I love my Skoda! Or do I?

Posted on in BrandBlab

With the British International Motor Show hitting the media, it will be a reminder of our strange human tendencies to endow the automobile with more than its fair share of brand aspirations, stories and myths.  It makes for interesting credibility gap scenarios.  Such is the human condition that despite hard nosed facts telling us the reality of who manufactures and markets the car and where, the power of the marque still prevails. The otherwise most rational of beings will embark on emotional defence mechanisms to somehow justify that the applied badge on the bonnet and boot of their car creates real mechanical benefits and performance attributes, rather than just coming clean on aspirational tribal status points.

Somehow, we can ignore the commercial realities of global car manufacturing which has resulted in multi national conglomerates like General Motors, Volkswagen or Ford buying just about every great heritage car name and classic marque. Issues of credibility and the use of mythical associations also come into question when nationalist attributes are marketed.  Why is a Porsche better ‘made in Germany’ than the Czech Republic?  Cars are now, by definition, made up of numerous international components, resourced worldwide and assembled, rather than manufactured in the old sense.  Do we really care who the manufacturer / owner is?  Where the car is resourced, designed and assembled?  Commercial reality and logistics forces cars to be manufactured where labour is cost effective but do we really think they are better made in Korea, Spain, Japan or Wales?  Toyota’s brand culture and engineering seems to achieve success anywhere.

Brand myths are certainly in trouble – Saab can no longer seriously make reference to their Swedish roots and previous aircraft technology associations now that it is just a General Motors product.  Or can it?

Cars are obvious examples of emotional added value and small modifications to bodywork and the right badge command significantly enhanced prices.  Volkswagen’s Audi, VW, Skoda and SEAT products can demonstrate identical mechanical performance attributes by sharing their basic engineering components but the body/badge packaging is the vital value enhancer.

This is disappointing for consultants like myself, who want to argue that people are  more clever and demanding in their evaluation of brands.  Certainly issues of planet, people and profit are now increasingly involved and create interesting marketing challenges for hybrid cars, diesels and oversized petrol guzzlers disguised as ‘utility’ vehicles.  Le Mans was won this year by diesel powered Audis – a good combination of performance and green agendas or a clever use of the need for less pit stops?  Whatever your own views and agendas, car manufacturers’ brands now have to balance some potentially more complex issues to differentiate and succeed.

We can understand why a Bentley owner would not want to acknowledge they are driving a Volkswagen product.  However, does a Skoda owner like the Volkswagen parenthood association?  The latter makes for an interesting brand revival story but many would still have a problem being a Skoda advocate.  Such is the power of emotion over logic – which successful branding maintains. MacDonald’s ownership of Prêt a Manger or L’Oreal’s purchase of Body Shop are examples where all parties concerned, – investors, brands and consumers appear to understand the deal.

The complexity of the markets in this sector however, is still, apparently, not recognised by some brand consultants.  It was scary to recently hear an international brand consultant still using cars as simplistic, banal brand analogies to ‘explain’ brand issues to a Russian audience.  Trotting out old clichés of ‘imagine you are a car’ and then comparing BMW, Mercedes and Audi with superficial positioning attributes was a sad experience.  Cars certainly can illicit emotional discussion but we all need to raise the level of debate is we are to explore the potential minefield of changing customer loyalties and values.

Balancing exclusivity with the basic human need to join the tribe is an ongoing dynamic in aspirational brands.  Clearly, the more confident consumer should be less easily swayed by dubious emotional selling points and associations as differentiating unique selling points become more difficult to identify.  Consultants should be equally ahead of the game rather than resorting to stereotype imagery.

Working in Russia, I have been told the influence of western popular culture has been blamed for the dumbing down of local media.  I would hate to think Western consultancy could be equally blamed for lowering standards of brand debate and discussion.  This fast developing consumer society needs intelligent, innovative and perceptive strategies to meet increasing customer and audience expectations. Using clichéd car brand examples is, at best, patronising but worse, misleading in perpetuating the packaging approach to branding.

Well-travelled and educated local entrepreneurs have seen the ‘best of the west’ and want better.  I would suggest consultants should dig deeper into car brand analogies or leave well alone and save simplistic label/perceptions for the pub.

Maybe this car show will be a good research opportunity for new cleverer brand image analysis – here’s hoping.

Clive Woodger