Think BR: Time for automotive brands to get back on course

By Tim Gosman, brandrepublic.com, Tuesday, 09 October 2012 08:00AM

When was the last time an automotive brand really grabbed us and captured our imagination, asks Tim Gosman, senior consultant, The Brand Union.

Tim Gosman, senior consultant, The Brand Union

Tim Gosman, senior consultant, The Brand Union

Regardless of sector, it’s a fundamental truth in marketing that the best brands are those that make an emotional connection with consumers.

Even with people's thirst for information and the ability to research thoroughly before making purchases, emotional connections overrule the traditionally logical functions of the brain in a heartbeat.

Few consumer purchases are ruled more by the heart than the head than the buying of a luxury automobile, so surely a luxury automotive marque would be dream client for a marketer? After all, these brands exist in our lives to bring some magic to the mundane, to set the pulse racing.

But where are all these brands today? When was the last time a brand in the sector really grabbed us and captured our imagination?

Across the industry, marketers are creating some wonderful work centred upon a brand’s heritage and values.

But when it comes to cars, it’s frustrating to see the idea of branding neglected. Where are the mavericks that brought us British icons such as the DB5 and the Jaguar E-Type?

Many often lament the bygone eras of independent, charismatic cars and brands, compared to an industry today that’s dominated by the Tata’s and General Motors of the world, always looking to absorb more and more companies into their vast portfolios.

The problem is that in the quest for increasing profitability, what made these brands unique, loved and profitable in the first place is lost as owners seek to broaden appeal. Identity begins to seep away and the brands become ‘route-less’.

To take an extreme example, the Dany Bahar affair at loss-making Lotus is a sorry sight to see.  Lotus is a brand held in such high esteem by thousands of car enthusiasts, yet it hasn’t turned a profit since 1996.

Upon arrival, Bahar decided his blueprint to turn Lotus around involved launching a whopping five new models aiming to appeal to every single demographic out there, from the millionaire playboy, to the family man looking for a more practical purchase. 

The problem with this broader portfolio is that it feels like little attention has been paid Lotus’ ‘light and simple’ heritage, resulting in a route-less brand with little for consumers to love. 

Bahar’s tenure at Lotus was tumultuous for a number of reasons (he’s currently suing Lotus for £6.7m over wrongful dismissal), but for those who aren’t keeping up with the tabloid-esque gossip at board level, the mixed messages will be the lasting damage. 

Admittedly it’s difficult to imagine another brand making as many missteps as Lotus, but it points to an issue afflicting the entire market.

It’s the desperation to do not one thing exceptionally, but most things well - sacrificing character and individuality in favour of appealing, and selling, to as much of the market as possible.

If you're renowned for affordable, high performance sports cars, by all means build on this reputation, but think about the long-term impact, not the short term gain.

Sure, releasing a luxury SUV may boost your bottom line for the next financial year, but what effect will this have on your ‘bread and butter’ models that have sustained the brand for so long?

The car industry has such room for creativity it’s just so disappointing to see it shackled with in favour of a catch-all policy - and that’s both in terms of design and its marketing communications.

For some, things do appear to be changing. Land Rover is launched its first ever brand campaign this month, while Nissan has committed to ‘koto-tsukuri’, the art of storytelling.

But what of our classic British brands? What do Jaguar stand for today? Will Lotus emerge from the Dany Bahar-era and the Formula 1 naming-rights debacle by putting an end to the schizophrenic conjecture currently out there?

Simply put, it’s time for these brands to remind themselves of the sprit that their badge is supposed to embody - before it's too late.

Tim Gosman, senior consultant, The Brand Union

This article was first published on brandrepublic.com

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