The Joy of Branding or How I Learned to Love The Porsche Cayenne

Michael Martineck
by Michael Martineck

One of the things I love about this site is the consistent welcome we all have to disagree with founding father, Robert Farago. He knows the truth about cars doesn’t come from pronouncements, but from productive exchange. Which is my slightly weasly way of saying: What’s with all this focus on brand dilution? Is it really the cancer of the car industry? Or, is it as misunderstood as Paris Hilton’s state of celebrity?

Robert’s contention-– shared like a bottle of Boone’s Farm with every market manager under the bridge-– is that a company’s brand is precious. Luxury car makers shouldn’t build dump trucks; sports car makers shouldn’t make minivans. That type of thing.

And it’s almost true. As Paris Hilton will tell you, the brand is the thing. She doesn’t sing or act or speak well enough to be famous for anything other than being famous. That’s her schtick and she schticks to it. Her branding-– as a famous, naughty party girl-– is so powerful she needs nothing else.

Cadillac used to be that way. Now it illustrates the danger in brand devolution. If people think you’re one thing-– a fat, luxurious car-– and you turn out to be another-– a thin sports sedan car with lots of extra leather-– you quickly become nothing. Jaguar’s spilling down-market gave us the X-Type: an OK sedan in a sea of OK sedans. Very un-Jaguar. Volkswagen’s Phaeton tried the reverse, backed out the door and left everyone asking ‘where’s the people’s car?’

Porsche teeters at a precarious point in its history. The Cayenne is simply not a sports car; it has no business sharing a bunkhouse with 911s. The more un-sporty things Porsche builds, the more it runs the risk of losing its premier sports car mantle. If that’s the brand. I think the Porsche brand is more slippery than a 962.

Porsche, the brand, is built with superb engineering. In fact, that is what it is. Superb design and execution that happens to result in some really cool cars. It also happens to result in a really cool SUV, probably a cool sedan, soon. If Porsche decided to start making tractors again, I bet they’d be cool too. Because that’s what they do – make cool things, mostly sports cars.

Porsche Design Group (a majority held subsidiary of Porsche AG) comes close to proving the point. They’ve designed, among other things, faucets, hard-drives, forklifts and subway trains. Very unsporting. The forklift should be about as far from a Carrera as you can get, except it’s not. Their forklift is cool and clever, so the whole brand earns a pass.

Honda is in the same personal watercraft. They make line trimmers and the S2000. Seriously, if Weedwacker built a $30,000 sports car could you ever be persuaded to open you checkbook? Moving from tractors to pumps to Formula One cars is quite an accomplishment, and probably couldn’t be done if Honda was known for any one of those things. They are known for competent engineering, regardless of what they engineer.

The design-engineering brand is more valuable than a manufacture’s brand. It keeps a company from being a one-trick pony carmaker. If the market for muscular rear-wheelers fades, the engineering-designer can race off in a different direction. SUVs replace eco-boxes, eco-boxes replace SUVs.

So why doesn’t every company that makes things try to position themselves as engineering-design gurus?

That won’t work for everyone, according to Wendi R W McGowan of Wendistry, branding and marketing consultants. “A brand is a believable connection with the consumer.” It is not as simple as a crusty stamp on the side of a cow. A brand is an emotional attachment between company and customer. Porsche and Honda have found one way of forging that bond. Other marks have found other ways. For example, no one buys a Ferrari because they expect it to be the most reliable car for the money.

Brand dilution, then, is not so much a disease as a vector. McGowan states. “Chevy’s not building on what they have.”

As a rusty example of old Detroit, she singles out Chevrolet. The company has the Corvette and a popular line of trucks, but fails to build on the spirit, excitement and loyalty those products have produced. Once those emotional attachments have been made, a company needs to reinforce them. Let them grow. Detroit has a tendency to push products and marketing schemes down, as opposed to letting ideas develop from grassroots.

As long as a brand maintains its connection with you, it will be healthy. A good brand isn’t selling you a product, it’s taking an invitation into your life. Kind of like this site. It wouldn’t bother me one bit if Farago added The Truth About Dryers. I’d come up with a couple of stories.

Michael Martineck
Michael Martineck

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  • B-Rad B-Rad on Apr 03, 2008
    Merc and Bimmer don't have another brand to sell at that price level, and even so, I still think they're making a mistake. Well, they are hardly selling at that price as Bimmers, anyways, so I don't think that's too big a deal for BMW. The 128i starts at about $29K.
  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Apr 03, 2008
    “Look at 1985, Roger Smith was worried about import cars, so what did he do? Did he issue a mandate to managers to focus on making Chevrolet cars as good as imports? No! He created a new brand! Is that GM’s answer to everything? Make a new brand? They should have concentrated on growing the Chevrolet brand organically (again, like Toyota have with their brand), not create a new one like a form of misdirection!” Now that I agree with 100%. The idea of an import fighter brand, was misguided. They didn’t need a brand, they needed quality and reliability. They needed it across all their lines. I disagree with these two posters. The Saturn brand as originally conceived and executed was different from the other brands. It was billed as the practical person's sporty car. They were going to do little to the image, but improve the quality steadily. It really was something different from anything Chevrolet could have been, and the single model sold nearly 300,000 copies in its peak year. GMs mistake was to dumb down the original concept. After the 1996 remodeling, it was no longer the least bit sporty, nor did it look cool anymore. I had a '93, I'd been proud to be a Saturn owner, and suddenly I began to be embarrassed to be a Saturn owner. GM had a great branding concept in Saturn, and it completely changed it overnight to something totally different, and lost all the original customers. Oh, and as someone said earlier, it was very light--2450 lbs. That was part of its sportiness. I can remember trying an Impreza. The thing felt like lead by comparison.
  • Lorenzo All the efforts made over decades to reduce/eliminate NVH in ICE cars, and now they're putting noise and vibration into electric cars. It reminds me of efforts to make veggie burgers taste like meat. Vegetarians don't want the taste of meat, and meat eaters will want meat, not veggie burgers.
  • Jalop1991 A true golf cart.Sure, it's a penalty box inside. But you're not in it for more than a few minutes at a time during commutes and in between charging stops.Ergo, it's the cart.
  • Zipper69 I'm sure it will sell just fine at all trim levels.I'd only note that IMHO the dashboard is a bit of a busy mess.
  • MaintenanceCosts Why do you have to accept two fewer cylinders in your gas engine to get an electric motor? (This question also applies to the CX-90.)
  • Zipper69 Do they have unique technology that might interest another manufacturer?