By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. We’re at the high point of the racing season with signature events like the Indianapolis 500, the Grand Prix of Monaco and, of course, the 24 Hours of Le Mans capturing the attention of racing enthusiasts around the world. Competing – and winning – on racing’s biggest stages can be like spun marketing gold for the participating auto manufacturers, because they can tout their triumphs on the track for years to come. It’s one of automotive marketing’s easiest tasks in fact, a Marketing 101-level exercise that even the most ham-fisted marketers can’t screw up.
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 lost in the desert achieving only fleeting success. The rest? Well, to say they well and truly suck at it is being kind.
If we were a certain kind of publication, our Brand Image 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 logo prominently displayed in those ads. But we’re not slimy purveyors of vacuous marketing streams, thank goodness, and we are 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 and pitiful “woe is me” and "we're screwed" hand-wringing in executive suites throughout the industry. And beginning our eighteenth year of publication, that’s not about to change.
I would be so thrilled to report that our latest Brand Image Meter is chock-full of platitudes and “attaboys,” happy in the knowledge that the collective auto marketers appear to have finally gotten out of their own way and are doing stellar work top to bottom, but that’s far from the case, unfortunately.
Is it a surprise? Hardly. In fact, I have never seen such a painful disconnect between the auto companies - who are actually making some terrific products at the moment - and their stumblebum marketing troops who consistently fail at coming up with a fundamental raison d'être for those products. Cogent, focused thought seems to be in painfully short supply at this juncture in the automotive marketing arena, and I will gleefully point that out over the rest of this column.
As I said when we first introduced our Brand Image Meter four 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 underperforming 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 V ratings consist of the following: Hot. Cold. Neutral. Clueless. Delusional. Start Over. WTF? And Pathetic. With a few surprises thrown in for good measure. Let’s get on with it, shall we?
Acura: Okay, so the new NSX has wowed the assembled members of the press and it does seem to be a fine piece of work. But now what? Is it going to carry the water for the brand like the powers that be at Acura insist that it will? I seriously doubt it. Despite the gee-whiz ideas at its factory and all of the other positives regurgitated by the press, the NSX means exactly zero in a market that’s gone flat-out crazy for crossovers and oh by the way, Acura is dead-stick nowhere in the crossover business. Oh, they think they have it goin’ on with the RDX and the MDX, but they don’t. Where does the spinning wheel stop on the AE Brand Image Meter for Acura? The NSX on its own? Hot. The rest of the Acura lineup? Forgettable.
Alfa Romeo: Let me start with some fundamental givens about Alfa Romeo. 1. It was never meant to be a mainstream competitor to Audi, BMW, Mercedes, et al. And it never will be. 2. The assembled dealers who are supposed to represent Alfa Romeo in the market are so ill equipped for a volume play for the brand that it’s truly pathetic. And 3. I could stop right here and not give Alfa a rating at all, because it simply doesn’t merit one. Since I’ve long documented the demented delusions of one Sergio “I’m the G.O.A.T” Marchionne, the fact that he’s doubling down on Alfa is not astounding anymore, it’s just flat-out stupid. Marchionne can tout how great the new Giulia sedan is and how awesome the performance numbers will be, but who’s kidding whom here? The car will be an aberration, lost in a Twilight Zone of piss-poor quality, nonexistent resale and a smattering of buyers who are hopeful that things will all work out just fine. Warning to those enthusiasts inclined to sign up for a Giulia: It’s fine to hold on to dreams, but in this case those of you who wander over to buy a Giulia will be left making payments on an albatross as Sergio and his espresso-swilling posse take their money and run. The promise of Alfa Romeo has been Sergio's Groundhog Day for a full nine years now. As I’ve stated repeatedly, pinning the future of FCA on having the Alfa Romeo brand going from zero-to-Audi by 2018 is not just folly – it is pure, unadulterated, egomaniacal absurdity. 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? 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 remains Sergio’s Grand Delusion and a giant – and pathetic - WTF?
