Marketing guru Jack Trout has a message for auto marketers: Differentiate or die.
He was among the speakers addressing the J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Adver-tising Strategy Conference Feb. 20 in Los Angeles.
Trout, president of Trout & Partners marketing company in New York, says that as more options flood the U.S. auto market, the challenge for automakers is to position their brands effectively. Such differentiation often requires sacrifice.
Unfortunately, Trout says, not enough automakers are willing to be so narrow.
Do one thing well
Porsche AG, for instance, once defined itself in terms of the 911 roadster - a rear-engine, air-cooled 6-cylinder, he says. 'But rather than sacrifice,' he insists, 'Porsche decided to introduce the 928'- mid-engine, water-cooled, 8-cylinder and pricier than the 911. It also introduced the less expensive and low-performance 924.
'So now, what's a Porsche? The answer: a front/rear, air/water/, 4-/6-/8- cylinder, cheap/expensive car.' Compromising its brand distinction, Trout says, led to a drought in sales for the 911 and across Porsche's expanded line. Between 1986 and 1993, Porsche's annual U.S. sales fell from 30,471 to 3,729. Sales have not returned to where they were, even though the brand since has been narrowed.
Trout also criticizes Porsche for venturing into the sport-utility market with the Cayenne, scheduled for 2002.
Volvo Car Corp. also has disappointed the marketing expert. Once the clearly defined leader in vehicle safety, he says the Swedish maker has abandoned its roots by introducing a less-boxy look in its designs. Also, Volvo has come forth with a convertible, which traditionally is viewed as anything but safe. To top it off, the company was late to introduce key safety selling points in the U.S. market, such as front- and all-wheel drive.
The line-extension trap
But Porsche and Volvo aren't the only brands attracting Trout's ire. General Motors, the one-time darling of U.S. car buyers, has fallen into what he calls 'the line-extension trap.' In his latest book, Differentiate or Die, he says that GM's brands, once clearly differentiated, 'ended up priced alike and looking alike.'
He says Chevrolet has been a prime victim of GM's indistinctness. 'Most failed brands once had differentiating ideas that they destroyed by adding more and more versions. Chevrolet was once a good-value family car. Now what is it? No one knows'
Nina Abnee, executive vice president of advertising and director of Leo Burnett USA's fading Oldsmobile account, says that while Trout is right about the need for differentiation, one thing his speech left out was that some brands just don't have anything relevant to dwell on.
Trout touches on Abnee's complaint in his book, writing, '[Many] will argue there isn't enough `difference' to talk about.'
His solution: Follow Cadillac's lead and make something up.
'General Motors has probably spent over $100 million promoting the Northstar system in the Cadillac. Does anyone understand how this system works? Nope. Does it matter? Nope. It just sounds impressive.' And Northstar has been an impressive selling point for the division.'