For Car Buyers, the Brand Romance Is Gone
DETROIT — To sell a car in the 1980s, dealers had to do little more than
open their doors, and loyal buyers would show up to trade in their
Chevrolet for a new Chevrolet, or their Toyota for another Toyota.
Nearly four in five Americans were repeat buyers back then, staunchly
faithful to brands that they knew, trusted and were part of their
self-image. The allegiance often continued through generations of
families, like party affiliations in politics.
Now, partly as a result of increasingly fickle consumer tastes and the
industry turmoil in Detroit, that hard-won loyalty is largely gone.
So far this year, only about 20 percent of car shoppers stayed with the
same brand when they purchased a new vehicle, according to a study by
the Oregon-based firm CNW Marketing Research.
As a result, the industry is seeing the kind of churn it hasn’t
witnessed since Japanese manufacturers began making inroads in the
American market more than 30 years ago.
“The days when people bought a Toyota car or a General Motors product
for 25 years are over,” said Art Spinella, CNW’s president. “There
really isn’t any brand loyalty any more.”
Chris Allen is a case in point. Mr. Allen, 24, grew up in a suburb north
of Detroit. His father works for an auto supplier, and his family’s
garage was always full of G.M. products.
“We had Saturns, Oldsmobiles, Buicks and a string of Chevys,” said Mr.
Allen. “My first two vehicles were hand-me-downs — a GMC Sonoma and a
Pontiac Grand Am.”
After graduating from Michigan State University, Mr. Allen moved to Los
Angeles, where he works for a market research firm. And when he bought
his first car, he chose a Volkswagen GTI.
“If G.M. produced a vehicle I wanted, it would have been at the top of
my list,” he said. “But they don’t.”
Just five years ago, Chevrolet and Ford sat comfortably atop the United
States market, each with more than a 16 percent share. Chrysler had
three brands — Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep — in the top 10.
Today, the Toyota brand leads the pack with slightly more than 14
percent, followed by Ford, Chevrolet, and the Honda and Nissan brands.
The Chrysler brand and G.M.’s soon-to-be-discontinued Pontiac brand have
fallen out of the Top 10 — replaced by two South Korean brands, Hyundai
Each percentage-point movement represents tens of thousands of sales,
and underscores how car buyers, armed with reams of data from the
Internet, are comparison shopping as never before. And because most cars
have become more reliable, choice becomes more a matter of taste.
“Brand loyalty has shrunk because of widespread improvements in the
products,” said James Farley, Ford Motor Company’s head of marketing.
“The ‘trust factor’ is more or less the same for most cars.”
This shift has enormous implications for the way automakers advertise.
In the glory days of Detroit’s Big Three, the companies and their
advertising agencies invested heavily to market slogans that covered a
wide range of products. Ad campaigns like Chevrolet’s “Heartbeat of
America” and “Have You Driven a Ford Lately?” were used to market
everything from small cars to big pickup trucks. Even Toyota followed
suit with broad messages — “I Love What You Do for Me” — that covered
everything it sold.
Now, one size no longer fits all. Toyota, for example, found that the
rock-solid quality that made its Camry sedan the top-selling car in
America did not lure many buyers to its full-size Tundra pickup.
“This is not the age anymore of meaningless slogans,” said Jack Trout,
president of a consulting firm, Trout & Partners, in Old Greenwich,
Conn. “What you’re after is differentiation of your products.”
Hyundai has carved out a 4 percent share of the American market because
its vehicles are less expensive than Toyota’s but are perceived as just
as reliable, said Mr. Spinella of CNW Marketing Research. The company
differentiated itself further this year when it offered to take back
cars if the owners lost their jobs and could not afford to make payments.
“Today, people are very focused on value,” said Jeremy Anwyl, president
of the car-research Web site Edmunds.com in Santa Monica, Calif.
“Hyundai took a unique position to address that.”
Ford tried to excite consumers with ads a few years ago that extolled
its heritage. But the current marketing campaign for its fuel-efficient
Fusion sedan does not even mention the Ford name until the end of the ad.
The lesson Ford learned, Mr. Farley said, is that today’s car buyer has
little use for nostalgia.
“I can’t tell you how many car clubs I have been to where they own old
Mustangs and vintage T-Birds, but they drive Camrys,” he said.