THE AUTOEXTREMIST BRAND IMAGE METER VIII: THE THROW ME A FRICKIN’ BONE EDITION.
Monday, June 3, 2019 at 09:20AM
Editor

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Yes, it’s that time of year again, when Brand Wranglers throughout the Autoverse quake in their bespoke marketing boots dreading our annual Brand Image Meter ratings. I imagine that it’s like waiting for a root canal appointment: You know it’s coming but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. As for the weasels and wankers who are riding a perpetually weak brand hand – you know who you are – it must be a particularly Bad Day. Ah well, who said life in the auto biz was going to be all bunny rabbits and rainbows, right?

But before we get started, I have been inundated by requests for my take on the potential FCA-Renault merger. As I said last week in “On the Table,” does FCA need a merger? Absolutely. It can’t subsist on Jeeps, Ram trucks and hot rods alone. Don’t think so? Jeep sales are already softening because of FCA’s relentless greed. The Jeep option list – which is an homage to Porsche marketers, the OGs of Greed – creatively gouges customers in the interest of considerable short-term profits, but long-term that pricing strategy will hurt the company. In fact, it already has. And sure, Ram trucks are hot and the muscle-flexing hot rods and police cars keep getting churned out, but beyond that, what?

While FCA has been basking in profits, the company is nowhere with advanced technology. As in, they got nothin’. So, in order to survive, some sort of merger or sellout was always in the offing. Let’s not forget the fact that Sergio was consumed with bamboozling another car company into making a deal with him. GM wouldn’t bite, and VW would only consider it on its terms, which didn’t interest the G.O.A.T. at all. But suffice to say, Sergio knew that FCA couldn’t survive long term in its present state.

But Renault? What sort of fresh Hell is this? Add the perpetual losers at Nissan and throw Mitsubishi into the mix, and you have a bouillabaisse of Not Good. I have read all of the gleeful hand-wringing about this deal, and I must say that most of it starts from the conceit that this deal is a done deal. Why that take is even out there, given the players involved, is beyond me. There are so many variables going into this deal that any shred of optimism should be tabled as soon as possible.

Yes, of course Nissan is crowing “What, us worry?” about the deal, seeing no problem whatsoever, but then again, what do you expect that company to say? After all, it is literally and figuratively on the ropes and completely out of ideas, so a merger sounds just wonderful to them. (Although everyone seems to be saying that Nissan has the technological component that will make the deal strong. Really? We’ll see about that.) And, Mitsubishi? It will go along for the ride too. But Renault has myriad problems that seem to be unending, and any cost slashing promised with this deal remains dubious.

So, the idea that this merger will be a walk in the park is naïve at best, especially given the players involved. There are just too many egos, too many loose ends and too many flies in the ointment to say the least. As I said last week, this is a giant “we’ll see” and let’s leave it at that. (No surprise to Peter - as of Wednesday night, FCA has officially withdrawn from the deal, blaming the French government and Nissan. -WG)

Back to the subject at hand. There’s a reason our Brand Image Meter issue is one of our most-anticipated and widely read columns of the year. Brand image wrangling is the mystery science that brings out the best – and worst – in auto executives, 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 UjianNasional brand logo prominently displayed in those ads. But we’re not slimy purveyors of vacuous marketing streams, thank goodness. We are, however, 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 21st year of publication, that’s not about to change.

As I said when we first introduced our Brand Image Meter seven 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 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 just 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 it 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.

Some of the people toiling away in this brand image wrangling pursuit are actually qualified and bring a certain sense of gravitas to the proceedings, but those executives are admittedly few and far between. Others are unfortunately assigned to the marketing function as part of a woefully misguided corporate effort to “round” executives’ experience resulting in ill-equipped operatives who stumble along, wreaking havoc on everything and everyone in their path while attempting to learn the business of marketing by “feel,” which translates into making a bumbling mess of things over the duration of their assignment. 

That companies persist in this folly instead of recruiting and nurturing marketing talent remains one of the unsolved mysteries of this business. And unfortunately, the rest, of course, are flat-out poseurs who inevitably turn up lost in the marketing desert in search of a clue. That there is such a wide range of talent in the auto marketing ranks is no surprise, because it’s indicative of the general reality for the business as a whole. But this gaping disparity between a few star performers and the rest in the automotive marketing arena can have a devastating effect on a brand’s image, as you’ll see below.

