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Branding Iron – Auto Marketers New Book Critiques America’s Auto Industry

The unveiling of Charles Hughes and William Jeanes new book, Branding Iron, was held at an ex-Marine Air Station, now converted into an autocross course and automotive presentation center. It was a fitting preview, and the book, published on September 1, is all about conversion and change.

Auto Exec Charlie Hughes at a Press Briefing for his new book.

Charles Hughes, called “Charlie” by his associates and friends, is an experienced sales and marketing auto industry executive. Charlie worked for many of the industry’s brightest minds and Land Rover in the United States was created under his leadership. Charlie was also the guy behind Mazda’s ZoomZoom advertising campaign.
Charlie is now head honcho at Brand Rules, an consulting company specializing in branding strategies.
Many people know William, “don’t call me Bill”, Jeanes as the former editor-in-chief of Car and Driver. His contact with new and emerging vehicles was a weekly occurrence, and his insight important to the industry and the public at large.

Branding Iron
reflects the authors love of the old west, the courage, rugged lifestyle and people who lived and died for what they believed in. Their book, focusing on branding as a mechanism for selling cars, trucks and SUVs, is about the need for some of that commitment, as opposed to the often soft, bland, and “cover your ass” management and strategies now in play in the auto industry.
Is the book any good?

I love the presentation of what good branding is: Branding is a promise, wrapped in an experience. Good stuff.
If you’re a novice to the world of automobile marketing and sales, Branding Iron is a good read. Charlie and William essentially take sales and marketing 101 and apply it to the auto industry. They compare and contrast what has gone wrong, is still going wrong, and may continue to go wrong with US auto sales. They also provide their own opinions about how the US auto industry can mature and evolve.
On the other hand, if you read this book and have an experienced hand in the industry, you might think this book is a plate of sour grapes. With only a few exceptions, the success stories relate to things Charlie did at Land Rover or elsewhere. “If their programs worked so well, why isn’t Charlie the CEO of Ford or General Motors,” industry pundits may question. And, If Land Rover understood branding so well, how do you explain the Land Rover Freelander, which has done so much damage to the Land Rover image in the US? (Freelander was conceived on Charlies watch at LRNA, but admittedly he did not control the cycle plan.) I asked these questions too, and while the answers are surely reasonable, they aren’t communicated via the book.
Overall, the facts presented are logical and make sense. Toyota is about to overtake GM as the world’s largest auto manufacturer. Ford and GM are both in dire condition. Gasoline prices are continuing to rise. And, most importantly, US automakers have ignored research and competitive analysis and have deluged the public with too many models of vehicles. There are too many dealers, too many choices, and not enough differentiation. It’s fact. In that regard, they hit the nail on the head.
Where the hammer missed the nail completely is in the presentation. Jeanes wrote and edited articles in a magazine – often 1000 words in length. Writing a book is an altogether different animal. And for this book, the end result may not be the shot through the heart the authors intended.
Each chapter describes the world of marketing and selling vehicles using language ideal for a novice. Each chapter ends with a checklist or directives meant for participants in the industry itself. The result is dilution of the message.
Each chapter tends to talk about what went wrong at a particular company – the inconsistency of Jaguar, the irrational discounting made by Nissan (and how it was fixed, by the way), Pontiac’s sad story, and so on. I get it! By the time you get to Chapter Eight, you’ve just about had enough.
The payoff doesn’t come until Chapter 11, when the two pundits make specific suggestions for fixing Ford and GM. And with several of Ford’s nameplate brands now in the process of being sold, they may not have the exact fix, but they make a point. But, just like the industry itself, they make it too late.
The other thing that bugs me is the constant message that “right and wrong” related to the car industry revolves around branding. In my experience, branding is only 25% of the formula related to successfully selling something. Strong brands include good products (design & engineering), good strategies (marketing), good tactics (sales), and not least, good support. The US auto industry has, for the most part, felt it could overcome not having 75% of the equation by filling it all in with brand messages. Sure, MINI has a great brand, but it also makes the entire experience of owning the vehicle tremendous. They do make a promise and wrap it in an experience. It’s no wonder 7,000 MINI owners joined the company for its currently ongoing cross-country trek. That is branding, but it’s also much more than that. Branding Iron doesn’t successfully explain the difference, or provide solutions. And that may be, in the final analysis, a fatal flaw.
I’d have liked this book a bit more if it were a true insider story. Too many topics are glossed over and, just like the American car industry, there are too many anecdotes. Pick out a few losers and select a few winners. Compare and contrast – and drive the point home. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the book, in my opinion, offers too much information, is too superficial in the telling, and doesn’t have the depth to really make you care.
And for me, that’s the point. If I’m going to buy into their vision, I really need to care about both the authors and the industry. And while I liked the book, it didn’t make me want to put on a six-shooter and head for Ford’s home office. On the other hand, Toyota, BMW, and several other companies seem to be pretty well armed, and they’re riding into the states at full gallop. Meanwhile, Ford is currently offering zero down, zero percent interest, zero credit required deals in the panic-driven hope it can sell the remainder of its 2006 inventory. There is no better defined message about the state of the industry than that. – David Barrett VehicleVoice contributor

