Brand DNA Uber Alles?

Michael Wynn-Williams
by Michael Wynn-Williams

Since World War II, seeking national glory on the battlefield has become socially unacceptable. Countries now pour their national psyche into that great champion of industry: the car firm. As representatives of their homelands, automobile manufacturers live up to a national ‘meta-brand’, an image that is shared by its compatriots. National karma can now be read in meta-brands as if they were a pack of tarot cards.

Italian brands (Ferrari, FIAT, Alfa, etc.): hot, racy, and a little hydrophobic. French brands (Renault, Peugeot,Citroen, etc.): stylish, flamboyant and quirky. German brands (BMW, Mercedes, VW, etc.): technically proficient and austere, combining technical proficiency with a hint of condescension. America (Ford, GM): large, brash a bit dim-witted and powerful. Japan (Honda, Toyota, Nissan, etc.): reliable.

Building cars which do not conform to an established national stereotype is risky business. Honda, co-owner of the quality automobile mind space, tried to rebel against the Japanese meta-brand for anodyne family cars with the European-style NSX supercar. In spite of its impressive technical specification, the aluminium bodied mid-engined marvel never caught the market’s imagination. In 2005, the company sold 207 NSX in North American, while Ferrari found homes for 1,420 of their fragile steeds.

The Germans "get it." VW knows its national meta-brand embodies an image of solid quality at a premium price (a fancy way of saying they overcharge us for a car made the way it should be in the first place). Facing an onslaught from Far Eastern value brands, VeeDub needed to offer products further down the price range that wouldn't sully its reputation for quality.

So, in 1986, they became majority stockholders of Spain’s SEAT. In 1991, they bought [what was then] Czechoslovakia’s Skoda. In both cases, the Germans were successful. They tidied things up a bit, slipped German platforms under foreign bodies and called it sehr gut.

The commercial logic of assembling brands to surmount meta-brand limitations suggests that there could be a great deal more cross-border portfolio building. By now, one would expect the Far Eastern brands to be sniffing round BMW and Porsche.

That that they are not doing so is partly because the newcomers are still far from reaching their potential. They do not yet have the means to be taking on the world’s automotive aristocracy. In any case, the feeding frenzy is going on elsewhere.

British brands deserve their place amongst the grandees of the industry. Yet the British meta-brand is deceptively multi-faceted. While the overall reputation is for conservative styling and country house interiors, the cars themselves seem to fit every niche imaginable.

Germany may make the best luxury cars in the world, yet Rolls-Royce is the most famous. Italy may have Ferrari and Maserati, yet both are eclipsed by the divine Jaguar E-Type. Jeep may be home on the range, but Land Rover rules an empire. Britain has a marque for every purpose. But the extraordinary thing is that the Brits are the very last to understand what they are about.

Take the [small cap] Mini. It’s one of the great British icons, whose launch supposedly heralded a small car revolution. Leaving aside some of the original model’s dead-end technology– such as the gearbox in the sump and the rubber-cone suspension– the only thing really wrong with the car was precisely what the British motorist considered its greatest asset: its diminutive dimensions.

BMW, however, saw the Mini as a kind of cute (if poorly built) sports car. When it designed a successor, the result preserved the sparkling ride and cheeky styling, but presented it in a much larger package. Unlike the original, the [all cap] MINI is now a major export success.

How about Rolls-Royce, perhaps the most imperious marque on Earth? The British believe quality comes with hand-crafting: building the cars like they were stately homes, complete with squeaky leather chairs and a gargoyle on the hood. Then there was Bentley, famed as the fastest trucks in the world. Both these brands are now in German hands– and all the better for some salutary lessons in quality standards.

This is not a story of British industrial decline; foreigners do not pick up British brands out of charity. But there is a caveat: the soggy little island can be a quagmire for the unwary.

Witness poor old Jaguar. What did Jaguar ever do to deserve lectures from Ford? As an underdog– or should I say undercat– Jaguar had the bravado to snarl at the opposition with inspiring designs. All that was lacking was quality, an area in which Ford were hardly qualified to provide advice.

And so the Yanks stuffed Jaguar so full with cash it grew corpulent and complacent. Ford is now on a crash diet. Perhaps that will be the lesson it can teach its British pet.

In short, the deck may be reshuffled, but the wise automotive players know that the cards remain the same.

Michael Wynn-Williams
Michael Wynn-Williams

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  • Ole Ole on Feb 01, 2007

    "Italy may have Ferrari and Maserati, yet both are eclipsed by the divine Jaguar E-Type." Taking nothing from the argument in general, nor from the Jaguar E-type, which is indeed devine, I would take issue with "eclipsed". It seems to me that Ferrari in particular have the branding title in the "exotic sportscar" category, with Maserati and indeed Lamborghini also well ahead of Jaguar. The case of Jaguar is sad really, but there it is.

  • SpawnyWhippet SpawnyWhippet on Feb 05, 2007
    Terry Parkhurst: January 30th, 2007 at 12:33 pm The last time an American, driving for an American team, won a Formula 1 race, was Dan Gurney in 1967, at the (now defunct) Spa track in Belgium. Huh? Spa is defunct? Last I heard, I was racing there in 2006 and will be doing so again in 2007...
  • 28-Cars-Later "Naturally, GM turned to its most tech-forward engineering team to work on the [Cadillac] Northstar: Oldsmobile."The most GM phrase I have seen yet.
  • Carson D The automotive equivalent of necrophilia appeals to people who have no redeeming social value.
  • Funky D These cars appeal to such different clienteles that it is completely comparing apples to oranges. I would go for the Mustang, especially in convertible form, but wouldn't mind at all a weekend behind the wheel of a Z.
  • Funky D Take it from an IT professional: ALWAYS have a backup plan! And then have a backup to that plan if possible. And always rehearse the plan every once in awhile.Always keep local copies of your data, or you don't really have a backup. My current company is working on revising our plan now, while we still have the opportunity.
  • 28-Cars-Later [list=1][*]"Nissan is trying to incorporate elements of past Z Cars to create an automotive amalgam. This includes going back to using a twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter V6 engine. "[/*][*]"Ford has similarly opted to keep around the 5.0-liter V8."[/*][*]"The Ford benefits from having port and direct injection, while the Nissan only uses direct."[/*][/list=1]This isn't even a contest.