No. 967
October 10, 2018
 

About The UjianNasional

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Ujian-nasional.info, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  ). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Monday
Jun042018

THE AUTOEXTREMIST BRAND IMAGE METER VII: THE "TRIFECTA OF NOT GOOD" EDITION.

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. 
Needless to say, I have been inundated with emails from readers and others awaiting my take on Sergio Marchionne’s latest plan for FCA. And even though it will disappoint some, my comments will be brief. For starters, it is plainly obvious that FCA is no longer, it is now JARM (for Jeep, Alfa Romeo, Ram and Maserati). The reason Fiat, Dodge and Chrysler weren’t mentioned during the press event is that those divisions are simply going to cease to exist here. Yes, the minivan will survive, and the True Believers in Auburn Hills will churn out muscle cars as long as that plan is sustainable (which isn’t long), but Chrysler will fade away and the Fiat brand will be confined to the markets where it has a chance. (As if the Fiat dealers here in the U.S. need to be reminded, the brand never should have been brought here in the first place, and it cost them dearly because they bought into Sergio’s charade hook, line and sinker, and now they have to be content with the fact that they’re mere specks in Sergio’s rearview mirror and he couldn’t care less. Nicely done.)

So here in the U.S. the focus will be on Jeep and Ram, and around the world Jeep will be the straw that stirs the drink for JARM. This all makes sense, because Marchionne always has a nose for where the money is, and he realized that Jeep was the cash machine that would propel him to greatness while lining his pockets and those of his Fiat heirs/handlers. As for the myriad Alfa Romeo models promised, what would a Sergio plan be without some grossly optimistic projections? And don’t be fooled like several analysts seemed to be, because the electrification part of Sergio’s plan for JARM can only be termed as an electrification strategy "by gunpoint.” Sergio still couldn't care less about electrification, and he’s leaving that task to whoever replaces him. And so it goes.

As is now tradition, this point on the AE calendar is reserved for our Brand Image Meter, 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. We’re not slimy purveyors of vacuous marketing streams, thank goodness, but 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 20th year of publication, that’s not about to change.

As I said when we first introduced our Brand Image Meter six 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 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 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.

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 mentioned 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. 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? The updated UjianNasional Brand Image Meter VII ratings range from Hot to Cold, Neutral to Clueless, Flat-out Delusional to WTF? And the time-honored Pathetic, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Acura. Is the Acura NSX sports car a fitting halo for the brand? On the one hand, I can say yes, yes, it is. The car is a little porky but overall, it’s an excellent effort. But on the other hand, is there really any connection between Acura’s show pony sports car and the rest of the lineup? The answer unfortunately, is not much. Burdened by design mistakes from its recent past and constantly operating on the fringes of the top-tier luxury-performance segment, Acura remains an enigma. And realistically, right now the proper Acura brand image is confined to two vehicles, the NSX and the brand-new – and nicely executed - RDX. The Bottom Line is that Acura is in desperate need of more product juice. The aforementioned two Acuras worth talking about constitute a good start at least.

Alfa Romeo. Despite the fact that I am evaluating a Stelvio as my personal driver (and I am very pleased with it so far), my overall opinion of Alfa hasn’t changed. It’s a niche brand that will always operate on the fringe of the automotive enthusiast spectrum. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially now that Sergio has shelved his ridiculous obsession with turning Alfa into the next Audi. That didn’t prevent Sergio from promising an array of hot new Alfa products last week at his big meeting in Italy. After all, it wouldn’t be a Sergio “plan” meeting without some bombast, right? Alfa Romeo is officially the “march to a different drummer” Italian brand and I’m fine with that. The new range of Alfa Romeo products are clearly the best in the company's long history, and as long as Alfa Romeo remains a fringe brand with a wonderful history and doesn’t try to be anything more than that, it will be fine. Because no brand can live up to that kind of pressure. 

Aston Martin. CEO Andy Palmer knows that Aston Martin, as an independent luxury automobile manufacturer, can just barely survive in its present guise, which is also why Aston is introducing the DBX super luxury SUV in 2020 and is injecting itself into the luxury space in a variety of ways, including partnering with the Red Bull F1 team. Aston desperately needs more of a “limited” volume play in the market and the DBX is the ticket, Palmer figures. He’s probably right. But here’s the thing, 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 seems to be chugging along with its brand mojo intact, especially now that the stain of the VW Group’s Diesel fiasco is fading from view. Now fully ensconced in the top tier of mainstream luxury brands along with BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz here in the U.S., Audi continues to do what they do. Does it all work? For the most part, yes. Audi has even polished its own version of the classic German automotive arrogance to a new sheen, which is not unexpected, but that translates into higher prices, higher doses of attitude and a lingering feeling that the brand, though still hot, is headed for a cooling. The Marketing Meisters at Audi are still on course, except for when they take themselves much too seriously and allow their “holier than thou” attitude to creep into their advertising, which results in smarmy and annoying work. We shall see what happens when it brings out its all-electric crossover next year, but in the meantime Audi is good. At least for now.