Aston Martin: I’ve said in previous editions 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 that vehicle Aston Martin may not survive at all. But if they do 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 SUV 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 will be on display at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in two weeks. 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 are now stretching deep into its second decade, which is indeed impressive. But that’s no longer enough. Audi’s connection to the VW Group scandal is a giant bowl of Not Good, and it remains to be seen if the brand can emerge unscathed from all of the Sturm und Drang associated with it. In the meantime, the world awaits Audi’s all-electric crossover. If it’s a hit, it will be the beginning of a new chapter of hotness for the Audi brand. If not? Well, that will be up to the Audi overlords. It’s a fine line between success and being an also-ran in this business. As for Audi’s marketing, it has slipped into the borderline tedious category. Translation? The advertising is too precious for its own good. And for that Audi has slipped on the AE Brand Image meter as well, falling from hot to merely warm to the touch.
Bentley: Who knew that a giant - and frightfully expensive - Bentley Bentayga SUV would be a smash hit? Combine that with a delectable array of updated and ever-desirable machines, and Bentley remains a force in the ultra-luxury segment. The AE Brand Image Meter? Last year I said that Bentley was hot, as long as it didn’t try to be something it’s not. This year? It’s just plain Hot.
BMW: It’s time to stop looking at BMW as a distinct, luxury-performance car brand and start looking at it for what it really is: a dolled-up, mainstream automaker that manages to build a few desirable cars. 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 having a BMW in every garage is not a marketing strategy. Instead, it’s a recipe for Not Good. 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 far too many of its 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. 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 (see the M2), but how long will that last? The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Ice cold 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). Too bad the actual sales of the "i" machines have been flat-out dismal. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Extremely cool but very hot to the touch – the rolling automotive equivalent of dry ice.
Buick: 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. A new Riviera would do wonders, but don’t hold your breath that will happen anytime soon, especially since we are permanently ensconced in CrossOverVille. Buick remains in automotive limbo for now, which, according to the AE Brand Image Meter, can be a cold, disheartening place. Previously I said “Memorable cars that bristle with passion will be the only way out for Buick.” That’s still the High-Octane Truth.
Cadillac: A few weeks ago in “Smoke, Mirrors… and Coffee” I laid out in excruciating detail the current marketing futility plaguing Cadillac right now. Uwe Ellinghaus, Cadillac’s chief marketing executive, has declared that aiming marketing at anyone falling outside the millennial demographic is a massive waste of time and money, because the millennials are the future foundation of the brand, and every other demographic is officially expendable and inconsequential from this point forward. Marketing roadkill, as it were. To execute his plan, he has handed over all of Cadillac marketing to underling Melody Lee, the reigning Queen of Ellinghaus’s millennial marketing posse - and officially Cadillac’s “brand director” - who once famously said in an interview in Fortune magazine, “We want to be a global luxury brand that happens to sell cars. We don’t want to be an automotive brand.” Lee also informed Bloomberg’s Hannah Elliott: “We have tried to tell people what you’re supposed to feel from the Cadillac brand. But what we hadn’t quite fully established was an environment that you could walk into.”
The result? The Cadillac House – we’ve officially dubbed it “Carbucks” - a 12,000-sq.-ft. “experiential” space/coffee shop on the first floor of the Cadillac HQ building in New York designed to be the pure essence of the brand and a millennial nirvana the likes of which no one has ever seen – or experienced – before. Hmm. This is the most crying need for a brand that’s perpetually at the starting gate, an environment you can walk into? This is what will help define Cadillac for a handful of wandering millennials who manage to stumble in off the street asking for a hot cup of I don’t give a shit?
And where does this Millennial marketing push leave Cadillac dealers right now? In a solemn state of indifference wrapped in panic, if you must know, especially since the ATS and CTS are languishing on lots, and the new CT6 is the Answer to the Question that No One Appears Ready to Ask at this point.
