Posts tagged ‘marketing strategy’


How will things play out at Fiat?

02.04.2016


Above: The current Fiat 500. A year shy of its 10th anniversary, is it still cool in 2016?

The Detroit News reports that Fiat has been having trouble Stateside, with dealers now permitted to sell the cars alongside Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram instead of at stand-alone showrooms.
   It’s been worrying seeing Fiat’s plans unfold since it decided to take control of Chrysler, a firm that was once the darling of the US car industry, with its industry-leading R&D times, to one that was starved of investment in the 2000s.
   Those initial plans, sold as a long-term strategy, turned out to be a short-term Band-Aid. With hindsight, maybe it wasn’t too much of a surprise, since Fiat was still grappling with understanding just what it was taking on.
   Fiat needed to do something given that things at home weren’t looking too good, with a model range that wasn’t very cohesive, and with its entries into the Chinese market having faltered a few times. To the casual observer, Fiat saved Chrysler, but there’s some truth in saying that having the company that controls the Jeep brand was a lifeline to Fiat itself.
   What we’ve seen since those days was the failure of the strategy of twinning Chrysler and Lancia. While this was a marriage of convenience, I could see this having some long-term gains with Lancia focusing on smaller cars and Chrysler on larger ones, but the result in 2016 is that Lancia has been reduced to an Italy-only marque, the equivalent of what Autobianchi was a few decades ago. Once the Ypsilon is deleted, then Lancia is consigned to the history books.
   The winner has been Alfa Romeo. It has only just returned to the junior executive segment with the new Giulia, after an absence of several years, and its 4C is a cracking sports car. Things are looking up, and rumours that Alfa and Dodge would be paired up in the same way Lancia and Chrysler were mercifully haven’t come true. The Giulia platform could be used for future models. Jeep has benefited from Fiat platforms, and Ram has gained some Fiat vans.
   But the parent brand, Fiat, has looked very uncertain for a while.
   For a start, there’s little uniformity globally. Fiat has the opportunity to offer the Viaggio and Ottimo in more places than China, slotting above the Ægea, for example. While having unique models for South America makes some sense, because of Fiat’s strength there, there’s an opportunity to globalize, with the Toro pick-up truck looking very appealing.
   Without having more of its self-developed products, the Fiat range in Europe doesn’t inspire too much confidence. While most manufacturers have one or two joint-venture models, Fiat’s range is almost exclusively made up of vehicles that have shared tech. The famous 500 and Panda are on a Fiat platform which has Chrysler input (before the takeover), and is shared with Ford for its B420 Ka. The Punto, 500X and 500L are on another platform shared with GM. The Doblò is also offered to GM. The Qubo is the product of a joint venture with Peugeot. The Freemont is a rebadged Dodge Journey from México, which Fiat gained after the takeover. The 124 Spider is based on the Mazda MX-5, and built in Japan by that firm. The Fullback pick-up is a Mitsubishi Triton twin and made in Thailand by that Japanese firm.
   Fiat, in other words, is holding down more relationships than Casanova.
   As a casual observer, there’s an opportunity for a massive streamlining of platforms, and offer more in-house models. That may well be happening, and let’s hope its current strategy is more long-term than its last.
   Secondly, as mentioned earlier, Fiat hasn’t had a great reputation of being able to carry out long-term sales’ strategies in many of its markets. Take New Zealand, for example, where Fiat was offering its (Grande) Punto and Bravo models, before it decided to pull everything and offer only the 500.
   The Punto has returned after a hiatus, this time as a budget model, along with the Tipo 139 Panda, but those who bought Puntos in the 2000s might think twice about returning to a company that abandoned them and offered no direct replacement for their car when it came to trading up.
   That lack of continuity could have some buyers worried, and Fiat needs to regain their trust in a big way.
   Being the Five Hundred Car Company, which Fiat certainly was in the US, cannot help, if buyers expect Fiat to offer more. We’ve seen it fail here, and Fiat’s had to back-track. Even in Hong Kong, where Fiat had also been reduced to flogging only the 500, it has had to add the Freemont.
   Fiat will argue that as it had been absent from North America for so long, it could re-enter the market-place with a single, fashionable model: after all, Mini and Smart have done.
   The trouble is that Fiat isn’t known as a niche brand: there was enough in the US media to indicate that this was an Italian giant, and the perception of such a large company didn’t gel with it offering a niche range anywhere. It lacked the cachet of a brand that was created to be fashionable and funky from the outset. You just can’t do it when that’s the name of the owner (think: can you sell “cool” cars with GM as the brand—that had been tried in New Zealand and failed dismally; or, going back a generation, Leyland? Volkswagen surely is the sole exception with its Beetle), and FCA, which the parent company is called, isn’t a consumer-facing brand. It’s just a company name with no brand equity.
   In the same vein, average punters might not know of BMW’s connection with Mini, or Daimler AG’s connection with Smart. They stand alone with plenty of brand equity, helped by identifiable products, and, in Mini’s case, even helped by its image outside North America.
   I also question whether the 500X and 500L are cute cars in the same vein as the original 500. Getting Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander character to advertise the 500X seemed good in theory—till it dawned on the public that the new Zoolander film was a bit naff, cashing in on last-decade nostalgia. I’m not a fan of retro design, either, and I would have hoped that Fiat would have renewed its 500 by now, since we’re on to newer versions of the Beetle, Mini, and Smart. It’s no surprise that Fiat sales are down 14·6 per cent so far this year.
   If Toyota could not sustain Scion with all its muscle, then Fiat retail really should be integrated into dealerships selling Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram Stateside. And I’d argue that Scion couldn’t remain because the brand had lost its coolness among the college kids who bought the XB in the first place. Buyers in this consumerist game, and at the fashion end it is more a game than in any other, are notoriously fickle.
   I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Fiat’s a brand I’ve grown up with, and I’ve been visiting their dealerships since I was two years old. Back in the 1970s the showroom in Homantin, Kowloon had everything from 127s to 130s. Fiat was doing a brisk trade on 124s. I came close to buying various Fiat Group cars over the years, including a Tipo and a Lancia Delta, and more recently I had considered Alfa Romeo Mitos and Giuliettas. I briefly toyed with importing a Tipo 844 Lancia Delta from the UK badged as a Chrysler, but decided having a $75 1:43-scale one was enough.
   To see Lancia decimated and now on life support as Fiat concentrated on making Chrysler and Dodge work, to see the home brand filled with other people’s products in the interim, and to receive news that US buyers weren’t flocking to its showrooms in the same numbers any more, all make me concerned. Go to Italy and the taxi ranks no longer are dominated by Fiat Group cars: the cabbies have gone French and German. It’s all very well Maserati and Ferrari doing well but the former’s volumes won’t have a huge impact, while the latter has been separated and now has a different parent. The only continent where I think Fiat is making a decent bash of things is South America. I don’t want to paint a doom-and-gloom picture, not least because I have fondness for all the brands that now fall under the Fiat umbrella. But the weaknesses, at least to an outsider looking in, outnumber the strengths. My gut says Fiat will work through it all, but will it do it in a fast enough fashion, or is there more pain to come?

