Before the end of the 1980s, disenchanted drivers were voting with their wallets in ever greater numbers. Family sedan buyers, burned by the quality control issues of the late 1970s, turned their attention to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, while German automakers increasingly carved off a larger slice of the premium segment pie.
In many cases, the buyers who turned their backs on domestic vehicles stayed in their new camp for years, buying another, and then another Japanese or German car. Luring them back remains a difficult task, as stigma often fades at a slower rate than quality improves.
“Buy American” campaigns are nothing new, but President Donald Trump’s ascent to the Oval Office has spurred a newfound focus on the health of the Detroit Three automakers. In a bid to bolster that health, the United Auto Workers union is on the verge of telling you to drive past all those import dealers.
Come home to America.
Yesterday, UAW president Dennis Williams said his union is considering taking out ads to capitalize on the resurgence of “Buy American” attitudes, The Detroit News reports.
“We’re seeing a trend in this country that boycott may be coming back,” Williams said, adding that the public’s buying decisions could help manufacturing businesses invest — or relocate — to the U.S. While he hasn’t yet met with Trump, Williams is pleased the president opted “to scrap” the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Last November, Williams pushed for a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement — another wish that will soon be granted.
While “Buy American” sounds nice, two and a half decades of NAFTA means all vehicles sold in the U.S. have varying amounts of parts built in other countries. Some domestic vehicles start life in a Mexican factory, while buyers can snag a Toyota, Subaru or Volkswagen built in the U.S. At best, new car shoppers can only buy “Mostly American.”
“First and foremost, I want them to buy union vehicles,” Williams said when asked to clarify his stance on the now-murky slogan. “Secondary, I’d rather have them buy made in U.S.A.”
Should the UAW go forward with its ad campaign, measuring its success won’t be easy. As always, the onus is on domestic automakers to lure new customers to the brand — not an easy task when dealing with a (mainly) automotive-illiterate society. The Detroit Three can improve its products all it wants, but there will always be a large crop of potential buyers who grimly recall a lemon they owned 30 years ago.
In a study of 2016 car buyers, IHS Markit discovered GM enjoyed the highest rate of manufacturer loyalty, with the highest percentage of repeat buyers in the industry. Ford ranked highest in brand loyalty. Holding on to repeat buyers is important, but overall health and long-term sustainability comes from attracting new ones. In that camp, Jeep poached the most buyers from other brands.