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 if Ellinghaus is unable to extricate himself from the haze generated from the thought balloons of his millennial marketing posse and start making effective marketing decisions worthy of the brand, then it doesn’t matter how good the True Believers make the products, because the brand will continue to be marginalized, languishing in the quagmire generated by misguided marketers who are allowed to run roughshod over everyone and everything, while answering to no one.
Previously I suggested that de Nysschen and Ellinghaus, while both consumed by their respective missions inside the company, are failing to answer the two most crucial questions hanging in the air about their brand, as in: What is Cadillac? And why should I care? That hasn’t changed, which is why the AE Brand Image Meter for Cadillac is, in Cadillac House terms, an iced soy latte with a triple shot of mediocrity.
Chevrolet: Unlike certain aforementioned German automakers that have no business being in everyone’s garage, that is in fact, exactly Chevrolet’s raison d'être 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, in terms of marketing, Chevrolet is an unmitigated disaster. Do you want to know how something as excruciatingly bad as the Chevrolet “focus group” spots got on the air? First of all, take well-intentioned Chevy marketers lost in the dulcet tones of their own thought balloons, add in a compliant ad agency tired of fighting the relentless, day-in and day-out tedium of going up against their clients’ self-generated “brilliance,” then quash any new ideas that might actually have more resonance, and voila! The result? A campaign that looks for all the world like it was created to appease dealers gathered at an announcement show in Las Vegas. Which is exactly what it is. This campaign is driven by the dealers and Chevy’s sales troops, which makes sense, considering that GM doesn’t actually have marketing “talent,” instead they have a bunch of salespeople masquerading as such creating marketing and advertising campaigns masquerading as such. The only ad that Chevrolet has put forth that was actually worth a shit in the last ten years, if not longer, was the recent ad created upon the passing of Prince. I’m happy to say that ad was created by a former colleague of mine – Tony Hossain – and it was everything that an actual ad for Chevrolet should be: Powerful, memorable, and with iconic imagery befitting the brand. That ad was red hot. The current Brand Image Meter rating for Chevrolet? Undecipherable Tier 2 advertising masquerading as a real advertising idea. Aka pathetic.
Chrysler: Jim Gaffigan is a very likable and funny guy, however, he is utterly wasted in Fiat-Chrysler’s campaign for its Town and Country minivan. But does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? No. The van, along with Jeep and Ram truck are the assets that Sergio Marchionne will use to entice a suitor. Why? FCA isn’t sustainable in its present form. Those monthly sales numbers are emblematic of only two things: How much cash FCA is putting on the hood and how much subprime financing the company is willing to throw around to make those numbers look good. The result of all of this flimflam marketing? A recipe for razor-thin profitability, which, as I said, isn’t sustainable. Sergio is hell bent on making himself – and his Fiat heirs/overlords led by John Elkann - whole in this deal, so what happens to the “C” in FCA is inconsequential. And where does that leave Chrysler? How about nowhere? And the AE Brand Image Meter for Chrysler? Why bother?
Corvette: I will continue to view Corvette as a separate brand from Chevrolet because it’s the only way the brand can get its due. And this is despite GM and Chevrolet marketing operatives’ vehement cries of “foul.” Too frickin’ bad. Corvette deserves to stand on its own. 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 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 to back up its hard-won reputation. The AE Brand Image Meter? It still glows red-hot for the Corvette.
Dodge: As I’ve said previously, the High-Octane Truth about Dodge is that until further notice it’s a purveyor of badass cop cars and throwback muscle cars. The AE Brand Image Meter? Hot, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Fiat: Part of Sergio’s delusional grand plan for world domination, Fiat is essentially free falling and near dead in this market. 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. Fiat is a sub-niche of a niche desperately seeking more. Even if FCA stopped importing everything but the 500x (the Mazda-based Fiat 124 will be a mere blip in the scheme of things), Sergio doesn’t have a chance in hell of saving Fiat over here. Besides, 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, Ferrari was once the quintessential definition of smokin’ Italian hotness. But, and there’s always a “but,” Sergio Marchionne, Ferrari’s new chairman (that’s right, he’s like his very own plague), insists that Ferrari 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 news that Sergio is at the helm of Ferrari should give enthusiasts pause, because there are already too many Ferrari “experience” parks and too many mini-monuments to itself to think that he 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. On the AE Brand Image Meter Ferrari has dropped from white-hot to just hot, because it 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. To make matters worse, Lamborghini is much hotter (see below).
