Auto brands have been scrambling to differentiate themselves in January, whether with the splashes they made at the Detroit auto show or the PR/marketing machines they're operating on behalf of their Super Bowl advertisements. There's no month each year in which car marques do more to try to gain a brand edge.
And yet, new studies by huge players in the auto-brand perception game indicate that, for all these efforts, automotive brands aren't getting enough bang for their bucks. J.D. Power reports that preconceived notions drive American consumers' current perceptions of brand quality more than anything else — bad news for the domestic Big Three — while Consumer Reports finds that auto brands are increasingly being lumped together in consumers' minds.
Consumer Reports released its brand-perception survey, disclosing a fast-narrowing gap between traditionally strong brand names such as Toyota and traditional also-rans. The results showed Toyota (at #1) and Ford (#2) clustered in the first two positions, but No. 3 Honda was some distance behind, close to Chevrolet and Mercedes-Benz. Four of those top brands' scores dropped significantly from a year ago, closer to the pack, while Chevrolet managed to nudge up slightly, as did sibling brand Cadillac.
One reason is that fuel economy and reliability have gotten more important to American consumers, and more brands fit that bill. "Dramatic events in the auto industry seem to be affecting how consumers view auto brands," CR's Jeff Bartlett said. "Erratic gasoline prices and a struggling eocnomy have pushed consumers to prize low operating costs and good reliability."
Meanwhile, J.D. Power & Associates' 2012 Avoider Study underscored the fact that, while many auto brands have greatly improved the actual quality and reliability of their vehicles over the last several years, they're frequently not getting — or taking — enough credit for the improvements. Thus, all of that hard work and real commitment isn't optimized in a rising brand reputation. While 42 percent of Power's survey based their avoidance of certain brands and vehicles primarily on research or their own experiences, 43 percent based their conclusions largely on a brand's rep for quality.
This doesn't say much good, or bode well, for auto brands that are having to work harder to earn brand equity after a tumultuous era in the industry.
"The fact that so many new-vehicle buyers may be basing their opinions about quality or reliablity on pre-conceived notions, rather than concrete information or data, demonstrates how important it is for automakers to promote the quality and reliability of their products," said Jon Olson, Power's research director.
"For some brands, namely those that have crated marked improvements in their quality and reliability in recent yeras, it's even more vital to tell their improvement story, rather than just waiting for perceptions to change over time."
One thing that has helped some brands over the last year: being a domestic brand. Fully 14 percent of those surveyed avoided import models because of their origin, Power said, the highest level since the inception of the study in 2003. Meanwhile, only 6 percent, a record low, avoided domestic models due to their origin.
Maybe "Made in the U.S.A." isn't such a hoary attribute after all.