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

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

Automotive marketing is a very big deal. And expert brand image wrangling is a crucial part of making all of the effort to design and engineer great products worthwhile. Billions of dollars are spent on brand image wrangling by the auto companies each and every year. Why? Because having the “right” brand image is absolutely essential for market success. As you’ll see in my following commentary when a company does it well, it shows, but if a company misses even by a little, it can be very costly. And if a company’s marketers screw up, the effects can not only be devastating, they can linger for years.

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.

And 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 painfully 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. 

Add to all of this the sobering fact that with the onslaught of electrification, some of these brands are going to suffer greatly. There’s no soul in BEVs to begin with, and subtract the distinctive sounds associated with some of these brands, especially the luxury brands, and you have a recipe for disaster. Generally, every brand should be on alert because of electrification, and the chances it could all go bad for some of them is very real. 

On that jarring note, 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 though some 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? Who deserves a bone or two, and who will go to bed without a treat? Let’s do it, shall we?

Acura. You could ask the following question of every brand in this column: What is _____ and why does it exist? In Acura’s case, does it represent the best of Honda? As someone who remembers the cool Acuras, like the high-revving Integras and such, I want it to be, but is it really? No. Sure, the NSX seems to check all of the right boxes, but what does it have to do with the rest of the lineup? Not much, it turns out. Acura continues to operate on the fringes of the top-tier luxury-performance segment, and it remains an enigma. Its naming regimen – or lack thereof – isn’t helping. Will this ever really change? I seriously doubt it. The honchos at Acura seem to think that they’re on the right track there. They’re not of course, but unless and until they realize it, it’s more alphabet soup from Acura. And this situation may be enough for the overlords at Honda, but if I was associated with marketing Acura it wouldn’t be enough for me. Are Acura vehicles good? Yes, but you just feel that the brand is perpetually running in place, while lacking in overall juice. 

Alfa Romeo. Yes, I really like my Stelvio, and I appreciate the fact that Alfa Romeo is officially the “march to a different drummer” Italian brand, but the painful reality is that Alfa Romeo is a niche brand that will always operate on the far edges of the automotive enthusiast spectrum. I used to think – albeit briefly – that this would be enough for the brand to survive here, but does Alfa Romeo really have a long-term chance in this market? I am beyond skeptical of that now. And if there is a merger between FCA and Renault, I have even less confidence that the brand will survive here. 

Aston Martin. If you go by the press releases alone, Aston Martin seems to have it goin’ on. They’re churning out limited editions and special editions, working on their luxury SUV – the DBX – and working on a hypercar for the handful of people who would even entertain the thought of owning one. But is that enough? Fortunately for Aston Martin, the brand isn’t for everybody, and in the nose-bleed segment it operates in, the brand still has an image of speed, power and drop-dead gorgeous design. But will that continue as the brand makes the now-obligatory foray into BEVs? That is highly questionable. But in the meantime, as long as Aston Martin continues to build some of the most stunningly beautiful cars on the road, machines that unquestionably live up to the legacy of the brand, it will be fine.

Audi. Audi was chugging along, increasing sales month after month and year after year, and then wham, the bottom fell out. For reasons that still make no sense, despite Audi’s endless explanations, the lack of availability of its highest volume vehicle in this market – the Q3 – has devastated the brand. Dealers are rightly pissed off, but even more important, Audi intenders are wandering away from the brand because the new Q3 won’t be available in any quantity until fall. This should be a painful lesson for all manufacturers, because just when a car company’s operatives think that things are good and that it looks like it will continue indefinitely, the proverbial shit hits the fan. Audi has worked hard to ascend to the top tier of mainstream luxury brands here in the U.S. along with BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. But this episode has opened a very large can of worms for the brand. Upon closer inspection, it’s not only the lack of availability of the Q3, it’s the fact that Audi prices are just too damn high. When it was a happening brand it could get away with its own version of the classic German automotive arrogance, but now? Not anymore. Add to all of this the fact that the new Audi e-tron BEV SUV isn’t exactly – ahem – flying off the showroom floor, and Audi isn’t just a brand in flux, it’s in serious trouble. I am confident that the Marketing Meisters at Audi will still take themselves much too seriously and allow their “holier than thou” attitude to dominate the advertising, which results in smarmy and annoying work. But that isn’t going to do much to alter the perception of Audi right now. It’s no longer a happening brand, even though Audi operatives refuse to admit it. No bones for you, Audi.