Bentley. Some people thought that with the arrival of the Bentayga SUV, Bentley would suffer immeasurable image damage, but instead the brand has been made even stronger. This is a classic example of image stewards for a brand displaying the kind of focused consistency – combined with savvy product decisions – needed to forge one of the most desirable luxury brands in the business.

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 tony 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’s brand image is lost in a choking haze of profitability over integrity, and it’s not likely to find its way back anytime soon.

Buick. No brand wranglers pat themselves on the back more than those toiling away at Buick (well, except for those at Chevrolet, but I’ll get to that in a minute). They will be the first to tell you that they have it so goin’ on that it’s a wonder they have to drive into work anymore. Instead, they should be able to float in to work riding the platitudes and accumulated “attaboys” that dominate their thought balloons. Contrary to those thoughts, and contrary to GM’s upper management, which actually does believe that Buick really has it goin’ on, the so-called marketers have dumbed-down Buick only to occupy star status in Payment Land. As in “I can’t believe I get this much faux luxury for this little money!” GM Design has managed, by presenting some compelling concepts over the last few years, to imagine a Buick that lives only in its dreams. Buick is yet another GM brand that exists for the edification of the Chinese market. Nothing more, nothing less.

Cadillac. Now that the push to remake Cadillac in Audi’s image is over, what’s next? Looking at Cadillac’s lineup today, the ATS is gone and the CTS should be. The CT6 is nicely executed but it needs a much more aggressively beautiful skin, at least as good as the Ciel concept car. The XT5 is selling in a SUV/Crossover-crazed market, but the XT4 doesn’t show much promise, especially in the interior. As for the Escalade, which one of the Cadillac products has the can’t-mistake-it-for-anything-else street cred worthy of the brand? A hint: It’s the only one with a name. (And thankfully, the next-generation Escalade will be a show stopper.) Cadillac is another one of GM’s brands that has more going for it in China than anywhere else, and even though that’s an inevitable industry reality, the fact that this brand is squandering its legacy here is unconscionable. As an enthusiast, the superb Cadillac “V” cars are noteworthy and highly desirable, but they’re wasted in Cadillac showrooms because they have no context there, despite all of the money GM is pissing away on Cadillac’s so-called racing program, which is another foray into the Audi-ness of it all that isn’t working. (Now, take those “V” cars and remake them into Corvette coupes and sedans as part of the new Corvette Performance Division, and you’d have something, but that’s another column.) I have one question: How can a brand that has displayed the industry's most compelling concept cars of the last decade – with equally compelling names, by the way – stumble along with a bunch of cars in the market that have nothing going for them? What a waste. 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.

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 sick 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 (I'll grant, however, that the new truck versions of the "real people" campaign are at least watchable). Throw in the insipid “most rewarded” angle and it’s a marketing cocktail that absolutely no one is interested in except the so-called “marketers” down at the Silver Silos, who are absolutely convinced that they have it goin’ on. This just in: They don’t. We have been inundated of late by stories by our resident local media homers touting how wonderful Mary Barra is, how smart, how enlightened, how visionary and the usual blah-blah-blah. That’s all well and good and at least somewhat deserved, but as long as she – and “Dan I Am” Ammann – continue to ignore the blatant mediocrity on constant display by GM’s so-called marketing troops, I will give them a big fat “F.” And as bad as that grade is, that’s more than Chevrolet’s brand image merits, unfortunately.

Chrysler. The “C” of the company formerly known as FCA is fading away, because JARM doesn’t need it. Sure it will hang on to the Chrysler Pacifica, but the goodness of the Chrysler minivan brand image goes only so far, meaning the Pacifica is part of the competitive set of minivans to consider if one is interested in those particular vehicles. Not much to go on, is 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. It’s very strange, in fact. It’s as if they’re afraid to talk about it too much or admit that it represents the very best thinking of GM’s True Believers. Why? Well, why ask why? It has been like this for the Corvette for three decades, at least. Despite this cloud of negativity, the Corvette name and image shine through. In fact, it shares the top tier in our AE Brand Image Meter with five other brands. I am not kidding when I say that I would form a completely new GM Performance Division with the Corvette as the foundation. As long as Chevrolet marketers continue to squander the image of an American icon, why associate the Corvette with that relentlessly clueless marketing mediocrity? As I suggested six years ago I would take the Cadillac “V” cars and remake them as Corvette models, and I would add the outstanding Camaro into the mix too. If Mary Barra wants to be truly “visionary” she could start by shaking up GM’s “we’ve always done it this way” mentality and let GM’s exceptional performance cars have an arena that they can call their own.

