Where have all the great automotive brands gone?

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As an industry we’ve lost sight of our great brands.  In some cases companies have gone bankrupt or been acquired and a brand disappeared, in others a world war got in the way.  Studebaker, Cord, Horch, MG, Triumph and countless others have evaporated for a variety of reasons.

Today, as Detroit goes through an unprecedented upheaval, there will be more brands lost.  Saturn, a once very special brand, will go away.  So will Pontiac and Hummer.  We can only wonder what will happen to brands like Jeep.  Brands that stood for something, had a point of view, and marketed products that reflected a certain perspective.  Brands that developed a loyal following because they stood for something!  They weren’t for everybody, and that was OK.

As discouraging as it is to see a great brand go away because of a structural change in a company, it’s worse to see brands die of neglect by the very people charged with protecting and building them.  Over the last 20 years we have watched a number of great automotive brands that automotive marketers worked very hard to create, begin to whither away.  The aforementioned Jeep is one, Volvo another.  Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Land Rover, SAAB,  Lexus and even mighty BMW feel somehow “less” than they did even ten years ago.

What’s happened?  Expansion happened.  Chasing volume happened.  Brands that meant something specific and clear found themselves needing to be “more.”


For example, it wasn’t enough for Volvo to stand for safety.  They thought they couldn’t sell 200,000 units in the US based on safety alone, they needed to be more exciting, they needed performance added to their brand positioning.  I’ll bet if we asked someone at Volvo today, they’d love to be a 150,000 unit “safety” brand.

Mercedes Benz, while incredibly successful in the US, was once “Engineered Like No Other Car In the World.”  That wasn’t enough either, it always irritated Mercedes Benz that Volvo had grabbed the “safety” positioning when Mercedes Benz automobiles were at the time considered safer.  So they made sure that “safety” played a big role in communications for a period of time.  Oh, and then Lexus came along and engineered an exceptional car, so the long standing Mercedes Benz tag line wasn’t supportable any longer.  And as Lexus‘ sales grew at a meteoric pace in the early 90’s it was clear that Mercedes Benz could and must sell many more cars too.

All these brands saw an opportunity to expand volume and felt that their well defined positionings from the ‘70s and the ‘80s were “limiting.”  So they expanded their positionings and forever weakened their brands.  Consumers were once convinced that if they bought a Volvo, it would keep them safe.  They knew for certain that if they bought a Mercedes Benz they were buying the best engineered car in the world.  If you bought a Land Rover you bought a vehicle capable of going anywhere with an unparalleled level of luxury and utility.

BMW, while it has been the best of the bunch at sticking with their fundamental positioning of “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” has expanded so dramatically over the last ten years that it’s difficult to say it has kept its well honed differentiated competitive edge.

Here’s the truth about all of these brands.  They all make terrific products that offer fabulous engineering, safety, performance, luxury and prestige.  Historically, what differentiated these brands was where these brands started the conversation with consumers.  Mercedes Benz always spoke from an engineering point of view, Volvo from safety, BMW from performance.  As a owner you got a well engineered, high performing, luxurious and safe car but all of that within the brand’s differentiating perspective.  Unfortunately, today the differences in brand perspective are less identifiable.

So, where does this leave us?  It leaves us with a bunch of homogenized brands.  Brands that are not as leverageable as they once were.  Brands that are weaker.  The good news is that the baby boomers grew up when these great brands were established in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they still understand the fundamental positionings and keep them in the public consciousness.  The bad news, the baby boomers, who have fueled the expansion of these brands, are entering the phase of their lives where they won’t be buying as many cars.

Which finally leads to my real question, who will teach the next generation of automotive buyers what these great brands stand for?  Are we going to let these great automotive brands slide into a homogenized future where every car is a good car and they’re more alike than different?

There’s a whole new generation of automobile buyers entering the market and they don’t understand these great brands because the marketing over the last fifteen years hasn’t differentiated them.  Auto marketers and their agencies would do well to teach this generation what their parents already know….that there are differences between these automotive brands and that’s what makes them desirable.

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2 Responses to “Where have all the great automotive brands gone?”

  1. Cameron says:

    Thanks Malcolm.

  2. Malcolm Fossati says:

    good topic. i like the post

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