Brand names key to automakers’ future

October 20, 2009

Brand names key to automakers’ future

Monikers move young professionals more than quality


Every time the suits in Detroit make a decision, you swear they couldn’t be more clueless. Yet they’ve managed to outdo themselves again.

By deciding to eliminate its Saturn line, General Motors has shuttered two of its most youthful divisions, Pontiac and Saturn, inside of a year. Meantime, the company continues to pour money into Buick — its most damaged and geriatric brand. This comes at a time when other carmakers are aggressively targeting upwardly mobile young professionals.

Detroit automakers continue to make such nonsensical decisions because they don’t grasp a problem that afflicts them: Brand image.

For the most coveted U.S. buyers — educated, urban professionals — it has become socially unacceptable to drive an American car.

Not because their quality is bad. It’s not. In fact, the engineering in today’s U.S. vehicles is light-years ahead of decades past. Not because the cars aren’t fuel-efficient. Increasingly, they are. Not even because the cars aren’t sufficiently stylish.

No, the fundamental reason young American professionals won’t drive American cars is because the brand names are hopelessly out of style. They project the wrong image. Too stale-sounding. Not hip enough. Not classy enough.

In many cases, consumers choose brands as much for the image they project as for their underlying quality.

And yet, by the names the Detroit automakers choose for their vehicles, you’d think the Captain and Tennille (a popular mid-1970s group) were still topping the charts. Dodge Charger, Chevy Corvette, Chevy Malibu. Nearly a decade into the new millennium and Detroit is targeting a sophisticated generation of car buyers with corroded emblems from the disco era.

It’s time to start over.

General Motors and Chrysler have made promising starts by sending the outdated Oldsmobile and Plymouth lines to the graveyard, where they belong. Rebranding Pontiac and eliminating Buick would have made more sense for GM than eliminating both Saturn and Pontiac.

The best thing the Detroit Three could do now is rebrand the remaining divisions from the ground up. It can be done.

In 1985, General Motors provided an encouraging example through the founding of its Saturn division in Spring Hill, Tenn. Saturn’s approach to both manufacturing and marketing was surprisingly fresh for the time, and the resulting products were innovative by U.S. standards.

Somewhere along the line, however, GM began meddling and Saturn lost its edge. Now the entire division has been guillotined. But, for a time, Saturn got it right.

Can the Detroit Three get it right again? Absolutely, but don’t hold your breath. Let’s look back to the recent past as a harbinger.

Late last year, GM was wowing the automotive press with its sleek new Pontiac G8 — a powerful, sexy-looking sedan that even had a hip, marketable name. Then Pontiac disappeared. So GM management, wanting to keep the G8, came up with a bold new name for this showcase piece of technology.

The Chevy Caprice.

All that amazing potential was handed a name straight off a boxy, 1980s police squad car. It would be almost funny if jobs, public money and a nation’s industrial base weren’t at stake.

And so it goes in Detroit, where tomorrow’s promise is eternally crushed by the grim specter of yesteryear. After pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into the Big Three’s coffers, the public deserves better.

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