ED NOTE: See Charlie Hughes and William Jeanes discuss their new book in our video podcast.
COUNTERPOINT: George Peterson, CEO, AutoPacific
OK, Branding Iron is a fun and fast read for people interested in the American auto industry, marketing, and the importance of brands as perceived by marketing folks. Hughes and Jeanes are absolutely correct in their identification of attributes required for building a world-class brand, but in many ways the brand flows from the product it is selling.
There are a few obvious omissions in the book. What about the Land Rover Freelander, developed on Hughes’ watch when he was at LRNA? Now, of course, Hughes was a marketing exec not a PD exec and admittedly LRNA held off selling the Freelander until Ford acquired the brand and went on a volume-for-all bent. But still, if the American marketing arm had really been in the loop, the Freelander would have been a very different animal. Once the Freelander was launched in the USA, each one damaged the brand image of Land Rover in America.
A second example used by Hughes/Jeanes in Branding Iron is that of the Mazda MPV just after ZoomZoom was launched. They gleefully recount journalists driving the MPV around Laguna Seca to demonstrate its sporting bias. Yeah, right. The MPV was always off the mark. Too small, too under-powered, too Mazda-centric to be saleable in quantities in the USA. The idea of scooting a minivan around a race track is ludicrous.
Take Branding Iron for what it is… a fun light read with many good insights from the perspective of marketing guys.

1 Comment

  • David A. Thorpe| September 17, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    Having worked for Wagner Electric Corp and Kelsey Hayes, and having observed,owned,and driven cars since the Korean War, and having been in sales and sales management, all my life,and being a loyal fan of American made products all my life, I have mixed emotions about American Manufacturing Management and their mentality, and especially the Car Companies.
    It seems to me there is a fixation on making as much money as fast as you can in any Company and any Product being sold in America, and perhaps throughout the World.
    If any Company would build the absolute best product they could, and build in a profit based on return on investment, instead of whatever the traffic will bear, and never,ever,cheat on quality or warranty of their product, and do whatever they have to , to protect their brand, in otherwords always do the right thing, in the long run they will dominate their market and always stay in business and make a legitimate profit.
    If the American Car Companies had built the best product they were capable of building, and watched after that product the way they should have, to ensure they had honest Dealers with honest policies, they wouldn’t be in the position they are today.
    All the Ownership,and all the Management, that participated and condoned less than honest and honorable practices,for the sake of a fast buck, should be held accountable and despised. How clever have they really been.
    The only saving grace is that the same People, at every level,are the same People responsible for what happened to Detroit, except they now work for the “Honorable” Japanese and have much lower labor and operating costs.
    Nothing else has really changed.
    Its called Greed and short-sightedness, and eventually the Market will correct itself and everyone will be happy. Except the idealist and the moralists.
    David A. Thorpe

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