Badge engineering runs out of road

A masterclass in Fail

A masterclass in Fail

While marcomms at its best is a kind of alchemy, sometimes there really is no way to mask the cynical reality of a product.

Lots of premium brands are little more than well dressed, youthfully aspirational riffs on common mutton, but the key is not to make the illusion (in which consumers are implicit collaborators) insultingly obvious. Chasing a handful of fools with gilded versions of commodity products can cost years of credibility with a brand’s core customers and advocates, who may not come back at all. The auto industry is especially guilty of this self destructive caprice.

American auto firms (and the Rover of the 1980s) have often made the mistake of assuming some faux woodgrain and a wink to the snobby side in all of us represents some kind of alchemical process which can turn a painfully ordinary car into an object of desire.

As a petrolhead, I’ve always paid special attention to the automotive sector and have been sad to see the self-inflicted wounds of the industry get septic and deadly with the aid of the global economic thing.

In Europe, GM’s indifferent stewardship of Saab drained it of any brand value before ejecting it out into the cold night like an unwanted zombie offspring. Allegedly, up to 20 vultures have some interest in picking over the corpse.

Opel is too big to fail, but GM is desperately seeking some kind of ‘outside investor’ to take even a majority stake in what along with Holden represents the brains and future of the whole firm. This is a horrific act of corporate self harm that few other automakers understand because GM Europe is where all the IP needed to turn things around Stateside comes from.

GM’s public ‘proposal’ for Opel’s future literally is like going down some backstreet to sell a kidney. The main issue is that the US government can’t be seen to bail out the foreign bits, even if that’s where the exciting cars and potential are coming from.  Thus the reckless desperation of trying to flog off the best bit of the whole firm. Maybe the EU will want to avoid the blame for letting the most recently profitable part of GM die and will step in to help.  Saab looks too far gone and small for such a reprive, though.

Saab was the quirky, Californian, tech led and somewhat organic cereals based alternative to Audi et al before The General turned it into just another home for mass market Opel platforms. Saab became to Vauxhall what Rover was to late 1980s Hondas – a slight luxo gloss on a decidedly blah mass-market repmobile. Consumers can smell this kind of gold leaf wrapping on a Big Mac thing a mile off. It is a con more insulting than placing biroed Franglais Post It notes on bottles of Gallo swill and adding £4 on to the price tag.

I’m not sure what kind of future Saab has – it will need to raid the parts and platform bins of some big carmakers given the low volumes involved (but then so does Aston Martin) while somehow creating vehicles that are unique. A tall order indeed. Especially as there are still too many brands out there and far too much capacity in the industry as a whole.  Perhaps it can take advantage of the situation and cut deals to get ‘best of breed’ parts from all over the place and somehow blend this with Nordic engineering excellence and flair.  I doubt it will work well, though. The slow motion Rover debacle proved that being a small, upmarket volume car maker can be a paradox too far.

Ironically, it was GM itself that had the first big, nasty experience of lazily forcing a priceless brand to commit suicide. The ‘Cadillac’ Cimarron was an attempt to obscenely increase the amount of chrome and profit margin of the J-body (GM’s cheapest, nastiest front wheel drive platform of the 80s) while distracting yuppies from BMW et al. It was such a disaster that the current head of Caddy has a picture of one on his wall inscribed ‘Lest we forget’. Ford (Mondeo based Jags?) and GM itself surely have done and will do, over and over again. If you must dress mutton as lamb at least have the common courtesy to make sure that the zips don’t show.

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