Do you know what your automotive brand’s promise is?

There’s an interesting piece in this week’s Adweek by Dean Crutchfield, Chief Engagement Officer at Method: “A Brand by Any Other Name…”

He posits that one of the issues with “branding” as a marketing discipline is that we lack an agreed-to definition, which subjects it to interpretation based on circumstances or agendas.  He closes by saying that agencies and marketing services firms need to more tightly define branding:

“If we don’t address this, we could be perceived as an industry made up of people who don’t know how to define what it is they’re not supposed to do.  As Grouch Marx would have told us, ‘These are my principles; if you don’t like them, I have others.”

Leaving aside the issue of agency credibility, the automotive industry needs to dedicate itself to building or re-building its brands. Manufacturers who do will succeed in the hyper-competitive “new normal” automotive marketplace, while those who don’t will languish.

The automobile business has traditionally had a shaky relationship with the idea of “branding.”  Programs designed to define or position the “brand” are often perceived as the “soft” part of automotive marketing.  This perception is in contrast to the marketing specifically designed to drive traffic to the stores or in industry parlance “make the doors swing.”  Often manufacturers feel that they have to choose between “branding” and “retail” and more than often than not they choose retail.

I think that part of the problem with the discussion of “branding” in the automobile business is that it most often devolves into a discussion of advertising, as in “this is a brand ad, that is a retail ad.” Brand ads are the ones that attempt to speak to a company’s “values” whereas retail ads feature “product, place and price.”  This either/or conversation is specious and has led the industry to it’s current situation, products that are perceived more like commodities and customers who focus on pricing.

Let’s be clear, in the “new normal” automotive market the traditional brand vs. retail discussion is a path to commodity status, decreased sales, decreased profitability and the loss of already weak brand equities.  The truth is, every successful automotive competitor will do both jobs, build brand leverage and make the doors swing.

The marketing conversation needs to start in a different place and I agree that it needs to start with a definition of what we mean by “brand.” While I’m sure there are more complicated answers to the brand definition question, I would like to suggest that the automobile industry would be well served by a simple approach.  A great automotive brand is a promise made and kept.

Nothing new here, right?  The idea that a brand is a promise made and kept is as old as the hills.  Defining what we mean by brand is pretty straightforward, the hard part is figuring out what a particular brand’s promise(s) is/could be and then making sure that it is “kept” at every consumer touch point consitently over many years.

Certainly the execution of a brand promise is more complex than ever, there are literally thousands of consumer touch points (ranging from the internet all the way through to the dealer salesperson). That’s why it is so critical to make a commitment to a promise(s) and not waver from it.  Our industry has several notable brands that lost sight of their promise and have been forever weakened (Volvo is a great example, even mighty Mercedes-Benz is not as well defined as it once was).

Toyota is currently battling a product quality issue that has resulted in recalls and the extraordinary step of stopping production and sales of eight models.   This is an assault on Toyota’s promise of quality and reliability.  How Toyota handles these recalls will define their brand going forward, will they handle their customers in a high quality, trustworthy (reliable) fashion?  If they do, they will build their brand, if they don’t they will break their promise to their customers and the brand will be weakened.

The brand promise should drive everyones’ behavior, from the dealer’s Service Tech all the way to the CEO (including agencies and other vendors).  Everyone is responsible for representing the promise and keeping it.  Of course, marketing must be charged with making the promise clear and demonstrating that it is kept.  All of this is easy to say and very difficult to implement given the overwhelmingly complex marketing environment we all operate in.

But it is impossible to implement if the brand’s promise changes or is subject to revision based on short term needs.  The automotive industry is guilty of thinking that its brand promises are adjustable. This is like saying to your angry significant other whom you told that you would be home at 7pm and you’re 45 minutes late: “I didn’t really mean 7pm, I meant around 7pm so I’m really not late.”

Promises consistently made and kept build trust, promises broken destroy cedibility.  Automobile manufacturers need to get clear about the promises their brands are making and then create alignment with all constituents responsible for keeping the promise.

The companies that dedicate themselves to making a brand promise and keeping it will be the long-term winners in the “new normal” automotive marketplace.  Those that don’t will be destined to commodity status with pricing as the only differentiator.

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  24. […] writing about the Toyota debacle, automotive marketing blogger Cameron McNaughton says, “The automotive industry is guilty of thinking that its brand promises are adjustable.” […]

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