By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Watching the events surrounding the GM ignition switch fiasco unfold last week was interesting, but not as interesting as you might imagine. First of all, none of it was revelatory or even shocking to me in the least. That the Anton Valukas investigative report was an indictment of GM’s so-called corporate “culture” and that the built-in silos existing throughout the corporation were ultimately to blame for the lack of accountability in this odorous recall situation was as predictable as saying GM had lost its way back in 1979.
The rationale by Valukas that GM’s hidebound, insular culture prevented the severity of this situation from ever getting to the upper echelons of the corporation was barely believable and had all the calculated indications of a soft landing for everyone who was allegedly in the dark or not involved. Needless to say I wasn’t impressed with it and I’m not buying it.
Most glaring of the dubious findings in the report was that GM’s General Counsel, Michael Millikin, was completely unaware of what was going on until this past February, but that two of his deputies were knee-deep in it and lost their jobs because of it.
Really? Millikin is the architect of GM’s feared legal department, an “Adjustment Bureau” of sorts that runs roughshod over anything and everything inside that corporation, whether it comes under the purview of the legal department or not.
“Not knowing” is as far away from Millikin’s modus operandi as you can possibly get. This guy takes great pride in knowing everything there is to know about the company, often putting his nose – and the boots of his legal stormtroopers – in places that they don’t belong, to the detriment of many. It should be no surprise that Millikin was one of Dan Akerson’s closest - if not the closest – allies, and the two were joined at the hip while plotting, ruminating and generally concocting mayhem within the company according to Captain Queeg’s mood on any given day.
So two of Millikin’s top lieutenants get the ax, but Millikin escapes to fight another day? That’s unmitigated bullshit, and it was a definitive indicator to me that the report was a vacuous document, one that left names out while selectively applying accountability where it seemed appropriate to placate outside scrutiny.
As I said several weeks ago in “On The Table,” unless and until Mary Barra blows up the GM legal department and starts over – and I mean take everyone out, starting with Millikin – then I am unwilling to say that she truly gets it.
Yes, she gets a gold star for being much better prepared last week than she was in Washington, D.C., a few months ago, but I expected nothing less. After all, her performance in Washington bordered on being a complete debacle, but this time she was properly coached and edited by PR pros Steve Harris and Tony Cervone and delivered a convincing – at least on the surface – performance.
But it’s still not good enough, and I am still waiting for the kind of definitive action from Ms. Barra that would suggest to me that it’s not business as usual. She said all the right things, but the reality is that it smacks of lip service until further notice.
As for Valukas seemingly being stunned and appalled by GM’s so-called insular and compromised “culture,” I just had to laugh. The fact of the matter is that I started writing about this in my very first column on this website fifteen years ago. Entitled “White Boy Culture” it was a searing indictment of the Detroit automotive mentality and its classic, cover-your-ass, go-along-to-get-along shell game. I talked about the stunning lack of accountability, the rampant fiefdoms and entrenched silos, the kick-the-can-down-the-road-avoid-decision-making-at-all costs mindset, the lowest-common-denominator thinking, and the relentless mediocrity and organizational chaos that ensued because of it. And I’ve never stopped writing about it.
That the Valukas report seemed to take great umbrage with the fact that this mentality exists was a non-starter for me, because it’s not new. Not even remotely so. I’m sad to say that it is still rampant in this town and this business. Not only that, it’s alive and well in corporate America too. It has reached epidemic proportions, in fact, and to make matters even worse it is now poisoned even further by a particularly virulent strain of entitlement, which is a boxcar of Not Good, or in GM’s case, a recipe for disaster.
I will have plenty more to say about this subject in the coming weeks and months, because this just in: It’s not going away anytime soon. There will be another appearance in Washington for Barra & Co. this summer (it has been confirmed for next week - WG) so that our esteemed (cough, hack) politicians can have their turn at the whipping post, and from there, it will continue on to its inevitable conclusion. And when might that be? That’s anyone’s guess at this point.
And now, on to the Autoextremist Brand Image Meter III.
As I said when we first introduced our Brand Image Meter two 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 higher 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 you can live to fight another day. Nail it perfectly and you may be able to build sustained momentum for a brand for years to come. Get it wrong and you 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.
And 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 Autoextremist Brand Image Meter III has ratings consisting of the following: Hot. Cold. Neutral. Clueless. And Pathetic. With a few surprises thrown in for good measure.