Bentley. Okay, to me the Bentayga SUV is a giant waste of time and money, but this just in: Bentley can’t make enough of ‘em. Is the Bentley brand intact even after its foray into giant SUVs? Sort of. In fact, some would argue that the brand has been made even stronger. Not me. Bentley is teetering on becoming just another car company, and whether it can survive this latest chapter remains to be seen. I would still take a Continental GT V8, thank you very much, but if I see one more Bentayga on the road I am going to puke. Bentley’s raison d’etre is being seriously challenged here; the company just doesn’t know it yet.

BMW. The ubiquitous German brand, which once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away created its destiny with the funky little 2002, has shockingly become the Chevy of German luxury brands, the result of leadership teams over the years pushing the brand into every segment – both real and imagined – that seemed to make sense. This quest to be in every garage in every well-heeled community in America has delivered vast profits for the propeller brigade, but it has gutted its brand integrity. Yes, they still crank out “M” versions to remind everyone of what they used to be, but they’re not fooling anyone anymore. BMW is just another car company cranking out SUVs and Crossovers because, well, that’s what it is now and that’s what this business has become. Add to that the brand’s constantly increasing prices, and you have a giant wiener schnitzel of Not Good. BMW’s brand image is lost in a choking haze of profitability over integrity, and there’s no point wishing that somehow this will change, because whatever BMW’s brand image once was, it’s not coming back. 

Buick. A fully engaged SUV and Crossover company now, Buick is even adding a slightly bigger Encore to the mix – the Encore GX – because, well, they sell so many Encores that another one can’t hurt, right? (It kind of reminds me of the Halcyon days of Oldsmobile when if one Cutlass was good, six of them would be even better.) The Encore has been so successful that it has basically saved Buick in this market. In fact, GM’s upper management actually believes that Buick has it goin’ on based solely on the sales performance of the Encore. What does it all mean? You can forget about all of those visually arresting Buick concepts from the last few years, because Buick is all-SUVs-and-Crossovers-all-the-time now. With a brand image as memorable as that old pair of socks that never leaves your sock drawer.

Cadillac. Cadillac just unveiled the new CT4 – the car formerly known as the ATS – and the new CT5, the car formerly known as the CTS. With V-Series versions of both (See “On the Table” -WG). The streamlining of the Cadillac model lineup is logical and a very good thing, with the CT4, CT5 and CT6 on the sedan side of the equation, and the XT4, XT5 and XT6 on the SUV side, along with the Escalade (the next-generation of which is rumored to be a showstopper). The fact that Cadillac is still offering sedans is refreshing, as not everyone out there is craving an SUV, and I believe Cadillac can make hay with that fact. I don’t care for Cadillac’s naming regimen, but they’re committed, apparently. But just a reminder, when it comes to the can’t-mistake-it-for-anything-else street cred worthy of the brand? The Escalade rules. And it’s the only Cadillac with a name. With the Cadillac lineup finally in place, what becomes the most crucial factor in Cadillac’s potential success? You guessed it, marketing. Cadillac marketers have the monumental task of creating that magic I want one for the brand. And that’s beyond making consumers take notice; it’s creating the desire for the brand that has been woefully lacking. Cadillac has a historical legacy unmatched by few automotive brands in the world, yet it doesn’t occupy nearly enough space in the luxury market, which is a giant wreath and crest of Not Good. No bones available. At least not yet.

Chevrolet. I see no reason to alter what I said last year about Chevrolet. No marketers have done less with more than the people charged with nurturing one of the most iconic American brands of all time. Think about that for a moment. These stumblebums have taken a larger-than-life brand that has thrived over the years with some of the most heroic, memorable car advertising campaigns of all time, and turned it into a slick version of marketing “small ball.” Chevrolet’s once-proud image has been reduced to a series of glorified retail spots that insult our intelligence and annoy with equal aplomb. Throw in the insipid “real people” advertising, and it’s a marketing cocktail that absolutely no one is interested in except the so-called “marketers” down at the Silver Silos. But then again, they are absolutely convinced that they have it goin’ on, so it’s to be expected. This just in: They don’t. (I will throw a couple of bones in the direction of the “Tailgates” spot for the Silverado, however, because it is the best spot to come from the brand in a long, long time.) Our resident local media homers regularly tout how wonderful, how smart, how enlightened and how visionary Mary Barra is in a cacophony of the usual blah-blah-blah. That’s all well and good, and at least somewhat deserved, but as long as she continues to ignore the blatant mediocrity on constant display by GM’s so-called marketing troops, Chevrolet will continue to languish in The Land That Time Forgot.

