2006 Porsche Cayman S
AP file
Among the world’s top auto brands, new data show only Toyota and Porsche, maker of this 2006 Cayman S, have positive growth momentum.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 5/19/2006 3:20:16 PM ET 2006-05-19T19:20:16

There once was a time when it was a sign of class to own a Mercedes. And Volkswagen stood for good, honest quality. But the world's most widely recognized automotive brands are losing ground to other big consumer products, a new study suggests.

Eleven car names are featured in Millward Brown's 2006 ranking of the 100 most powerful world brands, but the study shows that growth is cooling for nearly all the big automotive brand names compared with other consumer products.

The highest-ranking automaker in the study was Toyota, followed by BMW, Mercedes and Honda. Other car brands that made the top 100 were Ford, Chevrolet, Porsche, Nissan, Volkswagen, Renault and Lexus.

The report represents a serious financial worry for the world’s largest carmakers, said Andy Farr, president of Millward Brown’s Optimor brand consulting practice in London. Most troubling, he says, is their growth trajectory in developing countries.

“Spending on cars is flat, and auto sales are not growing ahead of gross domestic product,” said Farr, adding that most automakers’ revenues are relatively flat in mature, developed economies.

That makes brand value all the more important. “At this point, the auto companies are fighting for share,” Farr said.

The 11 auto companies named in the research firm's list stand to gain a combined benefit of about $151 billion in future earnings from the greater perceived value of their products, but only Toyota and Porsche are showing positive momentum for growth, according to the report's authors, while other brands are cooling off.

By contrast, consumers are spending more of their personal income on other consumer goods, like luxury products and apparel, according to Millward Brown’s findings.

Brands that create “real value momentum” are the ones that have unique business models — like coffee retailer Starbucks and Spanish clothing chain Zara — that differentiate them from the pack. And China’s dizzying growth has led to the rise of some gigantic Chinese brands. With more than 280 million subscribers and high levels of loyalty, China Mobile featured in the top ten of the list of the world’s most powerful brands.

In the United States, the main reason for decline in brand growth for Ford and GM is their over-reliance on sales incentives, said Millward Brown’s North America Chairman Eileen Campbell.

U.S. auto sales surged last year thanks to a discounting campaign that let consumers pay the so-called “employee” price. But as soon as the discounts expired in the fall, sales plummeted. Critics said the incentives confused customers, cheapened brand image and hurt resale values.

“Over the last three or four years we have cautioned that carmakers were relying on incentives and eroding the value of their brands — now we are seeing the effects of that,” Campbell said. “Consumers question the value of a brand when you put a bag of money on the hood of a car."

Another problem is the proliferation of GM and Ford automobile brands, Campbell added. Auto industry analysts have said for years that the big U.S. automakers have too many brands to support, and sliding sales of names like Pontiac, Buick, Mercury and Lincoln appear to support that observation.

“GM has a number of brands and they are not clearly differentiated in consumers’ minds, as opposed to companies like Toyota or Nissan who support maybe three brands that are clearly differentiated,” she said. “Consumers understand the difference between a Scion, a Lexus and a Toyota. But a company like GM with so many brands has to spread its marketing dollars thinly, and these days there isn’t that much money to go around, so it’s hard for them to keep up with companies like Toyota.”

Campbell recommends that GM sharpen its knives and cull its worst-performing brands, like Buick and Pontiac. The only brand GM has culled in recent memory is Oldsmobile, which it discontinued five years ago after 107 years of car production.

“What we saw in our survey was the more concentrated the focus, the greater value your brand will command,” said Campbell. “Companies that are focused like a laser on just a few brands are going to perform better than those that don’t,” she said, pointing to the recent trend in the packaged goods industry to pare down brand portfolios.

“Procter & Gamble has sold off a number of well-established brands, like Jif peanut butter and Duncan Hines brands, and may sell off Ivory soap,” Campbell said. “Brand culling is something people are thinking long and hard about, but the end of the Oldsmobile brand is the only culling that’s been done in U.S. automotive business of late, and it’s not something they had to think about because prior to the mid-1970s, GM and Ford had a virtual monopoly on the U.S. automobile market.”

To fix their problems, Campbell also says carmakers must focus their brand message for the right audience. Too often, there is a “sameness” in car advertising, she said, whether it’s the beauty shot of a car or a driver driving a car down the open road. One recent success story is the urban, “hip-hop” image that DaimlerChrysler has developed for its cars, especially the Chrysler 300.

“Detroit needs to get back to good, old-fashioned brand building, focusing on the product and what it stands for,” she said. “They have starved their brands too much over the last few years and need to work on them. So we need to see a trend back toward investment, and it will be interesting to see what shakes out.”

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