Archive for the ‘Automotive Retail’ Category

On the cusp of……slipping the needle in.

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Last week the auto industry reported US sales and what a great report it was!  Just scan the headlines:

“Out of the Doldrums, Automakers Post Strong U.S. Sales.”  –New York Times 12/3/13

“Brisk Demand Lifts Car Sales”  –Wall Street Journal 12/4/13

“Auto Sales for November Hit Fastest Pace in Almost Seven Years…Industry Bullish on Growth”    –AdAge 12/3/13

“Industry rides toward 2014 on a high” Automotive News 12/3/13

“Strong US sales boost Detroit Three Car Makers”Financial Times 12/3/13

Just this morning Automotive News reported:

“Likely from Santa: Soaring SAAR for December, big ’14”

So the march out of the recession continues for the auto industry, some forecasters are even predicting that in 2014 the industry could retail 17MM units again.  Forgive me, but I find these predictions a bit unsettling. I’ve seen the boom and bust of cycle of the industry a few times and each time we go through it, I quietly say to myself, “Ok now we’ve learned our lesson.”

It was just a few years ago that the country was thrown into the worst recession most of us can remember. Auto industry sales collapsed to 10.4MM units in 2009 and Chrysler and GM went through bankruptcy. Bankruptcy gave the domestic manufacturers an historic opportunity to rid themselves of excess production capacity and correct one of the industry’s long term bugaboos, we were simply making more cars than people wanted to buy.  Too much production led to inflated inventories which in turn led to marketing that relied heavily on incentives and made price virtually the only criterium for purchase. We taught consumers to ‘buy the deal.’ Promotions are a necessary part of any business and there will always be times when incentives need to be used, but using incentives became the SOP of the industry (particularly the domestics) and made it impossible for anyone to make money.

For the last couple of years, with the recession just behind us, the industry has shown restraint. Production and inventories were kept under tight control, fewer incentives were used and low and behold, margins increased! This has been great for the industry and things are really on firmer footing than anytime in recent memory.

But, will the industry become a victim of its own success……again?! (more…)

Do customers really want an “experience” from automotive manufacturers and their dealers?

Monday, October 14th, 2013

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to have an “experience” with my automobile dealer.  I don’t want my dealer to send me birthday cards, acknowledge my anniversary, or give me special gifts that reflect my personal preferences. I’m not even sure I’m open to periodic emails from the dealer or manufacturer because somehow “periodic” becomes every other day. I don’t want that kind of relationship with the company(ies) I purchased my cars from.

Yet automobile manufacturers seem intent on differentiating themselves based on “experience:”

“The need to deliver exceptional, truly differentiating customer experience has never been greater,” Steve Cannon,  CEO, Mercedes-Benz NA, Automotive News 1/21/13

“Lincoln wants customers to receive the kind of pampering, both at dealerships and online, that they would get at luxury hotels.” Automotive News 8/20/12

This is not new, the industry, particularly the luxury marques have been working on improving customer experience for years. These efforts were precipitated by the introduction of Lexus. When Lexus was introduced in 1989, the DNA of the luxury segment and the whole industry was re-arranged.

Customer service was re-defined. (more…)

Does the concept of “Tier 1 Luxury” have a future?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

If you follow the luxury segment of the automobile business in the US, then you know that the best and most powerful brands are those considered to be “Tier 1.”  They represent the largest volume brands in the segment, have the most loyal customers, command the highest margins, have the highest resale values, are the best defined, are the most prestigious and the most desirable.

Every Tier 2 brand aspires to be in Tier 1.  Audi set the target years ago to become a Tier 1 brand and some would say that it has achieved that goal.  More recently Cadillac has made no bones about the fact that it wants to be a Tier 1 brand and has set it sights on BMW.  Infiniti is striving to make it into Tier 1 and Jaguar would like to return.  The fact remains that only Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus have achieved the volume, credibility and prestige to be true Tier 1, everyone else is Tier 2:

That said, I think the goal of becoming a Tier 1 brand may be a fool’s errand in today’s luxury segment.  It made sense almost 20 years ago when Audi set that as the target but does it really make sense today?

Tier 1 is full of accepted conventions that must be present in order for the brand to be truly Tier 1.  For example, in the Tier 1 world, all dealerships must be exclusive and should be Taj Mahals built to reflect the prestige and loftiness of the brand they represent.  In these Taj Mahal dealerships, customers must be served lattes, have a customer experience befitting their level of success and certainly not have that experience sullied by the presence of mass market product or customers.  In Tier 1, as defined today, manufacturers must offer three sizes of sedans, at least two cross-overs, a sports car as well as a tuner division that churns out high performance model variants.  In traditional Tier 1, it is essential to have a D-segment (think MB S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Audi A8) sedan that represents the brand’s ultimate execution of a luxury vehicle.  It’s pretty rarified air up in Tier 1, but if you can get there, profits and volumes are huge.

Here’s the rub, the whole Tier 1 paradigm has been built around the baby boomer generation and I can’t help but wonder if the conventional thinking about Tier 1 runs the risk of taking a manufacturer down a path that will be less relevant in the future.  (more…)

Ford, with Mike Rowe, gets Tier 2 retail right.

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Anyone who has worked in automotive marketing knows how tough it is to do really good Tier 2 advertising.

Here’s the issue.  Tier 1 is funded by the manufacturer and is often referred to as the “brand” communications.  Tier 3 is the communications funded and executed at the local level by individual dealers.  Tier 2 is caught betwixt and between.

Funded in part by the manufacturer and in part by the local market dealer groups.  Tier 2 must serve two masters.  The manufacturer wants to be sure that the work reflects the brand and makes the doors swing whereas the dealers are understandably concerned with just making the doors swing.  Just to make it more difficult, the manufacturer’s marketing team and the dealers often have a different points-of-view about what will make the doors swing.

