There's a lot of debate about brand identity, image and recognition floating around the auto industry. But what it all comes down to is, to borrow a phrase, 'It's the product, stupid.'
You can advertise until you're blue in the face, but if you don't have some credible product to back up that gee-whiz marketing promise, you've just shot yourself in the foot. Hence the argument for product that is different and bold and that will extend the brand image. Not halo cars, just something memorable.
Mazda has been slipping for years, but could you imagine the fix its dealers would be in if they didn't have the Miata to boost their product image? Just try to get people excited if your product line is just three ordinary sedans, a borrowed pickup and an overpriced minivan.
Minoru Nakamura, president of Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A., said as much about his products in a recent interview. Nissan Division aired a half-billion dollars worth of 'Mr. K' image ads during the last two years, and it didn't help them unload aging product, and it didn't help them launch new products.
Nakamura basically wrote off the current round of product as not good enough for prime time. That's because the product is nothing special. Fine quality, for sure. Decent performance. But not emotive enough for a shopper to choose a Nissan over a Honda or a Toyota. Sales gains must wait for the next round of product, Nakamura said.
At the opposite end is Volks-wagen, which has been subpar on quality for years. A great 'Drivers Wanted' advertising campaign got people interested, but it didn't change VW's awful record in the J.D. Power initial quality surveys. And now VW introduces the gorgeous New Beetle, and people are falling all over themselves. They have to have that car, even though it's just a Golf with a body kit.
It's a little early to tell if there has been ruboff to Golf and Jetta sales, but the mere presence of the New Beetle in showrooms is a huge brand-management success.
So I'm baffled by the tiptoeing of two lower-tier automakers, Kia and Isuzu, who are in the same situation as VW was and who have the same possible escape route.
I'm referring to vehicles sold in other markets that would be logical for this country. The vehicles are the Kia Elan convertible and the Isuzu VehiCross sport-utility.
Recently, I drove each one. Neither was federalized; the Elan was Korean-spec, and the VehiCross was right-drive Japanese.
The Elan is basically a Lotus Elan two-seater as built by Kia. It's sharp-looking, quick, darty, even-tempered and surprisingly good quality for a Korean-badged car. It's stouter than a Miata, and has better lift-throttle oversteer than a BMW Z3.
In other words, it's a perfect fit for Kia, a small-vehicle company that pitches itself as spirited and fun. People I talked to said that if the Elan were priced against the Miata, it would be no contest.
Similarly, while driving the Isuzu VehiCross, I got plenty of looks because of its radical styling - high shoulder line, swoopy fender flares and integrated spare tire. In a time of cookie-cutter sport-utilities, the VehiCross will not be confused with anyone else's product.
Isuzu said the main problem is softening the ultraharsh Japanese suspension for American roads. Also, the V-6 truck engine is a bit agricultural, and the VehiCross has blind spots that would hide a police cruiser. But it also has torque-on-demand four-wheel drive, snappy turning ability, roomy seating for four and those snazzy looks. It could become Isuzu's Boxster.
More than ever, consumers are buying cars as fashion, not as commodities, says industry analyst Chris Cedergren.
The industry is in a shakeout mode. Arrogant companies relying solely on market-research-driven, commodity-type products will not come out the other end of the tunnel. If your brand isn't fashionable, it might as well not exist.
And yet Kia and Isuzu, neither a major player, are mincing around the issue of whether to bring the Elan and VehiCross to America.
What's to talk about? People don't get inspired by advertising. They get inspired by product. So spend the money to get them federalized, and watch things happen.
Mark Rechtin welcomes comments. Call him at (213) 651-3710, or send e-mail to [email protected]