Friday, August 14, 2009

The Intrinsic Value of a Brand

What's in a brand? We hear the term tossed around cavalierly in business conversation all the time. It's become one of the many misunderstood, overused and therefore diluted terms in the marketplace.

Among the many wrenching stories about our economy over the past several months has been the corporate shattering of General Motors. The venerable GM has suffered tremendous public humiliation during the recent economic crisis and now stands at a crossroad. It has made some tough choices and has many more to make before the ultimate fate of the former giant is known.

One such decision is the choice to eliminate the Pontiac brand effective with the 2009 model year. Not that this is the first time. You might recall that Oldsmobile was the first of the GM brands to be shuttered in the new century in an effort to focus its resources on its more popular brands. And admittedly, at the time, GM was weighted down in the midsection with little differentiation between the Olds and Pontiac brands.

But I've been struggling with the decision to throw Pontiac under the bankruptcy bus. Does this really make sense? Pontiac was the "we build excitement" brand: youthful and muscular. The Grand Prix, GrandAm, Firebird/TransAm, cars run as much on adrenalin as petroleum. I couldn't — and still can't — for the life of me figure out why GM would choose to kill the "excitement" while keeping the Buick nameplate alive.

In my personal experience, developed throughout decades of absorbing advertising slogans and just looking around, it's clear to me that Pontiac really does reflect a more youthful, vigorous aura ... while Buicks appear to be the cars of old age (and company cars). Yes, I know this is a gross generalization based on my "gut." but seriously: when was the last time a 20-something or 30-something told their buddies excitedly about their new Buick? Perhaps somewhere amidst the intricate number crunching at GM this choice makes sense, but it sure doesn't to me. (Transparency disclosure: I have owned a few Pontiacs — in fact, my very first car was a GTO; and my parents have driven Buicks since they reached their late 60s.)

Does this matter? Should the suits at General motors care about the gut feeling of an ordinary consumer, albeit one who happens to know a thing or two about brands? Apparently not, since a thoughtfully analytical eMail sent to senior officials when the decision was merely in the rumor stage received a "how nice of you to share your irrelevant opinion" reply.

But here's the thing: Whatever definitions are used in B-schools and marketing classes, a brand is what consumers think it is. The new Buick promotions say "Everything you thought about Buick just went BOOM. Take a look at me now." Clever, in a way — a blatant pander to the baby boomer generation they apparently hope to seduce. This approach clearly indicates that they know that they're selling the brand from a position of weakness, and it's a position they put themselves right into. Why? Again, maybe there's a secret in the numbers that we mere mortals don't understand. Or maybe there's a ghost in the Buick attic that must be ameliorated.

Of course, we also need to keep in mind that this is one of the arrogant American behemoths that ignored the writing on the wall when Japanese manufacturers came ashore in the 70s with their compact, economical, high-quality vehicles. So it would not be surprising for this to be yet another enormous, stinking error.

It's far more difficult to try to change public perception about brands than to leverage those perceptions to your advantage. What GM is doing is simply counterintuitive. And I don't think it's going to fly. I'll be watching to see what happens. And since we Americans now own a stake in the company, I'm sure I'm not the only one.

How do you see it? Am I blinded by my own myopic view? Share your thoguhts with me below —

As always,
thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic


  1. On a personal level, I, too, am mildly grieved about the demise of Pontiac. My first new car was a Sunfire. I was just out of college, it was my first 5-speed, and it was just "me" for many years. (Now, I drive a Prius -- another sign of the times.)

    There have been several reports during the past year or more about Buick's popularity in China. I suspect that's why GM is keeping the brand. My suspicion is that GM's long-term success is not insignificantly tied to emerging markets outside of the US.

    Stateside, Buick has been trying to crack the trendy market since it teamed up with Tiger Woods years ago. This BOOM campaign seems like another iteration of that campaign -- and a retread of "not your father's Oldsmobile," which didn't keep that brand alive either. Perhaps they'll have more success this time around. However, I would hardly call three vehicles in an entire brand lineup BOOMtastic.

    I suspect more fizzle stateside. Maybe Buick will continue to gain traction as it BOOMs abroad.

  2. All GM has to do is take a look at the blogging world and they'll soon have a plethora of marketing ideas all for free. Why? Because so many are talking about some of their inane decisions. And it is interesting that many I have read wonder about the intelligence of keeping the Buick brand since nobody can actually pinpoint what the brand means. I'm with you, trying to recreate the Buick brand as a youthful one is going to cost so much more than keeping the Pontiac brand and it will eventually fail, just like Olds did.