Today making cars is all about badges. In 2008 motor cars have evolved to a point where they all do the job of transport extremely well. So investing in brands is the logical place to go for car makers. If all you can actually achieve is infinitessimally small steps forward in things that actually do make your products better, like seat comfort and ride and handling, the best thing to do is put your money into stuff that makes customers think they’re better. Like branding and badges.
It’s not as cynical as it sounds. If plonking a BMW badge on a car didn’t make some people feel a little bit better about life, then the marketing teams in Germany couldn’t force us to buy one, however motivational they make their advertising.
Cars today are brilliant. There isn’t really a car for sale that isn’t actually, let’s be honest, quite good. But it wasn’t always like this of course. There was a time when lots of cars were actually rubbish, lots were very good and some, like those made by British Leyland, were often very good but managed to be rubbish by the simple expedient of screwing them together. Back then – really I mean the 1960s and 1970s – cars sold on how good they were. Brands mattered but all the emotional, fluffy stuff around them barely mattered. Niche players with tiny budgets could still elbow their way onto the world stage without spending millions making a car advert without a car in it. Plucky heroes like Jensen – with their iconic Jensen Interceptor – and Gordon Keeble and Healey made great cars that succeeded precisely because they were brilliant. Iconic brands were made because the products were amazing. This was an era when not everything on four wheels was good so people could really make rational value decisions based on their own needs and wants. Sure, brand still played a part. Some people wanted a Ford Cortina – which was quite good – and some people wanted a Ford Zodiac (which wasn’t). and some of that was about how it made you look and feel whilst cruising around Croydon. But whether you chose Cortina or Zodiac was about the car – size, appearance, handling, ride – not the brand.
And yet this was ironically the era when great brands cut their teeth – Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, BMW, MG all made great cars in the 1960s and 1970s. The brand marketing that these companies have done largely depends on the success they achieved during this extended golden summer of car making. The fundamental strengths and characters of cars like the Jaguar E Type, Jaguar Mk2, Alfa Romeo Spider, BMW 2002, Jaguar XJ6, MGB and BMW CSL have formed the basis of the brand advertising for these companies ever since (well, MG is back again and doing the same stuff). All of which is great. But in 2008 are these companies creating truly great, ground-breaking cars that we’ll revere in the same way in 30 years time? I wonder. The cars they make today like the Jaguar XF and BMW 5-Series are extremely good cars but are they classics? I’m not really sure that they rest entirely on their abilities rather than their brands. I can’t imagine that when I’m tottering around washing my classic cars for hire in 30 years that I’ll be wiping down the flanks of a Porsche Cayenne for rental. I could be wrong – it takes time to mature a great classic car. But great brands sell cars, great cars survive to become classics.