My brother, Leonard Jackson, said something to me a couple of years ago that I have not been able to forget. He insinuated that I was a spoiled, pampered auto writer who does not have a clue what it's like to deal with auto manufacturers the way the vast majority of consumers do.
He said I write about and talk about new manufacturer marketing programs designed to make the buying and service process easier for consumers as if they are real. As if they are real?
Maybe they're real for me, he said, because I have the contacts to make things happen. But he said for the average consumer with a concern, it is a nightmare to get any type of response from manufacturers - either by mail, phone, fax, or something as extreme as running around buck naked in front of company headquarters. Subsequent conversations with others have led me to believe that not only consumers, but even many people who work in the industry, feel just as my brother does.
Automakers, like their dealers, do not have good images. Many believe it is: Sell 'em and leave 'em. And if you don't get them back next time, you'll go after someone else.
Mending that image will be a major challenge for automakers and their marketing experts. It may even mean the difference between success and failure. Consumers are smart, and not nearly as forgiving as they used to be. They have many choices and will jump ship in a minute - particularly women, who believe little, if any, progress has been made to connect with them.
Read what they have to say throughout this magazine. And read about a recent Family Circle magazine study that shows most women do not even look at or listen to manufacturer ads, and only about 20 percent who bought new cars in 1998 bought the same make or model they had before.
Yes, manufacturers are going to have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Many use new buzz words - relationship marketing, one-on-one marketing - but are they just new words glossing over the same mind-sets? Consumers won't be so easily fooled this time.
Saturn has a decent reputation; so does Mercedes-Benz. But Saturn sells at the low end, and Mercedes is at the top. There is a lot of opportunity in the middle, where most vehicles are sold.
Speaking of image: A horse race is shaping up in the luxury car race these coming years, and it should be a doozy. Though luxury buyers purchase for reasons such as durability and reliability, it is no secret that a big reason consumers buy luxury brands is for image, and image alone.
Cadillac, which has led the field for about a half century, ran to a photo finish with Lincoln last year, with Mercedes not many strides behind. And you can believe all three are glancing back to see how soon Lexus will make it to the stretch run.
Which luxury maker's image will dominate, and how will it happen?
Lincoln hopes a new California address will bring it more dates; Mercedes is opening its arms to a much wider audience with a greater variety of vehicles. And Cadillac, which was getting out of shape, is starting to beef up again. In a nontraditional, full-page ad showing a bold new concept car, Cadillac proclaims that not only has it been the luxury leader of the 20th century; it intends to be the luxury leader of the 21st.