Ford: Ford is the iconic American brand that has garnered newfound respect with each new product iteration, but where Ford goes from here will be very interesting to watch. Is it a mobility company? Possibly, but what does that mean, exactly? If the pursuit of the mobility moniker gets in the way of Ford’s real bread-and-butter business and the company takes its eye off of the ball, then it will become a huge problem. If, on the other hand, Ford 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 about the F-150 pickup, it’s white hot and one of three top-rated brands in our ratings. As for Ford passenger cars, they’re warm to the touch but not nearly warm enough.
GMC: Slick trucks with great-looking SUVs and crossovers – especially the 2017 Acadia – GMC is the brand that is constantly underestimated but one that consistently outperforms expectations. The AE Brand Image Meter? Very warm all the way through.
Honda: It really appears that Honda actually does have its mojo back. 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 times ten.
Hyundai: We’re already aware of the fact that Hyundai’s ambition knows no bounds, but now, they’ve finally gotten out of their own way by hiring the talent to fix its two most glaring deficiencies – design and vehicle dynamics. This willingness to embrace outside talent to lead the company out of its perpetual second-tier wilderness is crucial, and it will make all the difference for Hyundai (and Kia) products going forward. And the revamp of its Genesis nameplate into a stand-alone brand is a key move for Hyundai, one that will deliver impressive market inroads with each passing year. I used to think that Hyundai’s ascension to the next level was perpetually stuck in neutral. I no longer believe that. Hyundai is a coming brand again, one that competitors will be warily eyeing over their shoulders. The AE Brand Image Meter for Hyundai? Poised for an upward trajectory.
Infiniti: This is a car company that is so hungry to be considered on par with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz that it wears the ghostly pallor of desperation on its sleeve. 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 sales goals to boot. Is Infiniti any closer to moving its image needle with the consumer public than it was five years ago? No. 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. The F-Type has moved the needle positively for the brand (I prefer the coupe over the convertible by a bunch), and now with its new XE and sensational F-Pace crossover, the future looks bright indeed. 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? It used to be warm, now it's red hot.
Jeep: As I’ve stated previously, 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? Equal to Porsche and the Ford F-150, which means Jeep is at the very top of the meter.
Kia: 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 has been bolstered by the same key ingredients that I mentioned above for Hyundai. Hot designers and hot development engineers have been brought in to make Kia look and drive like the Korean BMW (see the noteworthy 2017 Kia Sportage), so this company shouldn’t be underestimated. The AE Brand image Meter? A new infusion of warmth, but what they do with it is another question altogether.
Lamborghini: This Italian sports car manufacturer owned by the VW Group has stayed more true to its mission than Ferrari. Lamborghini has gained a noticeable measure of respect in recent years for its unwavering passion, focus and commitment to making beautiful and lust-worthy high-performance machines. The cars are fabulous while happily lacking the ubiquitous malaise of Ferrari, which is a very good thing. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Hotter than Ferrari. There, I said it.
Land Rover: This brand has gone from stuffy without a clue to one of the must-have SUV statements of-the-moment. Old AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Dank and forgettable old-world hangover. New AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Hot, bright shiny thing.
Lexus: For years the luxury arm of Toyota, Lexus has been 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 – and its dealers' - coffers. Lexus has done quite nicely for those consumers whose favorite luxury flavor is vanilla, but beyond that? Not so much. Well, Akio Toyoda is out to change all that, and damn if there aren’t sudden indications of life at Lexus. Akio is hell-bent on altering Toyota’s mission for Lexus once and for all. Out is the coldly calculated, blandtastic money-machine image. In is the best that Toyota has to offer in terms of luxury and performance. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Incomplete, but profitable as ever.