Dodge. Muscle cars and cop cars are this brand’s thing. Is that enough to go on? Will Dodge survive in this new era of JARM? 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 I blame them, but the harsh reality is that the life expectancy of this circus is short.

Fiat. A complete waste of time. Remember when Marchionne was promising dealers the brand would be the stepping stone to untold riches once they started selling Alfa Romeos too? 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 not much has changed. There are a lot of pretty smart dealers out there talking to themselves right now about how they could let Marchionne – a known carpetbagging mercenary – take them to the cleaners with the complete fiasco known as Fiat. Oh well. Brand image? Fiat is dead to me. And everyone else now too, apparently.

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 fanboys and girls to seduce. That the 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. Unfortunately for the proud, prancing horse brand and the enthusiasts who desire it, the term “management” means that the dreaded Marchionne is now in charge, which lends a certain unmistakable foreboding to the proceedings. What does it all mean? More tchotchkes, more Ferrari “Worlds” and ominously, much more volume, as in almost 50 percent more volume. This is, in case you forgot, what flat-out greed looks like in the car business. I would have put Ferrari at the top of the AE Brand Image Meter along with the other select few, but as long as Marchionne is involved the chances of this brand being screwed up are better than 50-50. So, the Ferrari brand is still red hot, at least for now, but how long that lasts remains to be seen.

Ford. Ford is the new, card-carrying Jekyll & Hyde car company. 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 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. The AE Brand Image Meter rating for Ford is split. If we’re talking about the F-150 pickup, it’s white hot and one of five top-rated brands in our ratings. As for Ford passenger cars, they’re warm to the touch but not nearly warm enough. As for the Ford Mobility play, it's a giant blue oval of "we'll see."

Genesis.  A year ago, I was convinced that Hyundai was playing it right with its new Genesis luxury brand. Boy, was I wrong. Hyundai operatives have demonstrated their relentless incompetence for all to see, flip-flopping, changing course, and then flip-flopping all over again. And it never seems to end. It doesn’t matter how good the cars are if there’s no cohesive marketing strategy. What a mess.

GMC. This brand just keeps going on, 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. Granted, the exterior and interior designers at GM Design assigned to work on GMC have made the most of what they’ve been given, but even that doesn’t explain the brand’s consistent success in the market. And it’s certainly not the advertising and marketing either, lest GMC marketers start patting each other on their backs, because that stuff is eminently forgettable, when it’s not annoying. (The "Like A Pro" campaign always seems a little awkward and forced.) 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, 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, but I’m not going to go along with that assessment completely. I think that is true, but only intermittently. In fact, Honda Design has taken a giant step backwards with the new Civic, which, though an excellent car, looks so uncomfortable in its own skin that you can almost hear them squeal “help me!” as they drive by. If Honda insists that they have their mojo back I’m going to at least give them points for the thought, and maybe even the benefit of the doubt. But I’m not buying into the “it’s a new day at Honda” mantra just yet. Honda enjoys a positive brand image for some very good reasons. That’s still the case, but it's still a giant "we'll see" proposition.

Hyundai. Such a once-promising brand, what the hell happened? Was it the constant cries of “we got it goin’ on!” which were part of the rote speech at every press conference that everyone grew tired of five years ago? Was it the Too Many Models Syndrome, which resulted in a confusing showroom filled with too many cars that blended together and that no one wanted? In fact, it was all of the above, and more. The reality is that 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. Hyundai has been careening around like this for years, and there’s no relief in sight. The other major problem that the powers that be at Hyundai would never admit to is that Kia and Hyundai are interchangeable in most consumers’ minds. And now that Hyundai is pushing its Genesis division that problem is even more pronounced. Brand image? Ugh. Hyundai showrooms are where consumers go to get financed and get a deal. And that’s all.

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 afterthought.

Jaguar. Who would have thought that Jaguar could be on such a roll? But with a brace of excellent vehicles, including the fabulous I-Pace SUV, which is a design masterpiece, and an image that has been well defined and polished to a high gloss, this brand definitely has it going on.