Chrysler. The “C” of the company formerly known as FCA is fading away, but it continues to hang on to the Chrysler Pacifica. That the Pacifica is part of the competitive set of minivans to consider if one is interested in those particular vehicles is still a given. And that’s about it.

Corvette. Once upon a time, the Corvette was the quintessential definition of a “halo” vehicle for Chevrolet. The notion that “there’s a little bit of Corvette in every Chevrolet” was used to great effect back in the day. Not so much today. Despite the fact that the Corvette is one of the best high-performance cars in the world, with an impeccable and accomplished record in racing, GM – and Chevrolet – really doesn’t do much with it. Oh sure, the enthusiast media and enthusiasts in general are well versed in the goodness of the Corvette, but you’d barely notice it exists at GM. That’s about to change, I hope, with the rollout of the eighth-generation mid-engine Corvette that will be introduced to the public in July. This new Corvette will be a milestone machine, one that represents the latest – and very best – thinking of GM’s True Believers. This new Corvette must attract new and younger buyers to the brand in order for it to succeed, and based on all the information I have, there’s no reason why it can’t. But – and this is still a giant “but” – GM marketers will have to get their shit together and not do their usual phone it in approach to marketing this new Corvette. That’s a tall order, and needless to say they can’t afford to screw this up. Despite the many previous GM marketing missteps, the Corvette name and image still shine through, and I expect that it will only be enhanced with the new mid-engine car. In fact, until further notice, the Corvette shares the top tier in our AE Brand Image Meter with five other brands. 

Dodge. Muscle cars and cop cars are this brand’s thing. Is that enough to go on? Will Dodge survive the proposed FCA merger with Renault? With now-ancient chassis underpinnings and a ton of cash needed for a completely new vehicle architecture, I wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime, Dodge is the brand for people who don’t want to live in today’s world. Can’t say that I blame them, but the harsh reality is that the life expectancy of this muscle circus is short.

Fiat. Fiat is the forgotten Italian brand that had its day in this market decades ago, that is until people started discovering that there were small cars out there that were light years better in terms of quality, reliability, desirability and overall value. Funny how that never changed. Brand image? Fiat is dead to me. And everyone else now, too, apparently. It will be gone from this market by 2023, if not sooner.

Ferrari. The brand with the impeccable legacy and unequaled image, at least for the most part, seems to find a never-ending supply of moneyed enthusiasts to seduce. That some of those true Ferrari enthusiasts are drifting off to other shiny automotive objects, or drifting off of this Mortal Coil permanently, is not lost on Ferrari management. Ferrari’s answer? Ramp up its volume, as in almost 50 percent more volume. And an SUV is in the works. That’s horrifying, but then again, we’re living in a SUV world after all. In case you needed to be reminded, this is what flat-out greed looks like in the car business. But Ferrari is no different from every other car company when it comes right down to it, so extracting as much cash out of its fevered devotees as is humanly possible is just part of its M.O. Ferrari remains at the top of the AE Brand Image Meter along with the other select few – and, as if on cue, the new Ferrari SF90 Stradale supercar has all the fanboys in a lather, reminding everyone what Ferrari is all about – but how long that lasts remains to be seen. Ferrari still gets a prosciutto-encrusted T-Bone, at least for now.

