Nationalism, globalism and the automobile

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The Independent Online
Once upon a time (say, 25 years ago) all manufacturers made cars to suit the national temperament and road conditions. Jaguar, MercedesBenz, Lancia, Citroen and Buick were national icons; everyone played the same national game.

Ford, a big global player, produced two different ranges in Europe - the advanced, austere Taunus from Cologne; and the plusher, more conservative Cortina from Dagenham. The two were in head-to-head competition.

During the Sixties Ford, fed up with the confusion and cost, led the way in designing and producing cars for a converging marketplace. Other manufacturers followed. National characteristics began to disappear as the day of the Eurobuzzbox dawned.

Ford's drive for homogeneity and economies of scale continue. Its Mondeo can reasonably claim to be the first true world car. Now Ford plans a single, homogenous global marketplace through five vehicle programme centres, creating global products such as the Mondeo, which will inevitably have a bland, almost anonymous appearance and style.

In other parts of the global automotive industry there are clear signs that an entirely opposite principle is emerging. As the Mondeo arrived on the scene, based around a global idea, Rover, a much smaller and less significant player, unveiled its 600, the latest and most convincing of a range carefully crafted to exploit national identity.

Rover cars, although based around Japanese Honda components, are 'English Heritage' on wheels. Everything, from radiator grille to leather-and-wood interior, exemplifies what is thought to be the British tradition in cars.

The new Rover sells well in Britain and overseas. Why? Because it is known to be as good as its competitors and carries all the paraphernalia of tradition. Rover has become competitive enough to fall victim to a significant and much more powerful competitor.

Rover is not alone in exploiting national characteristics. In France, while PSA relentlessly irons out the national idiosyncrasies of the Peugeot and Citroen marques it owns (Citroen's new Xantia, pretty and effective performer though it is, could equally be Italian or Japanese), Renault with its perky little Twingo is designed to be full of 'Gallic charm'. So has the wheel come full circle? Are we back in the 1960s, when each car-manufacturing country catered for national tastes? Not really. The point about these new cars is that they are designed and built for the world marketplace. These two contrasting product ideas - from Ford; and from Renault and Rover - exemplify two important trends: globalism and nationalism. These powerful and profoundly antagonistic forces deeply affect the behaviour and emotions of global companies.

While, in principle, the global company may, like Ford, seek to exploit its potential economies of scale to the utmost, in real life it hasn't quite worked out that way. Nationality and national identity stand firmly in the way.

This is perhaps especially true for European manufacturers on a continent seething with fractious and competitive nations and national identities. Curiously, this situation could give them a big advantage. The rich and diverse legacy of European nationalism has brought with it a rich and diverse legacy of brands.

If one element distinguishes European products and services in the eyes of the rest of the world, it is style, breeding, elegance. Burberry, Benetton, Bang & Olufsen, Bollinger and BMW all derive their strength and style from their European heritage.

Japanese companies interested in the European marketplace or wanting to compete with European companies on a global basis deliberately develop products based around what they acknowledge as European concepts. The Lexus, designed to compete with Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes, is one.

And that is what Rover and Renault recognise. Some European companies, however, do not yet appreciate the extraordinary brand strengths they possess and which the rest of the world envies and covets.

Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft is a very German sort of global company. VW makes its cars all over the world including Mexico and China.

It also makes Audi in Germany, Skoda in Czechoslovakia and Seat in Spain.

If it chose to reposition itself, VW could emerge as the European automobile company with a diverse range of products and brands all deriving from various different and equally attractive classic automotive European heritages contained within those different companies.

Volkswagen could present, over time, a European, as opposed to a German, idea.

The author is a leading consultant on corporate identity. This article is based on The European Global Company Report, published by IMPR earlier this month.