Jeep. This American icon is another brand that occupies the top spot in the AE Brand Image Meter. It is truly amazing – and I hate that overused word – but that’s the only explanation for this brand to have survived upheaval after upheaval and multiple stewards, and still emerge intact and stronger over time. It’s no secret that this brand, with the impeccable credentials and unrivaled imagery attached to it, has benefited from some superb image wrangling too. Jeep has been the sole focus of Sergio Marchionne’s vision for JARM, and it’s easy to see why. It’s where the money is. But in his quest to make money hand over fist, Marchionne has pumped up Jeep’s volume, churning out more Jeeps with questionable quality – and pushed more subprime financing to pump sales – than at any point in the brand’s history. Jeep is still at the top tier of the AE brand Image Meter, and now that Sergio is hinging his vision for global domination on Jeep, the iconic American brand has its work cut out for it.

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 now? Consumers don’t care how Korean auto executives parse their brands because Kia and Hyundai both fall into that subset of “deal” brands in the American market. The Korean auto executives with genuine decision-making power in this situation are too arrogant and shortsighted to see that having two brands stepping all over each other in the American market isn’t going to work. Brand image? I guess if you think the Stinger is the greatest thing since sliced bread (I don’t), it’s hot. But in reality the Kia Brand Image is nonexistent, unless looking for a deal qualifies as such.

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.

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, and maybe Akio Toyoda’s drive to make Lexus into a high-performance brand will succeed, but even if it doesn’t there are plenty of people who like Lexus just the way it used to be and still is. Impeccable customer service still resonates.

Lincoln. Lincoln has come a long way in just four years. The switch back to names is such a huge positive that it has rejuvenated the brand. And even though the Continental isn’t nearly the car it should be, it still resonates in the market. On the other hand, the new Navigator SUV has exceeded all expectations, and as much of a success as it is, the upcoming Aviator is the SUV that will become a segment leader and a grand slam home run. Lincoln has a name with historical relevance, one that Lincoln operatives are beginning to embrace and nurture to great effect. 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 even 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. And speaking of that brand, it 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 be able to live up to Marchionne’s typically over-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 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. But now that it’s about to pirouette off a cliff in its pursuit of elevated legitimacy, what are the Mazda overlords thinking? 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. And even 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 into Ferrari’s turf. I wouldn’t bet against McLaren, because the entire organization is focused on delivering excellence. And they don’t have a Marchionne to deal with, which is even more of an advantage.

Mercedes-Benz. As I’ve said countless times before, when Mercedes is “on” – see the magnificent new 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. The Mercedes-Benz brand is in perpetual turmoil, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Mini. The brand that was initially successful beyond all expectations has now fallen to earth with a thud. 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 bootlicking minions looking for their next promotion, but for Mini executives it had to be a humiliating blow. Mini exists in its own little world, which seems to be shrinking by the day.

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. 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 is just the ticket.

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 and one of the top performing brands on the AE Brand Image Meter. Every time I think Porsche has lost it with a new model, they just keep digging deep to reestablish the brand. 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. The powers that be at the company know that the profitability from selling SUVs is a blessing, and that it gives Porsche the luxury to create ever more desirable sports cars and compete in major league races around the world. But it comes with a heavy cost too. And Porsche operatives understand that they have to fight and claw to maintain their grip on the soul of the company. At least Porsche understands the task at hand. That’s more than most other companies can muster.

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 JARM marketers are putting more cash on the hood than a down payment on a small house, but who’s counting? The only question remaining is how far can Ram go?

Rolls Royce. Nothing new 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. (The Cullinan, however, is a step back.) Oh well, what a wonderful, splendiferous world it is. The Rolls-Royce brand Image is impeccable and 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. Kudos to the Subaru marketers, because they clearly understand who its customers are and what the brand means to people. And this is no small feat, which is why Subaru has ascended to the top tier on the AE Brand Image Meter. 

Tesla. Nothing new here, either. 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 is running 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, well, it’s a great deal less. 

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. There’s a real air of substance to Toyota, 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.

VW. After the serious financial hit and image headache from the Diesel cheating scandal, the VW Group and the VW brand are on the rebound. Despite having to shell out billions to satisfy the legal requirements of the settlements with the various entities due piles of cold hard cash, VW is still generating serious profits, almost shockingly so, in fact. 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. The new Atlas SUV has been a much-needed boon for dealers, because they’re flying off of the lots like free beer. And the new Tiguan is a noteworthy product entry too. The VW brand is alive and well. Hopefully, now that the company has been severely chastened, it will seize this golden opportunity to do even better.

As I've stated repeatedly on many occasions, 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.

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 nineteen 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 bone-headed decision away - or a runaway ego unchained - 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. (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 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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