Once Upon A Brand
The Destruction Of Marques, Great And Small
Once upon a time, before Saabs were built by General Motors, before Volvos were built by Ford and before Bentleys were built by Volkswagen, a car's name really meant something. If you bought a Saab, you knew you would be getting a quirky front-wheel-drive automobile designed by engineers with backgrounds heavily steeped in aviation and rally competition. You also knew that Jaguars would likely be unreliable and troublesome, but that they would also reward you with their beautiful shapes, their richly opulent interiors and a driving experience that somehow directly connected you to the company's multiple victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 1950s.
Similarly, buying a Land Rover immediately put you into an exclusive club whose members had climbed the highest mountains, had crossed the Darien Gap or had journeyed to the source of the Nile. These names were more than just cars, they were touchstones for automotive enthusiasts and legends for everyone else.
And then the world changed. Suddenly, if you didn't sell more than 30,000 cars in the U.S. every year, if you couldn't commit billions of dollars to research and development, if your quality control couldn't match that of Toyota or Honda, and if you didn't have a full line-up of vehicles to match every market segment, people began shaking their heads and predicting your demise. Charismatic cars, vehicles that were quirky or unusual, cars out of the mainstream and therefore those most loved by their owners, were looked at as the quickest way out of the car business. Renault left the U.S. market. So did Peugeot and Fiat and Alfa Romeo.
Small companies began to panic. Saab was acquired by General Motors. Jaguar went to Ford. So did Volvo and Aston Martin. Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler combined. BMW bought a company that owned a whole stack of names such as MG, Triumph, Rover, Riley and Mini, mostly to get the Land Rover name and mystique. Eventually BMW also snookered Volkswagen out of Rolls-Royce, but the company from Wolfsburg kept the Bentley moniker to go alongside its collection of names like Bugatti and Lamborghini. The short-term result of all of these acquisitions was a noticeable improvement in build quality as Ford, GM and Volkswagen engineers flooded the small companies and their invariably antiquated production lines with improvements.
If that was all that had happened, things would have been fine, at least from the viewpoint of those of us who like cars. Except it was only the beginning. Enter brand management. Some years earlier, and led by the marketing people at General Motors, the idea was fostered that each automotive nameplate was a brand that had a personality and a following and whose image could be managed and manipulated. This idea came largely from the packaged goods industry, and GM's new marketers were hired from the food and soap and toothpaste industries. And as GM's "Engine" Charlie Wilson once said, "What's good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa," so began the era of brand management in America.
By the time middle management had learned a whole new set of buzzwords, nobody was really sure if individual car models, like the Land Rover Discovery, Porsche 911, Saab 9-5 or BMW 3 Series constituted a brand, or if the brand was really the company or the company that owned the company. Do customers buy a Volvo because of the company's tradition of building solid and reliable automobiles, or because the small, formerly Swedish company is owned by Ford? Clearly the customer shouldn't care about whom owned what, as long as they were getting what they wanted from their vehicles, but most big companies couldn't keep from tweaking their purchases. Those tweaks would eventually change the character of the individual marques, ironically often moving the brands far from their origins.
If you are a big car company that has just bought a little car company, particularly an unprofitable one, the first thing you seem to do is clean house. Out with most of the old people and in with a whole batch of new people. After all, it could be argued that the reason the car company wasn't successful before was its people, so you may as well send the lot of them packing. Except, a car company's heart and soul is not found inside the sheetmetal and mechanical components of the machine but inside the flesh and blood of the humans who design, build and sell them. Do a wholesale house cleaning and you may end up with less than perfect results.
Contrary to the precepts of brand management and American industry, sometimes you can't simply unplug executives from positions at one company and plug them into the same position at another. The person who you now have determining the sensibilities for marketing a Jaguar might last year have been selling the Ford Taurus. The engineers in charge of designing a new Jaguar could recently have been designing the Ford Mondeo. The European Mondeo is a fine automobile, but it isn't a Jaguar, or at least it isn't what a Jaguar used to be. But new standards are brought in, some of which improve the company's vehicles, others of which completely change its character.
BMW kept Land Rover just long enough to design an all-new Range Rover, before selling the whole concern off to Ford. The new Range Rover now built by Ford is truthfully a highly refined and very sophisticated BMW, which owes very little to its Land Rover heritage. The irony is that if it isn't designed like a Land Rover, it isn't built like a Land Rover and now it isn't sold by people who particularly understand Land Rovers, where has the intrinsic value of the brand name Land Rover gone?
Need more examples? The Jaguar X-Type shares at least some of its architecture with the Ford Mondeo, which means its interior space is somewhat dictated by that compact-size Ford car, leaving it a bit cramped for the driver, especially when you remember it carries the Jaguar nameplate. And Saab has recently announced that its new small car will be based upon an all-wheel-drive Subaru. At first blush these appear to be rational moves by parents Ford and GM to fill holes in the product line-ups. They may in fact be worthwhile cars, but will they really stand for all the decades of heritage that their name badges stand for?
Pragmatists will argue that if General Motors hadn't bought Saab and if Ford hadn't found it in its heart to rescue Jaguar and Aston Martin, let alone Volvo and Land Rover, none of these brands would still exist today. Poor productivity, sloppy quality, less than stellar supplier relations and the lack of an aggressive dealer network would have done them in, it is said. It is hard to argue with the improvements in reliability and quality that Ford, in particular, has effected with its British-based companies. Infinitely more computational capability, vastly improved rapid prototyping and access to a highly sophisticated supplier base have also made the job of designing and building cars much easier for engineers who work in far-off lands building cars destined for America. And if those cars have all become a bit more mainstream in the process, and a little less charismatic, does it really matter as long as the name is kept alive and the product makes money for its parent?
Well, yes. It does matter, at least to me and maybe to you. Car guys like you and I gave those highly individualistic marques like Jaguar, Saab, Volvo, Land Rover and Aston Martin a place in our hearts. We lusted after them, we bought them and we cared for them even when it wasn't always easy. A loyal Saab owner learned to put up with lots of small and several big problems, because they loved how the cars felt and drove. Jaguar owners knew they might not make it home before something electrical failed and left them once again stranded by the side of the road. Land Rovers could go anywhere, but their maintenance requirements were a nightmare. Even stalwart Volvo owners had to suffer descriptions of their machines as "Swedish Buicks," knowing that deep inside lurked the soul of a really good driver's car.
We kept these cars alive and the companies afloat through times when perhaps it would have been better if they had gone under. We loved these cars because they were different, quirky and charismatic and because there was nothing else on the road that was in any way similar. Ironically, it is exactly this affection from small but rabid groups of enthusiasts that "Brand Managers" try to tap into when it comes time to develop a "Brand Image" for our beloved marques. They take our love and turn it into something that will sell cars to people who would have never put up with what we had to endure to keep these cars alive.
I'm not suggesting that Jaguar should return to wonky electrics or that Saab should find the same defective glue that they used for decades to hold in their headliners. Cars have been elevated to a point of incredible reliability and competence, and for that we all need to be grateful. But as enthusiasts we need to hold our cherished marques to a higher standard than that applied to ordinary automobiles and to not allow Brand Managers to dilute or tarnish their image. We are the ones who placed these cars on a pedestal, and it is up to us to complain long and loudly whenever they don't measure up to our exacting standards.
How? Join a marque car club, write a letter to european car, send e-mail to the manufacturer, make your voice heard and tell them what you want. Will they listen? Probably not. At least not to one or two people and maybe not even to all of us together, but at least we will have tried. One thing is certain: We can't leave it to Brand Management. To my mind, it has already done enough damage.