Alfa Romeo: Though a brilliant deal maker, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s ability to run a company after all of the cutting and pasting has been accomplished remains suspect. Why? Because his product acumen remains a glaring question mark. And the Alfa Romeo 4C has done nothing to change that opinion. Yes, it’s an interesting boutique sports car, but remember, Marchionne is pinning the hopes of FCA on turning Alfa Romeo into another Audi, and by 2018, no less. That means fielding multiple competitive 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. The Great Sergio thinks he’s going to 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, his 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 seven years now. As I’ve said repeatedly, the idea of Alfa Romeo existing as a global volume player is a figment of Sergio’s considerable imagination. Back in the day, 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 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 on, but the sad reality is 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. As for the AE Brand Image Meter, for the romantic, historical notions of what Alfa Romeo once was, it’s hot, even heroic. But for Sergio’s delusional volume play? Pathetic.
Acura: Believe it or not, Acura is supposed to be the best that the Honda Motor Company can muster when it comes to car making. At least that is what it says somewhere in the brief that underpins Acura’s existence. But it’s safe to say that the brand has excelled only intermittently over the years, with the misses far outweighing the hits. Acura executives are hell bent on fixing all of the wrongs that have been perpetrated by the brand prior to right now, but 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. Acura’s new formula for future success? Technology for technology’s sake and a steadfast belief that they can deliver a genuine driving difference with real conquest appeal, even though they’ve demonstrated repeatedly that they can’t. As for Acura design? It’s still an oxymoron. Remember, we’re supposed to be talking about the best of Honda here, but it sure doesn’t look or feel like it. Where does the spinning wheel stop on the AE Brand Image Meter for Acura? Well, let’s see, “memorable” is right next to “forgettable.” Good luck ladies and gentlemen, you’re up.
Aston Martin: I gave up thinking Aston Martin would lead the industry in something, and when I did I could see the brand clearly. Why bother pretending Aston is something it’s not nor will ever be? Aston doesn’t have to play that game. All it has to do is keep doing variations on its time-honored theme of hot-looking luxury GT cars that are true to their brand image. (Well, except for the unfortunate Cygnet, which should be buried at sea and forgotten about.) As long as the stewards of Aston forget about being anything but a niche player they’ll be just fine, because 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, but for a select few Aston is still an extremely warm brand to the touch.
Audi: Audi’s specialty is advanced technology wrapped in shimmering bodywork with interior accoutrements second to none, all due to a relentless product focus and consistency that is stretching well into its second decade now. But is that legendary Audi product focus still intact? For the most part, yes, but Audi seems to be falling victim to the disease that’s infecting all of the German brands of late, the dreaded being all things to all people daze that leads these manufacturers to drop their guard and make mistakes. Audi’s impeccable image was once the quintessential definition of brand hotness on the AE Brand Image Meter. Now? It’s still very warm to the touch, but the hotness is lost in the 4G LTE cloud.
Bentley: At its low point Bentley was reduced to being a moribund “little brother” to Rolls-Royce, but after being reinvigorated with a swift kick from Dr. Piech, Bentley came back with a vengeance, at least for a while. Then the inevitable happened. It got greedy, over-saturated itself in the market, and then things turned not so good again. Bentley has righted itself, but 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 it 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. After having a series of BMWs to drive over the last month or so, we experienced the sublime – the 640i Gran Coupe and the 435i – to the utterly ridiculous – the 335i xDrive GT. The dichotomy that exists at BMW is evident at Audi and Mercedes-Benz 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 it doesn’t work – at least not without serious consequences - and they’re likely to find out the hard way that there are painful ramifications that come with their actions. And that having a BMW (or Audi, or Mercedes) 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 act down cold. But almost everything that made BMW a BMW has been lost in translation. The light, nimble, toss-able sedans that launched the company have given way to bloated 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 still 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. There’s a big 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? Hot to very lukewarm, depending on which BMW we’re talking about.
BMW “i”: This new, electrified brand from BMW will put Tesla in perspective for a lot of the green-tinged hordes lighting votive candles to Elon Musk in their backyards as you read this. 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 Tesla story is noteworthy (more below – WG), but Mr. Musk is about to get a lesson in the power of branding. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Extremely cool but very hot to the touch - like 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 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. A new Riviera would do wonders, but don’t hold your breath that it 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 case.
