Detroit's Weak-Kneed Slogans Show Bad Ads Go With Bad Cars

Time for U.S. Automakers to Convey Trustworthiness in Their Marketing

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Is there any correlation between the rapidly eroding fortunes of the Big Three auto companies and their consistently terrible advertising?
What does Buick's 'Drive Beautiful' slogan mean? | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
What does Buick's 'Drive Beautiful' slogan mean? | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

Most car advertising is pretty pedestrian, but the U.S. makers generate some of the worst examples.

The latest case in point: Buick's ungrammatical ad slogan for its new SUV, "Drive Beautiful." It's the fifth new slogan since 2001 for Buick, the last being "Beyond Precision." (Shouldn't that be "Beyond Imprecision?") The agency lost the account, but if they'd kept it, I bet their next slogan would have been "Beyond Beautiful."

I've always thought that a slogan should help differentiate your product from the competition. The greatest slogan of all time, Morton Salt's "When it rains, it pours," does a superb job of asserting its very real product benefit.

But what in the name of God does "Drive Beautiful" mean? Does it mean you're beautiful when you drive the car or that the car is beautiful or both? How does it engender meaningful confidence in the car itself? Buick's famed slogan, "When better cars are built, Buick will build them," reeks of self-assurance and relevance.

Maybe what's missing most in Detroit advertising is trustworthiness -- a feeling that you can depend on the product and its maker. Good brands give you a sense of dependability, of reliance, of knowing what you're going to get.

And that feeling is worth a lot of money. In financial circles, the value of brands is part of intangible capital, and The Wall Street Journal's Holman W. Jenkins Jr. writes that intangible capital accounts for one-third to one-half of the stock market value of the Fortune 500.

"One particularly important form of intangible capital is brand equity," he says, and it's estimated that by the late 1990s, some $250 billion, or 2.5% of the gross domestic product, was spent on brand building -- "an investment that can quickly be squandered if a product fails to perform as expected."

Mr. Jenkins was talking about the multiple product recalls in China, but he could have been referring to the decline and fall of the domestic-automobile business.

The great thing about building a great brand is that it commands a premium price. Consumers will pay you extra for delivering what you promise -- if you deliver on the promise consistently. That's what Detroit has failed to do, both in cars that look good and operate well.

Look at how Korea's Hyundai, has done it. Not too many years ago the brand was a laughingstock. But then it started turning out cars that were stylish and of high quality, and Hyundai was the first in the industry to come out with a 100,000-mile warranty. Its rankings in J.D. Power's quality study zoomed, and Hyundai was slowly able to raise prices. It's now selling an upscale model competing with BMW and Lexus for $30,000 to $40,000, and it could even come out with a separate upscale badge like Toyota and Nissan have done.

Hyundai's success has not been achieved on empty promises. The company built better cars and backed them with the extended warranty. And the brand gained in value to the point where it can get real money for its cars.

The thrust of Mr. Jenkins' article was that if China is serious about playing on the world stage it must market products in which buyers have trust and confidence.

Ironically, Chinese buyers may be losing confidence in GM. Automotive News reported that sales growth at its joint venture in China slowed in the first six months of the year, pulled down by an aging model lineup. The Chinese may not be able to produce good brands themselves, but they know them when they see them.

To get back to my original premise, U.S. automakers' vapid advertising matches the way they do business. Can you imagine in your wildest dreams Toyota or Honda using "Drive Beautiful" as a slogan?

Which came first, the slogan or the car? Whatever you answer, they usually deserve each other, for better or for worse.
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