Ford. It’s no secret that I’m not buying the Renaissance under “Professor” Jim Hackett. I get the distinct impression that Ford, as a company, is living on borrowed time. It could go either way for the Dearborn-based automaker, frankly. Setting that aside, Ford is a car company of wild contradictions. On the one hand, it's the iconic American brand boasting the F-150 juggernaut, which is the envy of the industry. And its fleet of crossovers are getting better – and growing – by the month. On the other hand, where Ford goes from here is anyone’s guess. Is it a mobility company? I’m not buying that in the least. Especially if the pursuit of mobility forces the company to take its eye off of the ball and gets in the way of Ford’s real bread-and-butter business. If, on the other hand, Ford puts the pedal down hard and keeps its product focus and momentum, it can remain a formidable competitor for the foreseeable future. The other problem for Ford is that its management succession plan is suspect. As in nonexistent. This is definitely not a good thing. How long will Hackett be around? Nobody knows. How long should he be around? I would say that if he leaves at the end of this year it would be a hugely positive move for the company. The AE Brand Image Meter rating for Ford is split. If we’re talking about the F-150 pickup, a few of its star crossovers and the Mustang, it’s white hot and one of five top-rated brands in our ratings. As for the rest of the machinations going on at Ford? Boneless. And the less heard about that the better.

Genesis. The Genesis cars are definitely worth considering. They’re competently executed and present real value in the luxury-performance market. But does anyone beyond the early adopters to the brand give a shit? Apparently not. I don’t believe there’s enough advertising money on the planet to buy this brand a toehold in the market. And word of mouth only goes so far and takes a long, long time to gain traction. The Koreans have demonstrated time and again that patience isn’t their strong suit when it comes to the auto biz. I expect another blowup at any moment.

GMC. This brand just keeps on chugging, in some cases even defying rational thinking. Everyone knows that GMC vehicles are massaged versions of Chevrolet models, but for some that’s clearly more than enough. And it’s certainly not the advertising and marketing either, because that stuff is eminently forgettable, when it’s not annoying. I chalk up GMC's success to a very clear-cut marketing reality: For consumers, GMC isn’t a Chevy, which apparently counts for a lot. And it’s not a Cadillac, either, which in their minds counts for even more, not being showy types and all. A solid brand – the kind that has a T-Bone steak and eggs for breakfast – which in this chaotic marketing world is really saying something.

Honda. The brand that has such a rich legacy seems to be on the rebound with consumers, which is noteworthy. Honda is touting that it is getting back to its roots, with company operatives insisting that’s why things are on the upswing for the brand. Last year I didn’t completely agree with that assessment, but this year I have to grudgingly admit that Honda is definitely getting its shit together. Honda enjoys a positive brand image for some very good reasons. And as long as Honda operatives understand and appreciate that fact, they will accumulate bones by the bushel.

Hyundai. Hyundai continues to revel in the Too Many Models Syndrome, which results in a confusing showroom filled with too many cars and SUVs that blend together and land on top of each other in the market. But there’s no use telling Korean auto executives what to do. They know absolutely everything there is to know about absolutely everything, and if, as an American car executive in their employ you don’t concur, you are jettisoned in favor of someone who will. Now they have Jose Munoz, the guy who alienated so many while he was at Nissan that they celebrated for days when he left. This guy brings such a stellar reputation with him that Hyundai dealers have been experiencing the dry heaves. Sounds about par for the course for Hyundai, right? The other fundamental problem that the powers that be at Hyundai would never admit to is that Kia and Hyundai are interchangeable in most consumers’ minds, despite Kia marketer’s efforts to portray Kia as the “sporty” one. And on top of that Hyundai marketers are struggling to push its Genesis division. Brand image? Ugh. Hyundai showrooms are where consumers go to get financed and get a deal. And that’s not about to change anytime soon.

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

Jaguar. A year ago, Jaguar was on a roll. Now? It doesn’t exactly feel that way, does it? Yet it seems to be doing just fine in the market. The brand still has a brace of excellent vehicles, including the I-Pace SUV, but that may not be enough when the Giant Automotive Downturn happens. That’s when brands like Jaguar take it on the chin.

Jeep. This American icon is another brand that occupies a top spot in the AE Brand Image Meter, but there are signs that the magic may be teetering. FCA marketers and product planners have a serious case of the Red Mist, exemplified by the usurious option prices put in place on Jeeps. It’s so bad that it has become laughable. You basically have to sign up for a Jeep and then build-out what you really want with the heavily-priced option list. The result? Jeep prices are soaring through the roof. And that’s not even getting into the Gladiator, which is $60,000+ properly equipped. No, I’m not against auto companies making profits, that’s the name of the game after all. But gouging people? That’s another thing altogether. It’s no secret that this brand, with the impeccable credentials and unrivaled imagery attached to it, has benefited from some superb image wrangling. But all of that wonderful image wrangling comes apart when showroom prices are way too high. Yeah, Jeep is still at the top on our AE Brand Image Meter, but that can come to a screeching halt in an instant when a company screws up. Just ask Audi.