Tier 2 is where the brand versus retail discussion often gets very heated.   It is very tough to find a balance between the brand and retail messages.  More often than not, you end up erring toward the retail.  We all know what this formula looks like.  The TV commercials are visuals of the vehicle on the road, held together by a litany of product features in the copy and you tie it up with a bow…the deal.  The newsprint is a visual of the car, a couple of sentences covering key features, the deal and some legal disclaimers.

This leads to a sea of sameness when it comes to Tier 2 communications.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.   (more…)

Hyundai Equus. Can Hyundai succeed with a D-class model?

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

The D-segment of the luxury market is tough.  The best luxury manufacturers in the world bring their best technology, design and engineering to the table and the result is the world’s best 4-door sedans: BMW 7-Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Lexus LS, are perennial best sellers.  It’s tough to break-in, Audi has struggled for years to build volume in the segment with its A8 despite having what many would say is the best product.

So what makes Hyundai think they can introduce the Equus into this rarefied air and succeed?

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  From a product perspective, the Hyundai Equus will be a very able competitor to the best luxury sedans in the business.  Hyundai has demonstrated that they build exceptional quality cars at multiple price points, the most recent being the Genesis, a near to mid luxury entry.  The Equus is already getting good reviews and at $55,000 will offer D-class luxury at a very reasonable price.

The issue for Hyundai is not the product or the price. (more…)

What to do about automotive marketing?

Friday, April 30th, 2010

What a difference a year makes.  It’s 2010 and the auto industry is beginning to recover.

After an incredibly tough 2009, consumers seem to be coming back.  For the first time in recent memory, Americans’ perception of domestic automobiles seems to be on the mend (Business Week 4/23).  Ford’s bet that Americans will buy smaller, fully featured automobiles looks like it may pay off.  GM’s product plan created by soon-to-retire Bob Lutz is leading a resurgence for the General.  Hyundai and Kia, supported my excellent product quality, have taken advantage of recessionary sensibilities and grown share of market.  Audi , Subaru and Mini have come out of the recession on a tear.

On the other side of the ledger, Toyota continues to struggle with recalls and concerns about quality.  This has led to unprecedented incentives by Toyota and the predictable response by competitors to match them.  So a good number of consumers who had been sitting on sidelines during the recession have come back to dealerships looking to for a good deal.  After 2009, it’s a relief to see traffic in the stores but at the same time if the incentives continue that will not be good for the industry long term.  In 2009, some progress had been made at reducing the use of incentives, but the moment Toyota jumped in to defend its franchise, that opened the floodgates again.

So the good news is that customers are returning to the stores, but are they coming back for the right reasons?

(more…)

Responding to Toyota’s troubles. With incentives!!??

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

Toyota has been very successful in the US and has undeniably eaten Detroit’s lunch. Now Toyota has stumbled and you can hardly blame its competitors for attempting to take advantage of the situation.

That said, it’s a good time to pause and take a deep breath, because as so often is true, it’s not what you do but how you do it that matters.

Today’s New York Times has an article headlined: “With Toyota in trouble, rivals gain.” Manufacturers are offering incentives to encourage Toyota owners to come in their stores, trade-in their Toyota for a new whatever. Supposedly these incentives are not being widely advertised and dealers are being encouraged not to “try to take a predatory stance in this type of environment.”  According to GM and others, their dealers have requested incentive support.  Of course they wanted incentive support, there’s blood in the water.

There are a couple of good reasons to push back against this knee jerk reaction to offer incentives. (more…)

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

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

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.” (more…)

The Buick brand and the 2010 Lacrosse

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Last weekend, I did something I haven’t done in recent memory…I went to my local Buick dealership. I’ve read good things about the new Lacrosse and I wanted to see it for myself.

The dealership had one car. It looked terrific. The salesman said that it was “more European in its styling” and I agree with him. No land yacht here. My one gripe was the “portholes” on the hood, if that is a Buick styling cue, it’s one they should let go (one man’s opinion).

Regardless of the “portholes,” it was hard not to be impressed by the car. If the 2010 Lacrosse is indicative of where they are taking the Buick product line then I’m already thinking about the brand a little differently.

As impressive as the product was, that was not the most interesting part of the dealer visit. I asked if I could drive the car and was politely told, I’d have to “wait my turn.” People were lined up to drive the new Lacrosse! The best news…they weren’t all 65 and older, quite a few were 10-15 years younger.

Based on one dealer visit and the crowd around the 2010 Lacrosse, perhaps the Buick brand is going to surprise us.

“Cash for Clunkers”- Fodder for the Spin-Meisters

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

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Here’s what Robert Gibbs had to say about Cash for Clunkers:

“It’s good for dealers and auto manufacturers, it’s good for our energy security and our environment.”

Like most “spin” there is an element of truth in all these claims but not as much as the claimants want us to believe.

Let’s begin with the environmental claim and the inference that the Cash for Clunkers program is making headway in the fight against global warming.  Yes it is true that a few relatively “dirty” vehicles are being taken off the roads and replaced with new “cleaner” models.  This is surely a good thing to do, but it has virtually no impact on the environment and it certainly has no impact on global warming.  The number of vehicles being traded in is a drop in the bucket.

I’m willing to give the spin-meisters the fuel efficiency claim.  It is certainly true that relatively inefficient vehicles are being traded in for more efficient models.  Of course that was the requirement to get your fellow taxpayers’ $4500, so let’s hope that it was accomplished.  That said, the “energy security” claim is pure political BS.  Again, too few cars, with too little efficiency gain to reduce our consumption of foreign oil in any meaningful way.

(more…)