Little else matters: quality, price key factors for car buyers

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Changing car buyers' perceptions about auto brands can take as long as a decade, and those perceptions are based on two factors: product excellence and cost, a new study finds.

"People's perceptions change very slowly, five to 10 years," said Evan Hirsh, a VP in the auto practice at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. Using car-only data over the past decade from NOP World Automotive, Mr. Hirsh found very little movement among consumers' perceptions about car brands. His conclusion was that car buyers' perceptions about auto brands become reality.

"It takes many [product] cycles of vehicles for people to recognize change," he said, particularly because people generally buy new vehicles every three or four years.

In its study, Booz Allen boiled down NOP's 26 consumer why-buy reasons to just two: product excellence and cost of ownership. More than 90% of the perceived differences among car brands can be reduced to these reasons.

That means lifestyle or feel-good advertising won't work because the messages don't address the public's reasons for buying, said Mr. Hirsh.

"If the pictures people are seeing don't show the functional attributes of the vehicle," he said, "you're wasting your money."

The auto industry is littered with advertising that didn't communicate vehicle benefits.

Nissan North America's 1989 launch of its luxury Infiniti brand flopped with the zen-like "rocks-and-trees" campaign from the shuttered Inglewood, Calif., office of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos.

More recently, Chrysler Group admitted the Chrysler Pacifica launch campaign with Celine Dion last year didn't explain the benefits of the combination sedan-SUV-minivan model.

The most-valued brands score well in both product excellence and cost of ownership, according to the chart based on 2001 car-only data. But luxury brands, including BMW and Lexus, cost more than other brands, so ownership costs are higher than other brands.

return to roots

Mazda North American Operations has been returning to its roots as a marketer of fun-to-drive vehicles after chasing mass marketers Toyota and Honda in the `80s and `90s, former president-CEO Charlie Hughes said in early 2003.

Robert Davis, senior VP-marketing and product development at Mazda North American Operations, said that since Mazda is a niche player, "it's easier to be concise" with new models and vehicle packaging compared to a mass marketer. But, he added, the auto industry generally "doesn't have the discipline to hang with it on the product side" closely tying new models to the brand.

A marketer that did manage to change perception was Hyundai Motor America, which suffered in the late 1990s from perceived poor quality and sliding sales. But the South Korean importer communicated its improved quality by advertising its 10-year warranty and improved its packaging and prices. Sales rose dramatically.

The brand's quality got another boost in late April when J.D. Power & Associates revealed Hyundai moved up eight spots, tying for second with American Honda Motor Co. in its 2004 initial vehicle quality study. Hyundai did not return calls for comment.

Hyundai's high scores with J.D. Power are good news for the brand, said Doug Scott, VP of NOP World. But Hyundai is going to have to stay in the top for a while and tell people about it before they put the brand in the same league as proven leaders.

Automakers need to communicate third-party awards because it's too difficult for the general public to "connect the dots," Mr. Scott said. Launches for redone or new models should explain why they are better than the prior version or car it replaced, Mr. Scott said. Otherwise, "people will default back to the segment leader."

Fast Facts

* 90% of the perceived differences among car brands can be reduced to two factors: product excellence and cost.

* A change in auto brand perception can take five to ten years

* Consumers generally buy new vehicles every three to four years.

Source: Booz Allen

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