Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Company Focus – GM Vauxhall – a Faux-Hallmark?

The Vauxhall name is an undoubted stalwart of British motoring history, but over the years as the world of automotive choice grew and consumers’ mindsets opened, that once heralded marque of heraldic origins lost its way, a general decline market share since the 1970s with the Opel brand over-throwing Vauxhall debate a constant returning topic within Luton and Russelsheim.

The idea of broadening the Opel brand to envelope the UK was kept at bay by the UK car market’s upturn in the 1980s, Vauxhall’s “boats rising with a favourable tide”. But in real terms the decline (as with Ford) has only been reversed momentarily when market conditions have worsened and Vauxhall dealers have been able to out-play their peers in terms of product and financing; able to lean on the mighty GM to effectively ‘buy market share’. Other periodic reversals of fortune, as and when there been a new product introduction or the mix has offered a cyclical ‘sweet-spot’.

Such a time is now as Vauxhall gains just over 10% of the UK market, up from 8.3% a year ago. But is even 10% a tenable position to be in as a supposed major manufacturer on ‘home ground’? Look elsewhere around Europe and the globe (exempting the US) and the conclusion is not hard to reach.

GM’s management knows this and has once again tried to re-energise its brand with a newly introduced re-drawn logo that aims to provide a more upmarket, quality ‘look & feel’. The problem is that that re-drawn graphic is hardly earth-shattering. Yes it cleans-up the Griffin & Banner pictorial but the public and Vauxhall buyers are so cognitively removed from the detail of the badge that there will in reality be little reaction

In truth the time and cost of such an exercise, including very costly dealer frontage renewal, should commercially deliver greater results than simply treading water.

But of course Vauxhall & GM management face the perennial problem of a supposed high-recognition brand that holds little true brand equity. That’s why year after year decade after decade what are announced as major re-imaging efforts have simply been tinkering at the edges instead of the much needed sensitive yet radical revolution.

Even the name ‘Vauxhall’ has no contemporary relevance; it hasn’t since the Edwardian era when the Vauxhall Iron Works moved from London’s Vauxhall to Luton in 1905, along with the firm's earliest 1903 car. The same lack of relavance for the logo, derived from the original aristocratic shield of Fulk le Brent (who gave his name to Fulk’s Hall located in the latterly known Vauxhall). So its here by (very) historical twist rather than modern virtue. Yes, the Griffin holds the ‘V’ Banner, but so what? Ask anybody but a Vauxhall salesman or devotee and virtually no-body could recount or draw the details of the Vauxhall badge.

In a world where other’s automakers recognise the need for immediate cognitive recognition (visually and phonetically) GM’s UK brand falters on both points. In comparison simply look at the simple, nameplate and letter-centric logotypes of:

Toyota’s stylised ‘T’
Volkswagen’s (iconic) VW
Suzuki’s stylised ‘S’
Honda’s ‘H’
Hyundai’s stylised ‘H’
Hummer’s ‘H’

Others have opted for basic symbols such as: Mercedes’ Tri-Star, Audi’s 4 Rings, Citroen’s double Chevrons (stylised helical gear teeth), Renault’s Diamond, Ford’s Blue Oval with clean Script etc. Others again have amalgamated initials and pictorials the most obvious being Bayarische Motoren Werke’s reduction to ‘BMW’ (without full wording) and stylised propeller roundel.

Highly detailed badges that derive from geographic origins (like Vauxhall’s) only work on premium cars such as Milan’s Alfa Romeo and Stuttgart’s Porsche. In the 1910s and 1920s Vauxhall did make high-line cars but the memory is long lost.

And so the badge is in effect a relic, and the name Vauxhall given its recognition based on the market power precedence of GM over the years.

We live in a sophisticated, brand-savvy consumer environment where brands must have resonance and simplicity (such as Apple & I-Pod) appear to reign. Of course that is an over-generalisation, each brand lives within its own environs and peer group…and that’s Vauxhall’s central image problem…it is a milieu of different elements (“heraldry for the masses”?) and doesn’t cognitively ‘fit’ into today’s ‘brandscape’.

That was precisely the problem Rover faced through the downturn late 70s, aspirant 80s and effective death-throws of the turn of the century. It was a mainstream brand derived from more glorious, premium days. And throughout the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” it tried to massage its detailed logo from the last original application on the 70s SD1, to the line-drawn interpretation of the Metro & Montego to the re-born classic badge of the R75 to the latter-day ‘halfway-house’ re-simplification of the most recent R25 & R45.

As with Rover’s Viking Longboat, Vauxhall’s Griffin & Banner presents a logo recall problem (the very opposite to Opel’s simple Lightning across Roundel).

Vauxhall does indeed face an image problem, and it won’t go away even if management try and pretend that temporary increased sales (due to a favourable market environment) was promoted by an identity refresh.

In truth it hasn’t gone far enough and the efforts of the in-house design team (undoubtedly given a restricted brief to undertake a basic design audit and effectively ‘clean-up’ the logo) reflects the difference in thinking and practice between automotive vs brand identity design management.

When a buyer, user or the public view a car, perception is gained via 2 main inputs: the car’s visual appeal and the cognitive brand association of the manufacturer. (Its why in pre-launch design clinics new cars by mainstream automakers are often rated higher before their ‘average’ badge is revealed). That dualistic mix is critically important and no matter how good GM Europe’s cars are stylistically (an they are handsome) they and specifically Vauxhall is let down by the barely relevant graphic, poorly defined brand values, poor logo recall and ultimately general perception

The brand may have a modicum of phonetic brand power given its centrality to UK motoring history, but day by day that relevance is eroded…as we’ve seen in historic market share. Of course the problem looks to locate Vauxhall in the ongoing dilemma of being “between a rock and hard place”, but whilst it tinkers tactically with the badge, it must also keep looking at sensitive, radical and meaningful graphic options for the years to come if the nameplate is to survive. That will mean an intelligent amalgam of the core identity elements (NB not simply core graphic elements) with a very modern, future-proof twist….otherwise it may be yet another automotive case of the “boiling frog syndrome”.

The Griffin is indeed a hybrid creature (half eagle, half lion), but up-coming hybrid technology is product attribute, not brand integrity…that comes from more than the sum of its parts.