Cadillac: What has transpired since GM True Believer operatives decided that Cadillac shouldn’t die back in the late 90s 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 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? Not really, no. Certainly not enough to matter anyway. As I’ve said previously, the “let’s go after the German luxury-performance automakers with a vengeance” positioning is tired, and even though its V-series work has indeed been impressive, Cadillac has permission to go its own way now. Cadillac operatives should forget about going toe-to-toe with Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, et al., and go somewhere else. Are the True Believers working on Cadillac making desirable machines? Yes, they’re proving to be very adept at it. But it’s up to Cadillac marketers to translate that into consumer desirability. So, memo to the Cadillac faithful within GM: Believe in what you’re doing. It’s excellent work and with a brace of new vehicles here and on the way Cadillac can exist just fine in this new automotive universe, by being 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 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 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 Mark Reuss has his troops understanding that. Chevrolet is another brand that needs to be careful of being something it is not. The global brand push for Chevrolet is somewhat understandable, but projecting a quintessential American brand around the globe is sketchy, at best. 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. And I only sense that feeling intermittently. The official AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Warm. Ish. But only when they feel like it.
Chrysler: Fiat-Chrysler’s upper American brand has struggled mightily in this market, despite the best efforts of Olivier “I’m a genius, just ask me” Francois banging his celebrity marketing drum incessantly. And now, the Chrysler 200 is the designated brand savior. Chrysler has carefully manipulated the media into believing that the 200 will be the equivalent to the second coming, but we’ve been down this road before with Sergio & Co. Do I need to remind you of the Dodge Dart? Anyone? Bueller? The Dart was a nice car and had some damn nice advertising – at least initially – but was it a game changer or a segment shifter? Hardly. It allowed Dodge to be present and accounted for in the compact segment, just like the 200 will allow Chrysler to be present and accounted for in the mid-size segment. Nothing more. Chrysler dealers are salivating over the new 200, but people need to be reminded that Chrysler dealers will salivate over any new product that comes their way at this juncture. Sergio and his espresso-fueled minions are absolutely desperate to have Fiat-Chrysler be more than just a Jeep and Ram truck company, and the 200, in their minds, is just the car to do it. It won’t. When it comes to the AE Brand Image Meter, Chrysler is still stuck in glorified brand neutral. Somewhat feisty, but 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 somewhat of a revelation. And that has become easier to do, since the new Corvette – and the hot new Z06 – 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 to stand alone. The AE Brand Image Meter glows red-hot for the Corvette, even though some of the unenlightened out there still dismiss it, which is too bad, because if you don’t get excited when you drive the new Corvette, something is seriously wrong. Or maybe you just need to go get yourself a Corolla and be done with it. Fortunately there is still one place where the Corvette brand image positively glows, and that’s a half a world away in Le Mans, France. Thanks to the incredible performance by Corvette Racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans over the last fourteen years, Corvette is viewed as a prestigious and desirable high-performance sports car. Tune-in to this year’s race coming up on Saturday (June 14th) to be reminded of that fact, when Corvette Racing goes for its eighth class win.
Dodge: The Fiat-Chrysler brain trust tried to convince us that the new Dart represented a kinder, greener and a more of-the-moment, hipper Dodge. It didn’t really work. Dodge is a truck company, oh wait a minute, we’re not supposed to say that anymore. It’s Ram. Whatever. The High-Octane Truth about Dodge is that it’s a purveyor of badass cop cars and throwback muscle cars until further notice. The AE Brand Image Meter? Hot, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Fiat: Nothing much has changed from last year here, either. The answer to Sergio’s prayers and a vital cog in his march to world auto domination, Fiat is the little engine that wants to be, fulfilling a role that it’s not really cut out for. As cute as the 500 is and as fun as the Abarth version of it is (and as dismal as the dreadful 500L 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. Fiat is a sub-niche of a niche desperately seeking more. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Forgettable.
Ferrari: Purveyor of majestic, heroic, sensational and passionate machines, Ferrari is still the quintessential definition of smokin’ Italian hotness. 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 still has too many Ferrari experience parks, too many mini-monuments to itself and it’s just being too greedy besides, although it took a decided step back last year by actually reducing the number of cars it produced, which is somewhat of a revelation. Ferrari management scoffs at the idea that the brand might become over-saturated. Duly noted, but guess what? It already is. Still white-hot on the AE Brand Image Meter, but one teetering on 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 scarcity.
