Cars with weak brands are endlessly advertised on TV, all trying to push some invariably mendacious message
Yet the majority of car makers have little or no brand identity. The exceptions are Mercedes-Benz (solid, well engineered, expensive), Volvo (safe, but so badly driven you pity every other poor sod on the road), BMW (flash, German, driven by image-conscious thrusters in a hurry), Rolls- Royce (regal, if now a touch vulgar), Jaguar (gentlemanly, mature), Ferrari (sexy, fast) and Porsche (flash, fast). Of the mass makers, only Volkswagen has a consistently strong brand (well-made, won't let you down). These are strong brands because, by and large, they accurately reflect the product and have done so for many years, reinforced by suitable promotion.
Weak brands are those artificially fabricated by some highly paid marketing consultant or ad agency, and then foisted on an ill-informed brand manager, usually to promote a wholly unexceptional car.
Cars with weak brands are those endlessly being advertised on TV, all trying to push some meaningless and invariably mendacious message. Ninety- five per cent of car ads fall into this category.
Despite the intentions of the brand manager and the ad agency, they will usually fail to build a brand because their message bears no relationship with reality. Rover (ex-slogan: "Above all, it's a Rover") has no brand value partly because that slogan was nonsensical. Underneath, Rovers are Hondas. More important, the cars Rover makes today are nothing like the cars it made 20 years ago, when it did have a strong brand (comfortable, strong, genteel). It will take many years for BMW, Rover's new owner, to correct this. And BMW, expert at brand management, knows it.
Vauxhall is another maker with no image - partly because its slogans are silly. How can the Vectra be a car for the next millennium when it's so ordinary in this one? It is also because Vauxhall, as a car maker, stands for nothing. Its cars have been consistently unexceptional.
One reason for car makers becoming brand obsessed is that as cars become more mechanically similar, so their brand identities become more important as buying differentiators. Nowadays, there is virtually no difference in engineering quality between a Nissan and a Citroen and a Peugeot and a Fiat (or, for that matter, a Renault and a Ford and a Vauxhall). They are virtually mechanical clones. So their badges, and all they stand for, matter more and more.
Even some manufacturers who do genuinely offer distinctive products are moving to the middle ground of mediocrity. They, too, have to reduce costs and now borrow manufacturing methods and components used by their less distinctive but frequently more cost-efficient rivals. Mercedes cars, although still the world's best built, are not as exceptionally solid as they were a decade or so ago, because they are increasingly being manufactured like Fords and Renaults and Nissans. The latest and fine VW Polo, although still better made than any rival, is not as tough as an old Golf.
In terms of product, the biggest difference between cars is now in their style. A few distinctive shapes are starting to pepper the roads after years of same-again styling - notably from Fiat, Ford, Audi and Renault. Good car designers are now being lauded like the fashion couture kings. Like clothes designers, they are asked to put sex appeal and emotion into goods which, materially, are much the same as the rivals.
When people at parties find out what I do, they invariably ask me what sort of car they should buy. Years ago, when cars were more mechanically distinctive, I would answer their questions at length. Now, I simply ask which car they fancy (there is invariably a car that appeals - usually on the basis of style and brand). As long as there is a dealer close by, as long as it is not East European, Korean or Malaysian (although new Skodas and new Hyundais are fine) whose cars really are still technologically a decade behind, then I advise them to buy it. They are rarely disappointed.
Life & Style blogs
Guest post by Richard Sexton, business development director of e.surv chartered surveyors
Plus lateral thinking and living on London's waterways
Other popular areas include Didsbury, Clifton in Bristol, central Cambridge and West Bridgford
Living with Google Glass: what are they actually like to wear?
Microsoft's Xbox One: Have the price (£399) and release date (30 November) been leaked by online retailer Zavvi?
Splint made by 3D printer used to save baby’s life
The 10 Best road-trip gadgets
Google Glass: First images taken on Google's new glasses appear on Twitter
- 1 Woolwich attack exclusive: Man in bloody video - named 'Mujahid' - was known to Anjem Choudary's banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun
- 2 'Sickening, deluded and unforgivable': Horrific attack brings terror to London’s streets
- 3 Grace Dent: I’m not sure how these people can avoid being called ‘bigots’. And the more ‘civilised’, the worse they are
- 4 Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the mother-of-two hailed as a hero for confronting Woolwich attackers, thought: 'better me than a child'
- 5 Woolwich attack: The EDL will seek to exploit this evil crime for their own evil ends
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.