Kia. As I mentioned above, Hyundai’s foray into the luxury arena spells trouble for its Hyundai and Kia brands. Before Genesis there was at least an attempt at differentiation between Kia and Hyundai, with Kia allegedly skewing younger. But consumers really didn’t care how Korean auto executives parsed their brands because Kia and Hyundai both fell into that subset of “deal” brands in the American market. That used to be the case, however, until the hotter-than-hot Telluride came along. The Telluride has the potential to be a game changer for Kia, and it has already moved the needle for the brand in a big way. Because of the Telluride, the Kia brand isn’t just about commodity cars anymore. And in case you’re wondering, the difference between the Telluride and the Stinger is that the Telluride is riding the crest of the market; while the Stinger still operates in the “acquired taste” arena and is damn-near sales proof. Brand image? Before Telluride, Kia couldn’t even find a bone. With Telluride, the treats just keep piling up.

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

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

Lexus. Toyota’s luxury brand is going all-out to reinvent itself as something more than the “excellent service and customer care” brand. That’s all well and good, but Akio Toyoda’s drive to make Lexus into a high-performance brand leaves a lot to be desired. Are the cars good? Sure. But there are plenty of people – the Lexus core buyers to be exact – who like Lexus just the way it is. Impeccable customer service still resonates, and as long as Lexus doesn’t stray too far from that winning formula, it will continue to be a force in the luxury market.

Lincoln. Lincoln has come a long way in just four years. The switch back to names is such a hugely positive development that has helped rejuvenate the brand. But that isn’t all. Lincoln’s calculated product development direction to make its interiors sumptuous and alluring is paying huge dividends, and the buzz about the brand is growing because of it. The new Navigator SUV has exceeded all expectations, but as much of a success as it is, the upcoming Aviator is the SUV that will become a segment leader and the new face for the brand. Lincoln has a name with historical relevance, one that Lincoln operatives have learned to embrace and nurture to great effect. That is not as easy as it sounds, but it’s refreshing to see.

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

Maserati. This luxury performance machine is the attractive Italian sports car brand name with a historical legacy that repeatedly suffers in comparison to the rest of the competition. Does Maserati have attractive cars? Yes, somewhat, but the brand is not top of mind. In other words, Maserati exists, but in a galaxy far, far away from the real luxury-performance retail action. Will the brand survive the proposed merger? That’s highly questionable. The AE Brand Image Meter? The bones are few and far between for Maserati. It still has some appeal, but only for those who still give a shit.

Mazda. Even though Mazda builds some notably outstanding cars, the brand always seems to be scrambling for respectability. Will it ever be more than it is right now, the scrappy purveyor of interesting cars if you would just take the time to look, and a media fanboy favorite? I seriously doubt it. And now that Mazda operatives are seriously pursuing a level of elevated legitimacy, are there any guarantees that Mazda can take the next step up? No. Sometimes big-league brand image wrangling involves knowing what the brand isn’t. If you’re into the brand, it’s hot. For most of the rest of the automotive world it’s – did you see the Warriors game last night?

McLaren. This exotic English sports car micro-manufacturer keeps pouring on the credibility by building formidable high-performance machines that supersede the one before. Except that they’re getting dangerously close to churning out too many incremental variations on the same theme, which is beginning to get annoying because it suggests that they’re listening too closely to the dulcet tones of their own thought balloons. That said, though Ferrari may dismiss McLaren as a legitimate threat to its perpetual dominance of the hyper-exotic car market, the British supercar maker boasting the legacy of one of racing’s true legends keeps making serious inroads onto Ferrari’s turf. I wouldn’t bet against McLaren, because the entire organization is focused on delivering excellence, except when it comes to its racing exploits, apparently. 

Mercedes-Benz. As I’ve said countless times before, when Mercedes is “on” – see the S-Class Coupe, the Mercedes-AMG GT and the new G-Class, 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. And this just in: The new Mercedes EQC BEV SUV is the latest Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking. The Mercedes-Benz brand is on a perpetual roller-coaster ride, and the next “dip” is going to be low and long.

