The brand problem of the modern age is cracking the perception issues of any one of the Big Three Detroit automakers.
The “right direction” I am talking about is away from the typical auto ad cliches. Despite improved advertising, Chevy and the rest of the Big 3 have huge issues beyond any single ad campaign. American cars face perception issues in that most Americans under the age of 60 have no affinity for their brands. In fact, most Americans, especially younger Americans, exhibit open hostility to any American car (with small exceptions for SUVs, retro classics like the new Mustang, and top-line performance cars like the Dodge Viper or Ford GT) and would never consider buying one.
AdPulp comments that “there’s nobody under the age of 30 who can associate domestic automakers with excellence. They simply don’t remember a time when it was cool, or even worthwhile, to buy American cars. The generation that’s buying new cars for perhaps the first time is totally lost for domestics.”
There are two main issues in play. The first, and most publicized, is the quality gap between domestic cars and imports, specifically Japanese imports. Though the gap has lessened recently as Ford has improved while the European makers and Toyota have slipped, it is still there in reality and, most importantly, in consumers’ heads.
Anecdotally, I have a friend who drives a Ford and was complaining about having to take it in for a 30,000 mile check-in – as if that made it unreliable – yet another friend of my drives a Honda that, objectively, is so faulty that it could qualify as a lemon, but she thinks that it is just normal maintenance to take it in to the dealer every week. That is a brand problem. A very serious brand problem.
The solution here is beyond the advertising, and solution is found in Douglas Ruskoff’s plea for agencies to get involved in their clients’ business beyond advertising communication. For the Big 3 specifically, their agencies could help by changing their client’s culture from manufacturing-driven to consumer-focused. It makes no sense for a carmaker to build a car just because they have capacity at a plant that builts a specific platform, but it’s not unusual for the Big 3 to make decisions like that. Agencies need to get involved on a business level and challenge this type of thinking (and the type of processes that allow for poor quality) – the cars are the brand more than the advertising is and, last I checked, agencies drove the brand. Why ignore the product?
The second challenge is one of position in the marketplace. As European automakers continue to launch models at the lower end of the price scale (like the new BMW 328i that starts under $40,000), and as Japanese and South Korean cars continue to move upmarket there is less and less space in the market and in consumers’ minds for American cars.
Why buy a fully-loaded Ford Fusion when you can spend a little bit more and get into the entry level BMW? Or spend a little less and get into the ever-reliable if maddeningly bland Honda Accord? And if you have to worry about people looking at you funny because you drive a Ford, the answer is easy without involving any math at all. Where do American cars fit into the marketplace? I don’t think the Big 3 know. Their agencies need to figure it out.
American automakers are in a tight spot, but the issues aren’t insurmountable. At least not with some engaged, creative agencies diving deeply into the business, the marketplace and the consumer mindset.
There is hope. At least a little.