Rance Crain is editor in cheif of Advertising Age, a sister publication of Automotive News.
That basic question apparently isn't as elementary as you'd think. Several advertisers that should know better are trying to remake their brands into something they want them to be -- not what they actually are.
Ford Motor Co. is desperately looking for a way to make its venerable car brand stand for something -- anything. So it has seized upon scientific innovation as the essence of its brand.
And as Automotive News reports, even though its lineup of hybrid cars isn't due out for five years, Ford is unleashing a major corporate branding campaign this month to tout its new positioning.
"I'm not sure there was an Aha! moment," says Ford CEO Bill Ford, "but it became increasingly clear to me as we were talking to customers and doing our research, like we always do, that the Ford brand in particular, but also Lincoln and Mercury, didn't have the kind of clarity in the marketplace that I wanted to see."
What Bill Ford doesn't want to admit is that Ford has made a clear impression on the marketplace of building mediocre cars without style or that sought-after innovation.
That's what Ford stands for in people's minds, and a brand represents what people think it is, not what marketers wish it were.
What's worse, if and when the advertiser finally gets around to fulfilling the promise of its ads, all those years of nondelivery will make people skeptical. Once consumers develop an impression of a brand or a company, it's hard to change their minds.
That's why Volvo has such a tough job ahead. Not content with having car buyers equate Volvo with safety, the company now wants to be known for snazzy cars. So it has pulled away from touting safety alone to trying to have it both ways.
But its new slogan, "Safety is a beautiful thing, especially when it's beautiful," is gibberish.
Volvo is doing its best to confuse consumers about what kind of car Volvo is. Luckily for the Swedish car company (now owned by Ford), the safety angle is so deeply embedded in people's minds that even lousy advertising can't extract that impression.
The trouble with trying to concoct an image out of whole cloth (as Ford is doing) is that the company could be tempted to change its message in midstream, based on its latest take on what consumers want.
One industry analyst suggested, for instance, that scientific innovation and even safety aren't enough to set a car brand apart because all of the car companies are rapidly reaching parity in those departments.
So will Ford switch to another theme, such as cutting-edge styling, to try to catch consumers' latest fancy? Why not? If Volvo thinks its cars are beautiful, why can't the parent company have the same fantasy?
If you must talk about cars that are years away from the marketplace -- and whose scientific innovation might well be outmoded by the time they get there -- Ford's new campaign is destined to come up empty.
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