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Posted in branding, business, cars, China, globalization, marketing, USA | 1 Comment »


Flip-flop again: GM deems Chevrolet Europe strategy a failure

08.12.2013

GM has changed its mind again: Chevrolet will not be its global brand.
   The strategy, where Daewoo was rebadged Chevrolet in western Europe at the beginning of the century, has been deemed a failure, and GM will withdraw its core Korean-made models such as the Spark, Aveo, Cruze and Malibu, by 2015. It will return to where it was a few decades ago: a brand selling quintessentially American cars such as the Camaro and Corvette.
   For many years on this blog, I expressed my doubts on rebadging Daewoos, either as Holden or Chevrolet. If GM wanted a budget brand, it had one in Daewoo. With the exception of the Malibu, the cars always looked Korean anyway, despite some US (and Australian) styling input, and Kia and Hyundai demonstrate that there is no negative brand equity these days with ‘Made in Korea’.
   It was impossible for GM to shake off Chevrolet’s American country-of-origin effect in the last decade in western Europe. GM also believes that having Opel and Vauxhall as its mainstream western European brand is enough.
   The theory wasn’t all wrong though. In the last decade we’ve seen the continued rise of Škoda, and Dacia has managed to find buyers. Nissan has brought back Datsun in an effort to appeal to cost-conscious consumers who want a simple car. Daewoo could have had a role to play in Europe, if GM had got the marketing right.
   It also seem to have got things wrong with Opel in Australia, pulling out after an even shorter time.
   I seem to be correct again when I argued that brands like Holden could not be abandoned in favour of Chevrolet, because you can never rely on GM for a long-term strategy. There are no economies of scale in promotion when Chevrolet simply isn’t as well regarded outside the Americas, and where we consumers are still quite happy to use certain domestic or regional brands as mental shortcuts to cars being sold as domestic appliances. Levitt isn’t to be applied blindly.