Mini. The brand that was initially successful beyond all expectations is now in real danger of falling out of this market altogether. The brand is played out in the U.S. and it seems that there’s not much BMW can do to stop the freefall. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow for most car executives, especially since they’re constantly reminded of their brilliance by hordes of bootlicking minions looking for their next promotion, but for BMW/Mini executives this pirouette into The Abyss has to be a humiliating blow. Mini exists in its own little world, which seems to be a speck in everyone’s rearview mirror at this point.

Mitsubishi. Why?

Nissan. This company has slowly but surely become a mainstream force in the U.S. market despite flying almost completely under the radar. And I can’t for the life of me understand why. Is it great products? No. In fact they’re mediocre and for the most part, hideous to look at. I mean, let’s face it, Nissan is building some seriously ugly looking vehicles. Is it brilliant marketing? Are you kidding? Nissan marketing is a dismal exercise in futility, and that’s on a good day. So, what is it, exactly? The only rational reason – and I am paraphrasing a hoary adage by H. L. Mencken here – is that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. As in, mediocrity, when it comes to automobiles, is bliss for most consumers, because at the end of the day too many of them don’t understand the difference and couldn't be bothered to care, as long as the payment is where it needs to be. Confounding and tragic, but there you have it. This merger business looms large for Nissan. Years of mistakes potentially could be erased by the stroke of a pen. But even then, I have full confidence that the abject mediocrity will continue.

Porsche. The OGs of Greed, those wonderful folks who created and refined the concept of a Hose-O-Rama Option List to achieve spectacular levels of enhanced profitability, are about to get a 2x4 of reality in the forehead. What? Wait a minute, isn’t Porsche the automotive company that’s better at executing a vision for its brand and staying relentlessly focused to the task at hand? Isn’t it the company’s mission to build the most enticing enthusiast machines they can muster, and in the process of doing so it has made Porsche the most desirable automotive brand in the world and one of the top-performing brands on the AE Brand Image Meter? Yes, still true. But, and there’s always a “but.” The VW Group’s push into BEVs spells serious trouble for Porsche. Company operatives in Zuffenhausen insist that the new line of BEVs – starting with the Taycan – will be everything a Porsche has always been, but I’m not buying into that in the least. Devoid of sound – electronically manufactured or no – a BEV Porsche will be a BEV, meaning it will be a soulless appliance with Porsche accoutrements. Sure, it will have the look, the badges and the instant monster torque of a BEV – and, of course the usurious option list – but that’s all it will have. And this has nothing to do about Porsche purists vs. the onslaught of inexorable change, either. This is about the Porsche brand losing its raison d’etre overnight. Porsche’s savvy marketing operatives are acutely aware that the momentum for the brand won’t last indefinitely without consistent efforts at shoring up the brand’s legacy. Even with a brand that has been wildly successful for a long, long time, Porsche True Believers understand that they will have to fight and claw to maintain their grip on the soul of the company. And this will be tested even more with the brand’s foray into BEVs. For the first time in a long time Porsche is about to find out just how fragile this Brand Image business really is. 

Ram Trucks. As I've said repeatedly, crafting a brand image is one of the most challenging tasks in this business. The True Believers out in Auburn Hills know trucks, and they're building a first-class pickup truck. But there's more to it than that. Not only are they executing their trucks almost flawlessly in terms of design, engineering and features, they've managed to hit it out of the park when it comes to image wrangling. It doesn’t hurt that FCA marketers are fully engaged in the pickup truck war while putting more cash on the hood than a down payment on a small house, but who’s counting? They’re kicking Chevrolet’s ass, which heretofore was almost incomprehensible. The only questions remaining are: How far can Ram go, and how long can they keep up this momentum?

Rolls Royce. 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 with the debuts of the iconic Phantom followed by the Ghost, the majestic Wraith and the seductive Dawn. Rolls couldn’t help itself, however, and took a regrettable step into SUV Hell with the Cullinan, but that’s the way of the auto world right now. Oh well, as far as Rolls-Royce is concerned, what a wonderful, splendiferous world it is. The Rolls-Royce brand Image is impeccable and still smokin’ hot, in a sexy-flirty Helen Mirren kind of way.

