Posts tagged ‘Mercedes-Benz’


Volkswagen’s scandal won’t spread to other German car groups

24.09.2015


If you want a humorous take on what happened at Volkswagen this week, the above video sums it all up.

During my 2010 mayoral campaign, I noted that if New Zealand did not diversify its economy to have more of a focus on technology, there could be a problem. Relying on primary products (I didn’t say dairy specifically) wasn’t something a western economy should be doing and, of course, one signal that things would change in Wellington would be my idea for free, inner-city wifi. I wasn’t trying to be a smart-arse; I was just pointing out an obvious fact, one that has taken many years for others to be concerned about, with Fonterra payouts dipping. News travels slowly.
   Right now, this Reuter article (sorry, folks, having grown up in New Zealand where ‘NZPA–Reuter’ was in the newspapers every day, the plural form doesn’t come naturally to me) suggests that the Volkswagen dĂ©bĂącle could harm other German car makers. How great that harm is depends on how tied those brands are to the German nation brand. The danger is, according to the article, that with the German car industry employing 775,000 people, and car and car parts being the country’s most successful export, a dent in their reputation could have drastic effects for an economy. According to Michael HĂŒther of the IW economic institute, the car industry is at the core. Having other industries that are strong is important to any economy, and Germany has ensured that, despite one taking a knock, it has others that will keep it ticking over. Nearly 70 per cent of the German economy is in services. There will be worries in foreign exchange, but I doubt we’re going to see other German car makers tanking because of this.
   But Volkswagen, some argue, is very wedded to the German psyche. Its founding, which no one really talks about because you’d have to mention the war, ties it to the state, and its postwar resurrection was borne out of the British Army wanting to get the people of the former KdF-Stadt some gainful employment. It was the great German success, the company whose KĂ€fer became a world-beater, overtaking the Ford Model T in terms of units made.
   The VW symbol is very German, borne from their graphic design ideas of the 1930s. The German name, the quirkiness of the KĂ€fer, its relative reliability, and its unchanging appearance probably tied VW and Germany closer together in terms of branding. For years, you would associate Volkswagen with ‘Made in Germany’, just as you would with Mercedes-Benz and BMW, even if a sizeable proportion of their production is not German at all today. (Mercedes and BMW SUVs are often made in the US; Volkswagen makes its Touareg in Slovakia. Volkswagen is one of the biggest foreign players in China, and in Brazil it’s practically considered a domestic brand.)
   Think of the postwar period: Germans weren’t always smart about how to market their cars. BMW had a bunch of over-engineered cars that were completely unsuited to the market-place, such as the heavy, baroque 501; it wound up making the Isetta under licence toward the end of the decade because it was in such deep trouble. Volkswagen eschewed fashion in favour of a practical little car that, too, placed engineering ahead of marketing fads. From this, the idea of German precision engineering was enhanced from its prewar years, because engineering was, by and large, top priority. Mercedes-Benz, being far more successful at selling its luxury cars to the rich than BMW, cemented it and added cachet and snobbery.
   It was only the foreign-owned makers in Germany that went for fashion, such as Ford and Opel, selling convention to the masses wrapped in pretty clothes: the Ford Taunus TC had styling excesses demanded by Ford president Bunkie Knudsen at the time of its development, but it broke no new ground underneath.
   Nevertheless, any time Ford sources from Germany, whether it’s for the US market or here in New Zealand, the notion of “German precision” seeps through in the marketing; when the sourcing changed, as has happened with the Focus here, it’s very quietly dropped. The German car manufacturers carved themselves a nice, comfortable niche, thanks to an earlier era which, to some extent, no longer exists.
   Mercedes-Benz decided it was not about ‘Made in Germany’ some years ago, favouring ‘Made by Mercedes’, and turned itself into a marketing-led organization; quality suffered. Volkswagen, in its quest to become the biggest car maker in the world, and the master of everything from Ć koda to Bugatti, did what GM did years before, by allowing each brand to maintain its character but sharing the stuff that customers didn’t see. It, too, became more marketing-led, and it’s not had a stellar performance in owner surveys for a while.
   You could say that there has been a gradual separation between the brands and what we hold about the German national image in our minds. The “Germanness”, which once accounted for the companies charging a premium, has been decreasing; Volkswagens, in many parts of the world, are affordable again, even in the US where the NMS Passat is built locally in Tennessee. South African- and Mexican-sourced Volkswagens in New Zealand are cheaper in constant dollars compared to their predecessors of a generation before. The German image is not gone altogether—the name, graphics and the ĂŠsthetic of the product see to that—but it does mean the effects of the scandal might not spread to other brands as much as some commentators think.
   The original study that showed Volkswagen was cheating on its emissions’ tests in the US, which is nearly two years old by now (it makes you wonder why it only surfaced in the media this week), also showed that BMW performed better than what it claimed. It’s not impossible for the other manufacturers to separate themselves from Volkswagen, because their individual brands have become strong. Thanks to the weaker relationship between Volkswagen and the German brand, this scandal will likely confine itself to the single car group. It’s not great news for the world’s biggest car maker, but its compatriots should see this as an opportunity more than a threat.

