Richard Feast: A car by any other name is a car from GM

GM seems to have learnt nothing from the success of BMW and Mercedes
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The stylish new Astra that goes on sale next month epitomises the fresh face of Vauxhall and Opel design in Europe. Dull and boring is out, as General Motors' twin European nameplates adopt a more modern look to combat falling sales and financial losses.

But the corporation's efforts to establish a distinctive look for its European family - the recent Vectra and Signum are other examples - will be compromised this summer by the launch of another new Vauxhall: the Monaro coupé.

Curvy and dated, the Monaro carries none of the angular design language and engineering features of other modern Vauxhalls. That is because it was designed for customers with completely different tastes. It is made by GM's Australian subsidiary, Holden, and is also sold to Americans as the Pontiac GTO. Only the badges have been changed to protect the perpetrators.

A world in which Holdens masquerade as Vauxhalls and Pontiacs is only part of a bigger, more worrying GM picture. Its Saab subsidiary is about to start selling models in America that were designed and made by Subaru in Japan (the 9-2) and by Chevrolet in Ohio (the 9-7X). So much for Swedish product integrity.

Elsewhere, GM's Daewoo business in South Korea produces cars that are sold as Chevrolets, Suzukis and Buicks. Soon, the old Lada factory will turn out Russian-made Chevrolets as well.

GM's mix-and-match approach to monikers raises further questions about its understanding of brand integrity. The group will in May make its last Oldsmobile, a century-old marque that as recently as 1986 was bought by more than a million Americans.

The end of Oldsmobile represents a failure by GM to nurture one of its key brand assets. It has worrying implications for the effects of its recent re-branding decisions. Forcing Holdens to be Vauxhalls and Subarus to be Saabs will garner a few sales in the short term, but the actions will do long-term damage to the reputations of Vauxhall and Saab.

Of course, it is possible for car brands to retain their individuality even if they belong to the same parent group. Peugeots and Citroëns have much in common below the surface, but manage to be very distinctive. The same is true of Fiats and Alfa Romeos.

GM, however, seems to have decided that cars are simple commodities devoid of character. To GM, they are the automotive equivalents of baked beans or soap powder.

It is true to an extent. Car buyers today are spoiled for choice because all makes have similar levels of comfort, quality, reliability, running costs and safety. With no single firm enjoying a market advantage, the features that distinguish one brand from another are image, reputation and design.

GM is not alone in its approach to re-branding, but it is the biggest car group in the world and it has embraced the policy assiduously. But with branding now just as important as engineering, can GM afford this cynical short-termism? It will do nothing to restore or create brand values.

GM appears to have learned nothing from the enduring success of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. These companies are excellent at engineering, but they are arguably even better at branding and marketing.

Neither company would consider sourcing models from other firms like GM did to plug holes in its product line-ups. For evidence, look no further than Mini and Smart. It would have been faster, simpler and cheaper to buy ready-made products for their entry-level ventures; but that is not the BMW and Mercedes way. They recognise they have something very valuable to protect - their very DNA.

The international standings of BMW and Mercedes today were not achieved by branding compromises of the type favoured by GM.

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