Friday 15 January 2010

The Saga of Automobile Brands--Then and Now

There are few subjects in branding more interesting that the changing nature of brand identity within an industry over time. Few industries have a sufficient historical half-life to allow one to step back and contemplate how the message conveyed by the brand has developed and how it has been transformed. Of those few industries that do fall within this category, none spans a broader swath of time and contains within it a more engrossing branding saga than the auto industry.

I was reminded of this in listening recently to a radio interview with Paul Ingrassia, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist from the Wall Street Journal. The occasion was the annual North American Auto Show, held each year in January in balmy Detroit, in which the leaders of the (troubled) auto industry gather together to exhibit new models and technology, and to exchange pearls of wisdom with the assembled press corps.

More particularly, Ingrassia was interviewed in conjunction with his new book, Crash Course: the American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster, published on Jan. 5, 2010. What was particularly interesting for me was Ingrassia's comments on the changing nature of the message conveyed by the dominant auto brand. Ingrassia described four different branding periods.

First, there was Henry Ford nearly a century ago, offering the legendary Model T in a single color for the emerging American middle class. The emphasis of the Ford brand seems to have been about manufacturing efficiency and product availability.

Second was the radical reformulation of the auto industry orchestrated by Alfred Sloan of GM during the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. The brand became the paramount focus, whereby Sloan carefully cultivated a hierarchy of brands, from most modest to most luxurious, designed to mirror a customer's increasing affluence and success. The message was clear--you are what you drive, the various brands carefully calibrated to convey the branding message to the public, while at the same time turning one's vehicle at any given point in time to an emotive love-fest between man/woman and the machine.

Third, there was the ascendancy of the Japanese car industry in the 1980s, most notably Toyota and Datsun/Nissan. Brands were rationalized from the hierarchy of the GM days to a small number of brands, all tied together by manufacturing prowess and a customer perception of quality superior to that of their U.S. competitors. One loved his Toyota because it was the perfect combination of styling, price and quality. By concentrating this coherent and consistent message in a very small number of brands, the Japanese car manufacturers were able to prevail over the more scattered message of the plethora of GM (and equivalent) brands.

Fourth, we have the rise of the Korean car industry and in particular Hyundai, which Ingrassia describes as the current star of the auto industry. In comparison to Toyota's documented manufacturing difficulties over the last 6 months or so, Hyundai has been able to convince the public that its brand stands for value, quality and reliability, without the frills, but perfectly attuned to the expectations of the consumer against the backdrop of the global recession. People may have a love affair with their Hyundai, but it seems to be a romance of convenience rather than passion.

There you have it. It will be interesting to interview Ingrassia in another decade and to hear whether the current dominant brand will then be coming from India or China and, if so, what is the message conveyed by that brand.

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