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


Joan Rivers had better facelifts, but it’s the future of the black cab

06.01.2014

Part of me admires Nissan for going after the taxi market in a big way in New York and London.
   Another part of me wonders why on earth the London Hackney Carriage solution is so ugly.

Nissan Hackney Carriage

   I think Nissan should have asked Mr Mitsuoka for advice on how to Anglicize one of its products.
   Overall, I haven’t a big problem about a van being a black cab (neither does Mercedes-Benz). We live in the 21st century, and a one-and-a-half-box design makes practical sense. The recent Metrocab, from Frazer-Nash (whose owners are domiciled abroad), doesn’t look perfect, either, but the effect is a bit more cohesive. However, it reminds me a bit of the Chevrolet Spin.

   I’m not sure how conservative a buyer the cabbie is. The LTI TX4 still looks the best, and it is even being adopted in Australia, but it’s not as economical. The idea of the solid axle and Panhard rod at the back doesn’t scream modernity, either.
   New Yorkers haven’t really minded the advent of Toyota Siennas and Ford Escapes taking the place of the traditional three-box sedan—nor have the tourists. Therefore, I doubt much romanticism will come in to the decision. As with their counterpart elsewhere, the London cabbie will be very rational and look at the best running costs. That may suggest the demise of the TX4, at least in London. (It seems to have a life of its own in China, although that may depend on how visible it remains in London.)
   The world is so globalized that no one bats an eyelid when they see a Volvo badge on a double-decker bus. It’s not that easy to find a police car with a British marque. There’s a nostalgic part of me that wants to argue that the London city brand will be adversely affected by Johnny Foreigner making its cabs, but it won’t. Even the one regarded as traditionally the “most British”, the TX4, is made by a Chinese-owned company, Geely.
   History says that it won’t matter. As long as they are black, they can turn on a sixpence, and the cabbie has the Knowledge, then that’ll be sufficient for most. The experience of travelling, rather than the Carriage’s brand, is what tourists will remember—I can’t tell you whether the first black cab I sat in was an FX4 or a TX, but I can tell you about the conversation I had with the cabbie. One would, however, remember a bad journey—let’s say travelling in the back of a Premier Padmini in Mumbai is not as misty-eyed as it seems.
   And if one insists on a decent British solution, then it needs to be better than the competition: falling back on tradition (or at least some parody thereof) helped kill Rover when it was still around. Although I’m not sure if there are any British-owned taxi makers left. Whatever the case, the next generation of black cab will be made by a foreign-owned company, and I’m willing to bet that the 20th-century formula is toast.

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Posted in branding, cars, China, culture, design, globalization, India, UK, USA | 3 Comments »


