I was riding behind a new Buick today and thought about the car and the brand. Big difference. I'm not sure what model it was, but from the back the lines of the car looked quite nice. It came across like a sleek, European sport sedan - definitely a nice look. What crashed it back to Earth for me, though, was the rather large Buick logo/crest on the back. it was definitely a downer - reeking of old, stale, tired, out of date cars that my grandfather might have driven in his youth! :-)

So, I wondered, what I might do to build the business with the rather obvious liability of the brand. Starbucks came to mind. As you know, Starbucks recently has started experimenting with downplaying their brand in some new stores. Even though I disagree with that approach for them, that seems to be precisely what Buick needs to do. It needs to shrink that logo WAY down - maybe even remove it from the back all together. In the short term, I'd lower the volume considerably on the branding and hope that my partners on the engineering side could pack as much value and excitement into the vehicles as possible. Clearly, consumers are probably as much "driven" by value in this economy as ever. Many want and need a bargain; a purchase that lets them feel like they're getting a good value, but that doesn't extract too great of a brand/esteem penalty.

My first brand at Coke was Mello Yello. It was a regional (Southeast) player that competed against Mountain Dew. Basically, Mello Yello gave Coke bottlers something to compete against Pepsi's Dew in battling for shelf space at retail. There was very little money allotted to the brand for advertising. The big thing was the number 42 car with Kyle Petty as the major marketing property for the brand. Essentially, Mello Yello was a 'price brand' - in all the definitions of that phrase. The NASCAR sponsorship and the popularity of Kyle Petty in the early 1990's, though, gave the brand a respectability that allowed consumers to feel OK about their purchase. They knew they were not buying the 'real thing' - Mountain Dew. But the NASCAR and Petty associations made consumers feel OK about that sacrifice.

That's the challenge for Buick. For most consumers under 60, the brand most likely detracts value from the vehicles. If this is true, Buick marketers can either be romantic about their brand - and not sell cars, or they can minimize the brand - pump the cars full of value - and sell them.

Couldn't a logical brand recovery strategy be to execute the plan that de-emphasizes the brand - sell lots of value packed cars - and then over time as consumer sentiment changes and the brand regains value - to leverage that value with more overt branding on the vehicles?

It's tough for brand folks to recommend de-emphasizing the brand. In fact, its down right antithetical to our training. But, that may be the best business path for a company who's brand has fallen so far out of favor (IMHO) to get back in the game. We'll see what they do . . .

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Tags: brand, buick

Comment by Gunnar Branson on October 12, 2009 at 11:14am
A very interesting post, Michael. With a younger hipper demographic, stripping the car of brand iconography entirely might be just the sort of bold move that would draw attention. In some ways, not being able to see a brand implies even greater exclusivity. Big brand, by definition means mass market, while small or invisible brand suggests a more customized, more personal and more luxurious item.

Here's an analogue: In the designer clothing business, the down market version of clothes, such as cheap t-shirts, baseball caps, accessories, etc. tend to make the logo larger and bolder - in order to confer some kind of value through the name itself, not the product. The highest level of quality, however, is signaled by making the logo as invisible as possible. Savile Row Suits, the more expensive lines of designers, and the best clothing ateliers hide their logos inside the clothes, and express differentiation through subtle changes in cut, the placement of a button hole, or a colored thread located where only the most well-healed client would know where to look.

In other words - the highest level of brand value is conferred on clothing brands that are the most subtle. What if Buick had no branding on the outside of the car? Perhaps a small and subtle brand could be placed on the headrest, the gear shift knob, the glove box, or somewhere subtle on the dashboard? The lack of obvious branding would immediately set it apart from every other car on the road - and give buyers a sense of having "inside" knowledge - just like the buyers of Savile Row custom suits.

Just a thought...but based on your insight above - it could work.
Comment by Alexandra Hobson on October 16, 2009 at 8:39pm
What if Buick had no branding on the outside of the car?

LOVE IT! Especially for that brand!
Comment by Michael B. Moore on October 17, 2009 at 10:41am
Interesting - to the above conversation, Absolute vodka removes their logo/branding from their bottle for an upcoming campaign. link


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