Same car, different label

A Mazda is really a Fiesta, a Proton is a Mitsubishi. What's happened to brand values?

The other day I discovered that my favourite designer tie is now available in a well-known high street store, wearing that well-known high street store's label. I'll now probably run into endless other guys wearing exactly the same piece of silk around their necks. Well, things could be worse, I thought. When I was told that their ties will have cost them half what I payed, I confess to being more peeved than surprised. We all know that designer labels have bigger mark-ups than high street store's own-brands. The greater exclusivity and "brand value" kids us into believing that such extravagance is worthwhile. Nonetheless there still seems to me something dishonest about two goods with different labels actually being one and the same. My BMW of ties is now re-badged as a Ford.

There a few marketing tricks unknown to the car industry, of course. Any business so adept at turning tin boxes into sex symbols (as the motor industry has done over the years and is now doing with renewed vigour in its advertising), cannot be regarded as anything other than shrewd. No surprise then that, when it comes to the tie-type trick, the car industry has been there before.

We British have been particularly exposed to it. BL's many different cars in the Sixties were invariably just a small pool of models wearing different disguises. Rileys were just Morrises which were just Austins. Just as, until recently, Rovers were just Hondas with more wood inside and a smarter grille.

But the same car/different label trick is now reaching almost epidemic proportions. And, just as with me and my tie, I suspect that the poor punter, who pays great heed to brand values, is being misled.

The most recent example is the new Mazda 121. The old 121 was an oddball little thing, made in Japan. Not many were sold in Britain but those who took the plunge, I'm told, were mostly very pleased. They no doubt valued the 121's made-in-Japan honesty and reliability, and its ease of operation. Mazda ownership promises (and usually delivers) a hassle-free relationship between company and customer.

No doubt those 121 owners, when it comes to the trade in, will first think of the new 121. They'll visit their Mazda dealer and be assured of the many virtues of the new model (not disingenuously either, for it's a good car). They they'll probably sign on the bottom line. I wonder how many Mazda salesmen will voluntarily admit that, in fact, they're buying a Ford? Designed by Ford, developed by Ford, and built by Ford (in Dagenham). The new 121, you see, is nothing more or less than a Ford Fiesta with different badges and minor changes. It's a clever move, by Mazda, to circumvent import restrictions on Japanese-made cars: being made in Britain, the new 121 is outside the quota. Ford, too, benefits: in effect, it's now making more Fiestas.

Ford is rather good at playing the this game. Its Ford Maverick 4x4 is a re-badged Nissan Terrano. The Ford Probe is a Mazda MX-6 coupe. The Ford Galaxy Multi-Purpose Vehicle (MPV) is the same as a Volkswagen Sharan, and the upcoming Seat Alhambra. That it is the best MPV is little consolation. At least when you buy a Renault Espace, you know that no non-Espace driver has one.

There are myriad other examples. The latest Rover 400 ("the best long distance ride on earth") is a Honda Civic 5-door . The Citroen Saxo, unveiled with much pomp and ceremony at the recent Geneva Show, is just a Peugeot 106 in drag. The Vauxhall Monterey 4x4 is an old Isuzu Trooper (not that it matters too much: nobody buys either). The new Citroen Synergie MPV is the same as a Peugeot 806 or a Fiat Ulysse. The heavily promoted new Daewoos, whose catchy ads are helping rack up impressive sales, are merely old Vauxhalls. Malaysian Protons are just old Mitsubishis.

Does any of this matter? Does the punter really care, as long as he gets a decent, reliable car? On the face of it: yes it does.

If you buy a Galaxy MPV, you've probably made a conscious decision to buy a Ford. Then you find out that your neighbour has just bought a Volkswagen Sharan and you're dismissive ("dour, stodgy Volkswagens. Look at the Beetle: what a joke! And besides they're German").

Then somebody tells you it's the same car. The only difference is that a little man in Portugal, where they're made, puts VW badges on some and Ford badges on the others. If all this doesn't matter, then brand values - a Holy Grail of marketing, a basic tenet of our capitalistic system - must be complete and utter baloney.

On second thoughts, brand values are often complete and utter baloney, determined either by history (which Henry Ford admitted was bunk) or by clever advertising. They often do not reflect the quality of the product. A Ford is just a car, just as a VW is a car, and just as a Daewoo is an old car.

Oh well, at least I know where to go shopping for ties next time.

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