Ford: This quintessential American brand 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 has garnered new found respect with each new product iteration, and this year it’s launching two vehicles that represent The Franchise (the new F-150) and The Soul of the company (the new Mustang), crucial launches that will set the tone for 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 Ford’s future. Brand Image Meter? Very warm to the touch. For now.
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. Remarkably so.
Honda. This company insists that it has its mojo back and maybe it does, especially with the news that it’s is coming back to Formula 1 in 2015. The dealers are cranking out sales and American consumers haven't lost their love for the brand despite its myriad missteps over the past decade. Will Honda’s competitors be reminded that a focused Honda is a very dangerous car company? Or will it stumble again and lose its way? A giant “we’ll see.” Brand Image Meter? Percolating again.
Hyundai: We’ve been through Hyundai is “the next Honda” thing, now we’re about to go through it’s “the next Lexus” thing, or something like it. The new Genesis is the car that’s supposed to launch Hyundai into becoming a serious player in the Lexus space, but I’m not necessarily buying it. Auto journalists seem to be wowed by Hyundai being present and accounted for in the near luxury space, but I'm not. 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. Brand Image Meter? Lukewarm to the touch.
Infiniti: This car company wants to be considered on par with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz so badly 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, they’ve got four-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel advising them on performance, and they’re shouting from the rooftops that they belong, if we’d all just pay attention. 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. It will take years, not quarters, but years for Infiniti to move its image needle with the consumer public. And it’s not any closer to getting there, either. The AE Brand Image Meter? Stuck in neutral.
Jaguar: Classic British car company. Fantastic historical relevance with its beautiful D-Type racers and the vaunted XK-120 sports car. Responsible for one of the greatest cars of all time – the timeless and fabulous E-Type – but doomed to producing wildly inconsistent production cars ever since. Despite its many missteps Jaguar has managed to retain a shred of integrity over all of these years, and the new F-Type seems to be moving the needle positively for the brand (I prefer the coupe over the convertible, and by a bunch). Jaguar is out to attract “new” buyers, 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. But that could change at any moment with a sudden loss of focus.
Jeep: Jeep has succeeded because the True Believers in Auburn Hills charged with stewardship of the brand have managed to keep the non-essential combatants – aka the Italians - from screwing it up. The AE Brand Image Meter? Only second to Porsche, which means Jeep is just a notch below the very top of the meter. Jeep has an impeccable brand image and it’s likely to stay that way until further notice.
Kia: This is the adjunct auto company to Hyundai that is on a furious mission to distance itself from its Korean sibling and make its way on its own. Kia wants to be younger, stronger, faster, better looking and more luxurious. You name it and the overlords of Kia want it, bad. But the K900 is a crushing disappointment, a mishmash of ingredients thrown together in a mixing bowl with the hopes that it would turn out to be good. It didn’t. Instead it’s a me-too marketing exercise masquerading as serious car building. 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. Kia has been riding the Korean wave for a while in this market, but the competition grows tougher by the day and I’m not sure having ‘tude is going to be enough. The AE Brand image Meter? Cool, and not in a good way.
Lamborghini: It could be argued that the Italian sports car manufacturer 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. Do we care? Ultimately, no, but we’re glad they’re still doing it. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Still hot, especially if Lambos are your thing.
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: Treading water almost from the get-go, Lincoln has struggled to regain its footing in this market, while simultaneously preparing to launch in the lucrative Chinese market. The MKZ has finally seemed to have found its place in Lincoln showrooms, just in time for the new MKC – which I predict will be a flat-out hit in the smaller luxury crossover segment – to arrive this summer. The Ford Motor Company needs Lincoln to not only survive, but also thrive, because the future profitability of the brand in China could be staggering, and make or break its very existence. Everyone has been waiting for Lincoln to make some noise in the market, and the MKC will go a long way to helping the brand gain traction here. 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?” with a sense of excitement, interest and urgency, 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 is starting to get a little warm.
