GM, Ford, and Chrysler are struggling with some serious problems due to real and perceived reliability issues, unit labor costs, and their obsession with making gas-guzzling cars. Those are complex issues involving union contracts, management decisions, government regulations, and consumer perceptions of quality. The Big Three can fairly claim that not all associated problems are their fault.
But brand decisions are another story, and Detroit has made a number of blatant mistakes that were easily avoidable and clearly the fault of the automakers. Some of the most glaring mistakes are in the family sedan category, one of the most important models for several manufacturers due to its high sales volumes. The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, for example, were the third and fifth best-selling vehicle in the US in 2008, with unit sales of 411,000 and 351,000 respectively.
American automakers have really got it wrong in this category. Take Buick, for example. Buick currently makes a couple of models that are highly regarded in the automotive press for their quality, fit and finish, nice interiors, and sophisticated transmissions. The problem is that most consumers have never heard of these models because Buick created new brands for them: “Lucerne” and “Lacrosse.” Why create new names? I guess the brand “experts” at Buick or elsewhere at GM decided that the dog tags on old Buick cars were too “outdated” and had too much negative brand value. So instead of using names long associated with Buick, like Park Avenue, LeSabre, or Century, they switched to new names for updated models.
Problem n. # 1: GM doesn’t have the cash to launch new models properly, so the vast majority of consumers are unaware of new nameplates.
Problem n. 2: The Buick Century and LeSabre recently won reliability awards from JD Power, accompanied by the message that these models are no longer in production. Oh.
And yet these models are still in production, they just have new names. The Lucerne is a replacement for both the Park Avenue and LeSabre, while the LaCrosse replaces the Century. How many car buyers know or will research to find out? Not many, so the PR effect of the JD Powers Awards is nullified.
Ford is no better. At one point, the Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in America. Ford did not invest in the model and became uncompetitive with the class leaders, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. Rather than invest to rehabilitate the brand, Ford phased it out and renamed its successor, the “Fusion.”
The Fusion is a great car; It is well designed, it is safe, it is well equipped and very well built. The problem for Ford is that it has very little brand awareness because the name is new to the market and, like Buick, Ford does not have the money to publicize it enough.
Around the same time that they introduced the Fusion, Ford also introduced a new, larger car, which it chose to call the “500,” a nickname it used on a number of vehicles from the 1950s to the early 1970s. It’s also a good one. car and one of the safest vehicles on the road. Again, Ford didn’t have the money to raise awareness for the 500 and there’s no “halo effect” from a 40-year-old recycled brand, so sales were horrible.
To address this dilemma, Ford took the curious route of renaming the 500 to “Taurus,” even though it is in a different class of car than the old Taurus (the new one is much larger). The Fusion, which was the actual replacement for the old Taurus, keeps its name. Therefore, if you are familiar with the historical “Taurus”, the new one does not match the image you have of him in your mind. If you’re looking for the latest Ford vehicle to compete with the Accord and Camry, then you want a Fusion, a model you probably know very little about.
Buyers looking for a family sedan don’t have to waste energy figuring out which Toyota or Honda models are designed for them; almost everyone knows the Camry and Accord. If you want to find the equivalents of the Big 3, you can choose between the Fusion (not very well known), the Buick LaCrosse (unknown) the Chrysler Sebring (a name better known for its two-door convertible model, not the four-door sedan) or the Chevy Malibu (better known but relatively ad-free).
Based on the brand’s naming strategy, guess who’s winning the family sedan wars?
I mentioned at the top of this post that the Camry and Accord were the third and fifth best-selling model in the US in 2008. Curious about the models that round out the top 5? The best-selling vehicle of all was the venerable Ford F150 pickup, followed by its direct competitor, the Chevy Silverado. Fourth place went to the Honda Civic, which means that the top five places went to nameplates that have been around for several decades.
Armed with that knowledge, what could have compelled the Big 3 to remove the dog tags from their family sedan? I think it was “brand suicide” and it illustrates one more way Detroit has dug itself a very deep hole.