Dodge revives the Dart, while UK Delta owners revive Lancia

07.12.2011

Dodge Dart preview
Dodge Dart preview
Fiat has announced that it’s going to bring back the Dodge Dart nameplate on a compact sedan based on a stretched Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform for the 2013 model year.
   This was actually mentioned when Chrysler was going cap-in-hand to the US Government, so it’s not a total surprise. The nameplate, however, is.
   It makes sense to me, though if you look at some of the blog comments elsewhere, motorheads are coming out saying it should be used for a rear-wheel-drive sedan that captures the spirit of the original.
   The trouble is, it does. Dart was a compact beloved of schoolteachers, and even if the last one was a variant of the Dodge Diplomat sold in Spanish-speaking countries, enough time has passed for the general public not to be nostalgic for V8-powered Demons, Dart Sports and the like.
   It’s a compact sort of name, and it’s going after a general audience. And it looks too aggressive to be called Omni or Neon. A sporty little Dodge should be called Dart.
   I know that it could be very easily argued that the last time an American company resurrected a hallowed nameplate last sold in the US in the 1970s—the Pontiac GTO—and ignored the heritage, it was a sales’ disaster.
   But the Goat is legendary. Think back to the 1975 model year: did anyone really regard a basic Dart as legendary?
   We’ve already had a four-door sedan from Dodge called the Charger, the Polara name last wound up on a version of the Hillman Avenger down in Brazil, and the Chrysler New Yorker nameplate went on to a heap of different cars in the 1980s (R-body, M-body, E-body, C-body), so this isn’t exactly a company that has been looking after its heritage that well. I dare say the public is used to nameplates being recycled when it comes to Chrysler, sometimes for the better (300) and sometimes for the worse (it’ll be a long time before anyone brings Sebring back).
   The preview shots Dodge has revealed look aggressive, and since a designer is running the decals-and-flash show there, I suspect it wouldn’t look too bad.
   The other nameplate news of late, going in reverse chronological order, is the demise of Maybach. No surprises there, either: if you’re going to charge stratospheric prices for a car, it had better look stratospheric—not a rehash of a Mercedes-Benz S-Klasse. ’Nuff said.
   Finally, I’ve been meaning to blog about this little item for many weeks now: the rebadging of rebadged Lancias, if we might come full circle to Fiat.
   As many of you know, Lancias are sold as Chryslers in markets where Chrysler has a stronghold, while Chryslers are sold as Lancias where Lancia has a stronghold. That means, in Britain and Éire, the Lancia Ypsilon and Delta are sold as Chryslers.
   Car design, however, is no longer a matter of badge-engineering (even if there are certain segments where you can still get away with it, such as city cars and certain minivans). Everything about the design has to reflect the brand’s value. Cover up the grille of a Volvo, and it’s still a Volvo. But the Lancia design language is very Italian, and the Chrysler design language is very American, the insipid 200 aside.
   It is unfair to criticize Chrysler–Lancia given that these cars were penned before Fiat merged the brands, but I thought this customer-level rebranding exercise was a very interesting one on the part of Lancia fans in the UK and Éire.
   A group of enthusiasts located an Italian dealer who was willing to sell them a bunch of Lancia badges, so British and Irish owners could give their cars the complete Lancia treatment.
   It shows something I have talked about in many of my speeches: that brands are increasingly in the hands of the consumers.
   But it also shows that no matter what badge you put on the Ypsilon and Delta, they look Italian—and certain consumers want authenticity.
   Finally, it shows that in a globalized world, it’s no longer up to retailers to tell us what something is called. We have access to the ’net, and we can find out for ourselves. When it comes to cars, where there is a lot of online research, demand might start building from the moment scoop photographs are released. These Lancia enthusiasts have clearly wanted their RHD Deltas for a long time, and they have the means to make their dream come true, regardless of what the badge at the dealership says.

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


I wanted to grow up and be the Dean Martin version of Matt Helm

15.07.2011

As a child growing up in Wellington, there were a few TV series that shaped my beliefs about being grown-up in the occident. The first I’ve written about before: The Persuaders, which is in part where this blog gets its name. I’ve probably mentioned Return of the Saint elsewhere, not to mention the plethora of TV detectives and cops. It’s the old-fashioned idea that good beats evil, and that one man can make a difference.
   But there was also one movie that appealed to me. Tonight I watched, for the first time since the 1970s, The Wrecking Crew. This was the final Matt Helm spy pic starring Dean Martin, and it’s amazing what sticks in your memory from age five, when this was aired on television. Considering my memory goes back to c. nine months, I realize remembering stuff at five is not that remarkable, but I surprised myself at what visuals I recalled, nearly perfectly.
   It may have also shaped my idea that when you rescue the girl, you have to sing like Dean Martin. If anyone wants to lay blame somewhere for my impromptu crooning at parties (or, more embarrassingly, at restaurants), this is where it all started. This is also why I sing ‘Everybody Rock Your Body’ to the tune of ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’.
   As a child, I had no idea there was a series of Matt Helm films. So, as a teenager, I began renting them or recording them off telly. When I saw Murderers’ Row air on TV1 in 1982, I set the video recorder to tape it, but could see nothing from it that I remembered from the first time I watched a “Dean Martin spy flick”—I could not remember the title of what I had seen in 1977. At five, I actually didn’t care.
   Then there was The Silencers, actually the first movie, rented at the Kilbirnie Video Centre around 1990. Hmm, still not the one I saw.
   I then rented The Ambushers, the only other one they had there—still not it.
   So, by process of elimination, I knew it had to be the last one, The Wrecking Crew—or I could not trust my memory. Finally, thanks to DVD, over three decades on, I was able to relive what I saw as a five-year-old—and it was this one after all.
   This gives you an idea of what piqued my interest as a child.

The Wrecking Crew
1. That the bad guys had a Mercedes W111.

The Wrecking Crew
2. Elke Sommer. Probably not due to the fact that I was a perve at age five, but that she was the model flogging Lux soap on telly at the same time. (If I was a perve, then I would have noticed Elke’s very low-cut dress in her first scene. Then again, I remember the dancers from The Monte Carlo Show, but I was eight by then.)

The Wrecking Crew
3. Dino punching some guy in a Merc and running off.

The Wrecking Crew
4. This set, meant to be the interior of a train.

The Wrecking Crew
5. Villain Nigel Green’s trap door on his getaway train.

The Wrecking Crew
6. Dino making sure Sharon Tate didn’t fall through.

The Wrecking Crew
7. Dino making sure Nigel’s stuntman did fall through.