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Posted in branding, business, cars, globalization, marketing, USA | 2 Comments »


Toyota’s troubles stem from forgetting its principles

06.02.2010

I was surprised to learn that Toyota still has not issued a worldwide recall of its troublesome Prius NHW30 model, even though one had gone out in New Zealand.
   In layman’s terms, the brakes allegedly don’t work when you want them to. In more complex terms, the software has trouble distinguishing between different types of braking, and drivers may experience a delay in ‘pedal feel’.
   I was always a bit sceptical about the recalls over the unintended acceleration, given that the last time I heard those words, they were in relation to a falsified report from CBS’s 60 Minutes, a show known to me for making up stories (Killian memoranda, anyone?). Hearing them again, I thought it was just another excuse for the clumsy driving of a few individuals who couldn’t figure out where the accelerator was (which was what happened with Audi in the US). But it seems this matter has been around for a long time, and recalls were being done even last year.
   But the Prius matter, something that has not come under a global recall, appears more serious than carpets getting in the way, which is the problem behind the unintended acceleration complaints. AFP reports:

The Transport Ministry has received some 80 complaints in February about malfunctions in the brake system of the latest model of the flagship Prius, the Tokyo Shimbun reported without quoting sources.
   Five of them were actual crashes in which the drivers claimed the brakes did not work properly, the daily said, adding that the ministry would urge the company to launch an investigation.
   It was not possible to immediately confirm the report.

   Already Toyota has been berated by top management for going too far from its core principles by its honorary chairman, Shoichiro Toyoda. The company had been trying to sell big cars in China during the financial crisis, and spent a good part of the 2000s developing large pick-up trucks for the US market. Bloomberg reported last June that a meeting was called:

Shoichiro scolded the president [Katsuaki Watanabe] for being so anxious to boost sales and profits that he’d let Toyota emulate now bankrupt General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC. Toyota had become addicted to big, expensive cars and trucks and had forgotten the customers’ need to save money, Shoichiro said, according to the person’s account.

   In other words, Toyota’s culture has been suffering, and we all know what happens when sales’ volume and profit are pursued at the expense of quality or engineering. (Ask Mercedes-Benz.)
   Toyota may be an example where too many niches were created, simply to get consumers in the showrooms—and now that’s coming to bite it on the rear end. Having too many niches has one immediate drawback: consumers no longer understand the structure of the range. Is the small car the iQ, Ist, Vitz, Porte, Belta or Passo? Do I move from that to a Corolla, Auris, Blade, Corolla Rumion, Probox, Raum, RAV4 or wotsis?
   The mistakes are understandable in some ways. Toyota had to create more new models as attention spans shortened. While a car might be able to be presented as “new” for two years in the Japanese market 10 years ago, consumers expect something else within half a year. To fund this appetite, the company looked for ways to maximize profits in every market—with the US one fuelled by bigger and bigger vehicles. It had to take costs out of cars, especially with electronics (by combining as many functions on to one system as possible) and architecture—and it may be these areas where the Prius suffered.
   But no company can really afford to pursue too many niches—Mazda overextended itself in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as did Nissan in the early 1990s—when times are tough. Toyota should have forecast a downturn, as many business experts did. The question that the company needs to ask itself is: what made it so blind in the 2000s?
   Even ignoring the idea of unintended acceleration for now, Toyota ends the lunar year on a low. It will always have its diehard followers—there are many models not affected by these issues—but the company must refocus its brand for the New Year toward its traditional principles. There is every sign the company knows that, with Akio Toyoda, the founder’s grandson, now at the helm, and doing spot checks down on the production floor. (I’d rather Toyota have someone like that than a “celebrity CEO” who gives good press. The era of the celebrity boss is over for now.) It is simply a pity that the company did not get on to its mounting problems—there are claims that unintended acceleration reports began surfacing with Toyota’s Lexus ES model as early as 2004—sooner.
   Few buy a Toyota because the cars make one’s heart beat faster. They are a default choice for many people who want the simplest conveyance from A to B. Akio’s job has been reminding his own team of that, and reinstituting the ‘Toyota Way’ and kaizen, terms that many of us who went to business school during a certain era recall.

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Posted in branding, business, cars, culture, leadership, marketing, media, New Zealand, technology, USA | 4 Comments »