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, 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 plank in Sergio's grand plan for world domination, Maserati is the 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. Sergio’s minions have been gushingly reporting that Maserati sales are up by triple digits each month, but you must remember that’s up from less than zero, so the gushing is unwarranted and dumb, but predictable. I mean we’re talkin’ Sergio, right? Will the brand be able to live up to Marchionne’s overly aggressive projections? Not a chance, but we’ve all grown accustomed to Sergio’s posturing and pontificating by now. The AE Brand Image Meter? Warmish, 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, in spite all of its product goodness. 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? No. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? If you’re into the brand, it’s smokin’ hot. For most of the rest of the automotive world? What time is lunch?
McLaren: Talk about a company that doesn’t stand pat, it replaced its vaunted MP4-12C sports car after just three years with something better, the 650S. 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 they build absolutely glorious machines – see the new S-Class - 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? Intermittently hot, but icy cold the rest of the time.
Mini: Came on like gangbusters from the moment it was introduced and was successful beyond all expectations, for a while at least. With each new iteration, however, BMW pushes the envelope away from what Mini should be. Maybe BMW’s “be all things to all people” M.O. is rubbing off on Mini a little too much. Not that they’d notice or anything. The AE Brand Image Meter? Cooling off at a rapid rate, but still righteous to its fanatics.
Mitsubishi: Repeat after me - Lancer, Lancer Sportback, Outlander Sport, I-MIEV, Lancer Evolution, 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? The AE Brand Meter: Not registering.
Nissan: This company has slowly but surely become a mainstream force in the U.S. market while flying almost completely under the radar. Why? Solid products and even better (for Nissan), a burgeoning acceptance among consumers that it’s not only an acceptable choice, but also a desirable choice. A nice difference. And nothing has changed to alter that assessment, despite Carlos Ghosn’s promises of global dominance. (Can’t auto CEOs be content to just do well without veering into talk about dominating the market? Apparently not.) Nissan gets a warm ranking on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Porsche: No automotive company is better at executing a vision for its brand and staying relentlessly focused at 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. 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. Are they susceptible to missteps? Of course they are. But the new Macan crossover won’t be one of them. Offering 911-type performance with a little more ground clearance and versatility, the Macan will be a runaway hit. 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 the danger, which is a big reason why they’re going for the overall win at Le Mans this coming Saturday. Even Porsche’s savvy marketing operatives know they can’t stay on this roll indefinitely without shoring up the brand’s legacy.
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 to become The Shit. Thousands of pounds lighter and more elegant than ever before, Range Rover is a very impressive and highly desirable machine. 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 and eminently so. New AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Hot and with more to come.
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 "Farmer" spot on the Super Bowl, which used a famous Paul Harvey commentary from the past, was the best spot of the past year in the automotive category. And the other spots - not all, but most - have been extremely well done too. The result? Ram is taking market share away from the Chevy Silverado, which has forced GM to commission a hasty design freshening of the truck because of it. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Hot.
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: The original and most successful, at least initially, 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 wasn’t the start of a renewal for the brand, because it’s a singular product that suggests nothing about the future direction of Scion. The AE Brand Image Meter? An ice-cold cup of two-day-old Joe.
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, 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. The AE Brand Image Meter? To the green intelligentsia, it’s still white-hot and still The Future. To us it’s like a $100,000 spinach and sprout sandwich, served cold with a soy latte chaser. And once Elon gets tired of the whole thing and just wants to be Elon the Battery Making King, who knows what’s in store for The Little Science Experiment That Could?
Toyota: The juggernaut that became a juggernot, Toyota is back with a renewed sense that it can do whatever it wants and 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 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 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 squandered its “safe” market positioning and let it slip away to the competition – the newest recruit? GM - figuring they would go the luxury route and be hot. Not. It seems to have juiced its product focus up of late and it's trying desperately to become a player again, but 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 products are truly excellent. Example No. 1? The Golf GTI. But back to that world domination thing. VW has announced plans to triple its SUV/crossover offerings because that’s where the action is, which is all well and good but I’m not sure the U.S. market – where VW lurches in fits and starts as it is – is equipped to handle that kind of action from the brand. Are they prepared to drop product entries – such as the Beetle - when they do that? We wouldn’t miss it, but VW has proved reluctant to jettison cars in the past even when their sell-by date has long since expired. Now it’s planning to jack up its showroom confusion even more? Doesn’t sound all that smart, does it? The AE Brand Image Meter? Still warm to the touch but there could be a power outage at any moment.
As I said earlier, 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, and 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 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.