Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Killing car brands

It takes generations to create a strong car brand – the young guys who start to notice the sound of a certain engine, the curve of shiny metal over the wheels, the mystery of the name – then the wave of people who inherit cars from their moms and dads, fix them up, spark them to life on a cold morning with the turn of a brass key – and then the next wave that comes along with the sound of that car's radio mixing in their minds with the slurp of milk shakes and the wail of a nauseous sibling.

It takes generations to create a strong car brand – and then but a brief banking panic and economic collapse to kill it off. "GM will probably simplify its line of brands." Sure. Makes sense. The bloated Detroit bureaucracy can't support the design, marketing and distribution of every arthritic car in the portfolio. Brand consultants have been telling GM execs this for years. "The data say you've got too many brands. Time to focus. Kill off a few."

But you know, car brands aren't like clothes brands or cereals. When a car brand gets killed off there is an empty lane in our neuro-pathways, a dead zone in our communal consciousness. Is it sheer sentiment?

With a nod to the cruel but salutary justice of the marketplace, I have no respect for the reactionary old unions and brain-dead auto leadership. Let them sink under the weight of self-imposed irrelevance. Yet... yet... there was magic and romance in the cars they made, the metal monsters that used to prowl our streets with names like Pontiac Star Chief and Chevy Nomad and Rocket 88.

Hate to see more of them go the way of the Olds. It took generations to build those brands – those dreams on wheels. But it's probably time to cut em loose. "Camry" has as much romantic appeal as a jar of pickles. But the damn thing is made in America, priced right and runs good.



Anonymous said...

Great post. I cringe everytime a car manufacturer changes all their lineup to just numbers and letters. Recent examples: Cadillac and Lincoln.

Cadillac: Why keep Escalade but kill Deville/etc? However their C/S/D lettering is easier than

Lincoln: I am a car fan and have no idea the new Lincoln models available. MKS MKX MLK ????!!! If I don't know how will my grandmother who has driven a Lincoln for years.

On your note of Camry, I always loved the Japanese names Toyota had for their luxury sedans. Cresta, Arista, and Celsior held so much more imagery, feelings, and prestige in my mind than the current ES/GS/LS sedans.

brandsinger said...

Thanks for the note, oh one with no name.

Let me ask you this: Which of these models is the fanciest and most expensive – Ultima, Maxima, or Altima? These superlatives leave me agog.

Keep smilin - brandsinger

Maych said...

Just sent you an article by Al Reis on this from AdAge... all about "General Misery" and how they have 8 brands and no brand messaging...

Jay Livingston said...

I never quite understood the strategy of making the same car for two different divisions. I thought a brand was supposed to differentiate. Then why make a Mercury Sable that's just like a Ford Taurus? And I'm sure there were interchangeable GM cars -- Chevvies and Pontiacs. Same for Plymouth and Dodge. As for Camry, to me it sounds like some place in Nam ("Charlie had us pinned down in a firefight up near Camry.")

Mario Sanchez Carrion said...


Great article. I think the problem with American car manufacturers is that they diluted and destroyed what were once great brands. In the end they didn't stand for anything. Look what GM did to the Impala, now a front wheel drive caricature of its famed predecessor. Or what Chrysler is doing to Jeep, launching car based impostors with a Jeep badge. Unfortunately, when a brand doesn't mean anything any more you have two options: kill it or re-brand it, which can cost more than creating a new brand from scratch.

brandsinger said...

Jay and Mario -- thanks for your comments. You've put your fingers on the problem, clearly. I love the description of Impala as "a front wheel drive caricature of its famed predecessor" -- you're right! what a wonderfully evocative concept -- an IMPALA! loping and leaping across the plains. And what a dud the car became.

And Jay, I've always found the sound of the Camry name cold and harsh. How about Comry... or Calmry... or Comray... or ComePlay... must be a better sound in there somewhere.

And thanks for the article Maych.

a broad smile to all - brandsinger

Todd Merriman said...

Claude, great stuff. While there's a certain nostalgic quality to brand names of individual car models, I believe it's been wise of foreign* automakers to focus the majority of their brand-building efforts on the umbrella brand rather than the individual models, particularly relative to the higher-end brands in their portfolio. You're buying a Mercedes or an Infiniti and that means something. It almost doesn't matter if it's a G35 or an FX (although by virtue of its role in establishing the crossover market and because it has a kind of "special effects" connotation, the FX is kind of de facto brand). You're buying in to some idea. There was a time I suppose when that was true of Buick. But that time was roughly 45 years ago.

Your point about Camry is very funny and points to something interesting. Why do the lower-end foreign brands have "names" while the high-end ones are "series" oriented? Why for example is the Volkswagen Jetta called that when the Audi version is called an A4? Why a Nissan Murano vs. an Infiniti FX? Is there something in the standard market that suggests consumers are drawn to brand models while the performance/luxury market is swayed by the brands themselves? As I mentioned, I think the focus on the umbrella rather than the model is shrewd, but it's curious, no?

Oh, and all this thinking brings me back full circle to the killing of these American car brands. Why don't they learn a thing or two from their foreign competitors. Get yourself a premium line and broad-appeal line. Get economies of scale by making the models essentially the same (like the Jetta/A4 example). It's not like they don't understand this. The Cadillac Escalada and Chevy Tahoe are the same SUV. Except they also built the GMC Yukon, which is exactly the same as the Tahoe - exactly. What's the point of that other than to force you to spend more money propping up a brand on life support, in this case AMC?

They've been doing this for decades and have been getting their asses handed to them by the Toyotas of the world.

*How foreign are you when your cars have more American parts than their American counterparts and are designed in Orange County, California, and are assembled in the South?

brandsinger said...

Wow - a learned post on auto brands, Todd. Thanks for the discourse.

Your points demonstrate that the US-based car-makers have been fat and hidebound for years, not even sharpening their branding craft -- which presumably Americans helped to develop in the first place.

Keep smilin - Claude

Joe Banks said...

Now that these car makers are under one master brand of "THE BIG THREE" we must ask ourselves if they are ever capable of escaping this branding disaster. Cars themselves differ very little in what they offer. So is it worth buying cars from countries that limit the amount of cars we can sell to them? Besides we need our heavy industry just in case we go to war, so if all else getting rid of our only heavy industry would be a national security concern also. Every country has different perceptions what constitutes a great car. In England Ford is perceived as better then Honda. Honda is thought to make unexciting, boring, old-people cars. World famous Top Gear, a BBC car show, had an episode with the presenters grandmothers were featured in it. After reviewing three compact cars, the grandmothers concluded the Honda Jazz was the best because the controls were easy to see. Having the grandmothers promote a Honda car emphasized the feelings which the British have towards Honda as being an old people car. Its very hard for companies to break out of the cycle of strong perceptions which the news coverage is only further compounding.

Peter V Cook said...

I'd disagree. Buick, GMC, Mercury and the entire American mini-van market used to be fine brands, but they have been homogenized by their grandparents, the Big Three. Most of their cars are twins of differently branded cars. By killing off the neglected brands, the distinct brand will have opportunity to thrive.

brandsinger said...

Thanks, Peter -- homogenized brands indeed. Great point. Pruning also-ran-brands may indeed strengthen the company tree.

And thanks, Joe, for your insight. I like your point that "THE BIG THREE" has become the new master brand for US automakers. As for Honda being an old persons car, that's actually my perception too. I used to drive one -- but now that I've become more reckless and immature I've switched to a zippy, youthful Toyota.

Have a great Holiday and New Year all!