Lincoln: The Ford luxury brand managers are about to find out just how much a real car name – Continental – resonates in the market. The Cadillac CT6 is a wildly superior machine in almost every aspect you care to mention, but the Continental is going to do very well, despite its rather ordinary design presence. Why? Because consumers have vivid, positive imagery attached to the Continental name in their minds. The CT6? It means nothing unless Cadillac marketing operatives are successful at convincing people otherwise. And I have serious doubts that they can do that (see above). Lincoln still needs a full-size luxury statement vehicle beyond the Continental, the kind that will make people take notice and say, “Did you see that new Lincoln?” But that’s another column for another day. The AE Brand Image Meter ranking for Lincoln? The burner has a measure of warmth, but they still need more. Much more.
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 creaky 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. 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 and a media fanboy favorite? I seriously doubt it. 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 Warriors game last night?
McLaren: This exotic English micro-manufacturer keeps pouring on the credibility by building formidable high-performance machines. And even though Ferrari may dismiss McLaren as a legitimate threat to its perpetual dominance of the hyper-exotic car market, I wouldn’t bet against McLaren, because the entire organization is focused on delivering excellence. McLaren is smoking hot on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Mercedes-Benz: When Mercedes is “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, which isn’t even remotely good enough.
Mini: The brand that was initially successful beyond all expectations has now fallen to earth with a thud. And subsequently, 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 boot-licking minions looking for their next promotion, but for Mini executives it had to be a humiliating 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? Ice cold. But that’s okay, because Mini fanatics don’t care anyway.
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 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’re back competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (they won the race for a record seventeenth time in 2015). Every time I think Porsche has lost it with a new model, they just keep pouring it on. 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, which means it occupies the top spot on the AE Brand Image Meter, with Jeep and the Ford F-150 just below.
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, the majestic Wraith and the seductive Dawn. 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: Thankfully, Toyota just took Scion out back and put it out of its misery. The AE Brand Image Meter? As dead as the Dawn of a New Ice Age.
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. More important, unlike some other automotive entities we know, Subaru understands who it is and what it isn’t, and because of this refreshing notion and its focused consistency it has been rewarded with intense brand loyalty. The AE Brand Image Meter? For us it’s move it along, there’s nothing to see here. For the Subaru faithful, it’s like a warm campfire with s'mores and chamomile tea.
Tesla: Nothing new here. 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 Model X is a wildly expensive joke, and the Model 3 is likely to see the light of day sometime at the end of 2018, and that’s if everything goes flawlessly. (Given Tesla’s track record, we know that’s notgonnahappen.) 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 kale smoothie chaser.
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. 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. The AE Brand Image Meter? 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 of late and it's trying desperately to become a player again. They might just pull it off too. As for the AE Brand Image Meter? In the meantime it’s still the brand for people who question why they even bother to own a car in the first place.
VW: No auto executives have managed to do less with more than the stumblebums at VW. These serial dimwits have bungled their way through the U.S. market for so long that the devastation that they’ve left in their wake is almost incomprehensible, to the degree that abject futility is part of their annual marketing plan. And this has been going on for decades. Now, it has come to light that VW has been exposed for cheating on diesel emissions tests. And it wasn’t a one-time aberration either; oh no, much worse than that, it was part of the company’s ongoing operating philosophy. As in, those dumb Americans (insert country here) will never find out because after all, we’re the most brilliant automotive people in the world, or some such nonsense. To be a VW dealer right now is akin to doubling down on a Yugo franchise back in the day, and I feel for them. And despite the fact that VW builds two of my most favorite cars – the Golf GTI and the Golf R – the reason for being for this brand in this market is hanging by a thread. To rejuvenate the brand VW will have to lead with something that no one else has, and an all-electric production version of the BUDD-e would be a terrific start. As for the AE Brand Image Meter when it comes to VW here in the U.S.? As John Candy once famously said: It blowed-up real good.
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 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.
The Autoextremist, East Lansing, Michigan, March 1976. Jeff Lynne called, he wants his look back...