   I presume I knew who Dean Martin was probably because of my mother, who explained it—this was back in the day when parents made sure that what you watched was OK before they went off and prepared dinner. I can’t remember what was on the other channel, but I must have enjoyed this sufficiently to have stayed with it—and there were no remote controls for Philips K9 sets.
   Might have to watch it again tonight. It was genuinely ridiculous, but certainly better than The Silencers (whose theme you still occasionally hear on Groove 107·7 FM here in Wellington) or The Ambushers. Watch out for the second-unit actors on location and the fact that Dino and Sharon Tate stayed firmly in Hollywood; the fake grass on top of padding which moves when Dino pushes down on it; the director’s expectation that we could believe Dino’s character could build a helicopter from bits in a few minutes; and the really bad ride Mac (the boss) has in his Lincoln Continental.
   I’d still pick Murderers’ Row as the best one of the lot, thanks to Ann-Margret being very groovy, Dino’s Ford Thunderbird with rear lights that doubled as a dot-matrix display, the Lalo Schifrin score, and Karl Malden being evil.

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Posted in cars, culture, humour, interests, New Zealand, TV, USA | 3 Comments »


Chloé chief sees China moving to more understated luxury—or is it?

28.02.2011

Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye of Chloé believes the mainland Chinese market is moving toward more understated luxury.
   I believe there’ll always be a mixture. The understated buyer is emerging probably because of saturation by more extrovert brands—and often, buyers want to get something different, rather than conform.
   And the top-end luxury brands have probably been devalued in any case.
   With the affluent Chinese already buying, say, cars with a grille, it wasn’t a surprise to find some brands ape that ĂŠsthetic. Who hasn’t been copied? There are downmarket cars from Chinese manufacturers with Mercedes-style grilles from a variety of manufacturers, for example.
   Don’t laugh too loudly in the west: it wasn’t that long ago that the 1975 US-market Ford Granada looked like a Mercedes pastiche. Even Ford’s own advertising sold it as a Mercedes rival. Hindsight tells us it was not.
   I say it’s sometimes differentiation, or the consumer desire for it, that drives trends—so what de la Bourdonnaye observes is one such trend in motion in China.
   The consumer knows that just because something has a luxury ĂŠsthetic doesn’t make it well built—which is why we’re seeing improvements in quality in Chinese products. It also explains the relatively restrained looks of Chery’s Riich car range: it’s meant to be premium, but it hasn’t gone too far overboard. (The G5 may be derivative, but it’s also not outlandish.)
   While the theory of market homogeneity has had plenty of critiques over the years, there is some truth in saying that the Chinese market is reflecting others as the practice of branding matures. It’s not as though the Chinese consumer is behind—even while the Bamboo Curtain was a few layers thicker, people within the mainland’s borders were able to discern one brand from another—but the world market is globalizing even further with China’s input.
   Chinese tastes will drive more of the global consumer market. We’re already seeing it with the US—the Buick LaCrosse is a joint US–Chinese design–and it’s bound to influence other sectors.
   A number of forces are at work, and ChloĂ© seems to be a beneficiary. But it needs to be aware that it’s not just this shift to understatement—and, like all brands, it will have to continue moving with the times.

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Retro moment: the ïŹrst American Ford Granada

28.11.2010

Ford Granada advertisement
Above: The US Ford Granada in a contemporary advertisement, as posted at americangranada.com.

Not the European car, but the American one of the same name: the Ford Granada was marketed as a US alternative to a Mercedes-Benz. Not as overstyled as, say, the Ford Maverick, this was an extremely heavy car, and Ford’s marketing emphasized how it was as good as the Mercedes-Benz, at a similar size.
   There’s not much by way of the Ford identity in this car’s design: it comes across as a pastiche of the Merc and something that Lee Iacocca would dream up. It was, after all, the 1970s—probably the last decade occidental car companies tried things without regard to how models might look in their range.
   The heaviness may be due to the amount of standard equipment. Iacocca was quite happy to lavish his era of Fords with gear. There’s little mention of his involvement with the Granada, not even in his autobiography, but it seems in line with his approach with the Mustang II.
   While there’s still some “Fordness” to the overall look, e.g. in the waistline, I don’t remember contemporary Fords having this type of grille, and the later Granada (and related Mercury Monarch) facelifts continued to give this line a different style to the others. (On a side note, there was also an ultra-plush Granada called the Lincoln Versailles, which was not that successful; the equivalent in recent times, of a modern Ford sold under all three brands and looking about the same, was the CD338 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ [nĂ©e Zephyr].)
   I remember contemporary reports that swallowed Ford’s claims and published diagrams on how similar the two cars were (PR info from Dearborn?), and I even have a Kiwi friend in Whitby who loves his Yank Granada. Fascinating looking back at these cars, 35 years on—and how branding plays a far greater role in automotive design today than it did back then.

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