Image Meter? Chilly but that’s okay, because Mini fanatics don’t care anyway.
Mitsubishi: Repeat after me - Lancer, Lancer Evolution, Outlander Sport, I-MIEV, Mirage, Outlander. Has anyone seen these vehicles of late? Does anybody know someone who actually drives one? Is Mitsubishi really still in business or is it just a webpage destination with no real "there" there? Mitsubishi operatives are jacked about the new Outlander, but I repeat, does anyone really give a shit? The AE Brand Image Meter: Nil.
Nissan: This company has slowly but surely become a mainstream force in the U.S. market despite flying almost completely under the radar and building some seriously ugly cars. Why? Solid products with a burgeoning acceptance among consumers that Nissan is not only an acceptable choice, but also a desirable choice. So there’s that. And despite Carlos Ghosn’s promises of global dominance, nothing has changed to alter that assessment. (Can’t auto CEOs just be content with doing well without veering into talk about dominating the market? Ha! What was I thinking?) Nissan gets a warm-ish ranking on the AE Brand Image Meter, although this brand couldn’t be further from our personal cup of tea.
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. Is Porsche susceptible to missteps? Of course it is. At some point the soccer moms and dads will forget what Porsche stands for (if they even remembered why they signed up for the brand in the first place) and that could be a giant steaming bowl of Not Good. But then again Porsche seems to be keenly aware of this danger, which is a big reason why they dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans again for a record seventeenth time a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully even Porsche’s savvy marketing operatives know they can’t stay on this roll indefinitely without 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, which means it occupies the top spot on the AE Brand Image Meter.
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. The result? Hot on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Rolls Royce: No changes 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, and now the majestic Wraith. 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: Somewhat successful, at least initially, this “clean sheet” youth-targeted brand – even though most early adopter buyers were over the age of 45 – is over. Just take it out back and put it out of its misery because this just in: nobody cares. The AE Brand Image Meter? Icy dead. As in Dawn of a New Ice Age.
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 isn’t, and because of that focused consistency it has been rewarded with intense brand loyalty. The AE Brand Image Meter? For us personally, the brand is a non-starter. 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, Elon Musk is a huge success, dammit, and don’t you dare forget it. The car built for politicians in Washington and Northern California - and EcoSwells needing even more validation for who they think they are - Tesla is still riding a generously positive wave, even though it doesn’t make any money to speak of. The AE Brand Image Meter? To the green intelligentsia, it’s The White Hot Future. For the rest of us it’s like a $100,000 spinach and sprout sandwich, served cold with a soy latte chaser.
Toyota: The juggernaut that became a juggernot, Toyota is back with a renewed sense that it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants to. Armed with a war chest brimming with billions, Toyota’s resilience in the market is 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. The AE Brand Image Meter? For Toyota 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, Hyundai, VW or other automotive parts unknown.
Volvo: This car company seems to have juiced its product focus up of late and it's trying desperately to become a player again. As for the AE Brand Image Meter, it’s still the brand for people who question why they even bother to own a car in the first place.
VW: Ignoring the world domination plans of the VW Group for a moment, which admittedly is hard to do, there’s no doubt that when VW puts its mind to it, the company can produce excellent products (see the Golf GTI). But generally, VW has underperformed in this market to a degree that’s shocking. Why? Because VW’s marketing “genius” executives (cough, hack) totally missed the headlong rush to SUVs by the American consumer. Who knew? (Besides every other car company, of course.) Now, VW plans on tripling its SUV/crossover offerings complete with a new Gumby-esque marketing push – “We’re an SUV company dammit!” Which is all well and good but are they prepared to drop underperforming product entries – such as the Beetle - when they do that? Just asking, would you miss it? To their detriment, VW operatives have proved reluctant to jettison cars in the past even when their sell-by date has long since expired. What’s going to be different now? The AE Brand Image Meter: VW is still slightly warm to the touch but a major power outage looms at any moment.
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.
The rest? Well, for them flailing and floundering about seems to be standard operating procedure, if not a full-time career trajectory.
Brand image 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.