Subaru. The most successful brand that no one thinks about (except for its rabid owners), Subaru has attracted loyal followers by emphasizing function over fantasy, and detailed execution over smoke-and-mirrors gimmickry. More important, unlike some other automotive entities we know, Subaru marketers understand what the brand is and what it isn’t, and because of this and its focused consistency, it has been rewarded with intense brand loyalty. But Subaru’s relentless sales success and growth has the company bulging at the seams, and that means that Subaru is now wrestling with that burgeoning success in every way possible. But as long as Subaru marketers continue to clearly understand who its customers are and what the brand means to people – and to animals – it’s going to continue to reap the kudos (and an unending supply of bones)… and the profits. Subaru continues to maintain its place in the top tier of the AE Brand Image Meter. 

Tesla. Nothing new here, either. With blue-sky thinking, old-time religion, and enough smoke and mirrors to last this industry a frickin’ lifetime, Elon Musk is a huge success, dammit, and don’t you dare forget it. Tesla is the car built for politicians in Washington and Northern California, and EcoSwells needing even more validation for who they think they are. But it’s no secret that the Tesla miracle has finally run out of juice. The denizens of Wall Street who have gleefully written off the domestic automobile industry as an expendable part of this nation’s past have finally realized that Tesla is a smoke-and-mirrors exercise burning mountains of cash and heading nowhere good. To the green intelligentsia, Tesla is still The White-Hot Future. For the rest of us, it’s a rocket ride to oblivion. 

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 of its focused consistency, and it never, ever quits. The blandtastic appliance era for Toyota is fading from view, thanks to Akio Toyoda’s push to heat things up. The real air of substance at Toyota is growing, and it shows.

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

VW. After the serious financial hit and image headache from the Diesel cheating scandal, the VW brand is on the rebound. In the U.S. the VW brand never really suffered permanent damage to its image because Diesel loyalists loved their cars and still do. It’s easy to see why people love the VW brand because it provides an interesting alternative to the American, Japanese and Korean brands, while adhering to the basic values of overall efficiency with a fun-to-drive component that still resonates with consumers. It doesn’t hurt that VW offers two of the best enthusiast cars in the market in the GTI and the R, either. And the Atlas SUV has been a much-needed boon for dealers, because they continue to fly off of the lots like free beer. And the new Tiguan is a noteworthy product entry too. The VW brand is alive and well. 

As I've stated repeatedly, 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 the blah-blah-blah from CEOs 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.

This automotive marketing business is tough, unforgiving and relentless. Hundred-million-dollar marketing campaigns can be left in a smoldering heap by the side of the road because of a bold miscalculation, a flat-out wrong-headed decision or auto executives egos running amuck. Or, as I like to call it, The Trifecta of Not Good. 

That last one can be particularly devastating, because as smart as some of these people think they are, their ability to sort through the real from the imaginary sometimes gets lost in translation. Much of this is the result of a completely unrealistic assessment by these executives of their brand's place in the automotive world. They are so buried in the day-to-day minutiae of it all at their respective companies that they simply don't have the wherewithal to step back and objectively see or understand what's really going on. And to compound that, they don't really like people telling them what to do or that they're wrong either, because after all they're geniuses, remember? Just ask them. 

After 20 years of writing this column, I find the insularity at the auto companies to be astonishing. Understandable, mind you, but still astonishing. That's really the only adjective that fits. This insularity causes major missteps and blown opportunities left and right. When I see an iconic brand offering so much to work with, with so much historical relevance to bring to bear and yet it is so misguided and mishandled, it is simply unconscionable. Squandering a legacy is unforgivable in my book. 

I would suggest that the brand marketers that got hammered in our latest Brand Image Meter go back and reread my words carefully, because though painful, half the battle is realizing what you're doing wrong before you can even begin to see your way clear to making things right. As for the rest who fared better, I wouldn't get too complacent, because you're only one boneheaded decision away from disaster. 

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

It’s duly noted that the companies that are overflowing with True Believers and that focus every waking moment on the integrity and the fundamental desirability of the product are doing very well right now in the brand image department, and they will continue to do so. 

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

Brand image is a fleeting thing, except for those brand marketers that understand how they got it, what it took to get it to that point, and what it will take to keep it.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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