Beneath the Brand

Every time you visit your local parts store, attend a car race or listen to conversation between car enthusiasts, the conversation usually revolves around brands and how one is better than the other.

Every time you visit your local parts store, attend a car race or listen to conversation between car enthusiasts, the conversation usually revolves around brands and how one is better than the other. Chevy owners hate Ford products (and vice versa). Buick owners disparage Oldsmobile, Chevrolet and Pontiac's. In the land of the brand, everyone is blind.

What sets these brands apart? What differentiates a Buick from a Pontiac? Is it a real world difference or merely the effectiveness of advertising agencies on the automotive consumer's psyche? Once you actually tear apart a vehicle, examine its sub-systems, components and understand the concept of part commonality, you learn how ridiculous these conversations are.

With the commonization of vehicle platforms at several vehicle manufacturers, the gap between brands is narrowing. With common powertrains, chassis systems and electronic systems, the differentiation between brands within an OEM is becoming harder and harder to achieve. When the fine line between individual brands erode, customers realize this and migrate to certain (often lower priced) products.

One example is Volkswagen's platform commonization strategy in Europe. During the early 1990's, Volkswagen had four unique brands: Audi, Volkswagen, Skoda and Seat. Audi had a lineage as the VW flagship product, upper class, full of safety equipment and luxury accoutrements. Volkswagen, with its "every man's transportation" motif, provided gasoline/diesel powerplants and functional interiors. Skoda and Seat with their spartan interiors, simple and utilitarian engines and quirky maintenance reputations were clearly differentiated products.

With an approach to drastically reduce costs, commonize part/systems designs and eliminate redundancies, Volkswagen succeeded in transforming the Seat and Skoda brands into real players in the European market. By borrowing design cues from its other brands, utilizing common suppliers and eliminating unique sub-structures, Volkswagen succeeded in transforming its whole brand strategy. Once viewed as sub-par products by European consumers, Skoda and Seat have captured market share with splashy interiors, full array of safety systems and reliable powertrains borrowed from Volkswagen.

But did Volkswagen go too far? By borrowing heavily from its upper-echelon products, it may have diluted the cache of Audi and Volkswagen. Frugal European automotive consumers realized that a Seat or Skoda was almost identical to its VW sister at several thousand Euros less. Cannibalization of brand identities is a huge risk to planners looking to reduce complexities but maintain a brand's character.

One company that has successfully avoided these branding pitfalls is DaimlerChrysler. With its high-end Mercedes-Benz marquee on one end of the spectrum and middle-class Chrysler Corporation on the other, DCX planners have resisted the temptation to cross-pollinate between these two juxtapositioned brands. No widespread platform sharing, no powertrain link ups, nor burled walnut Dodge Durango interiors…yet.

Ford Motor Company is also walking that thin line with its Jaguar brand. With the bean counters screaming for the abandonment of Jaguar as a UK-only production entity, Ford resisted the temptation to produce Jaguars in the U.S., Brazil or other countries. It has taken Ford 10 years to impart its quality systems, supplier management strategies and training regiments with its Jaguar team members, but it has maintained the brand's unique visage as a premier luxury brand with a distinct English air.

Some loyalists argue that there are distinct differences between brands within an OEM. Don't buy it. Although the interior trim and body-side moldings make products look unique, the underlying structures, sub-systems and components are common.

How do I know this? By conducting extensive vehicle teardowns, Providata Automotive has identified and cataloged each component's dimensions, weight, composition, supplier, and position within the vehicle. Through analysis and comparison, part commonality from OEM platform-to-platform is common. For example, Ford Motor Company's product offerings (similarly equipped) within the Ford and Mercury brands are 95% common on vehicle's within the same platform. Same holds true with General Motor's products.

The fanatical fervor that some consumers hold for vehicle brands is a remnant of an era when a Ford was completely different from an Mercury. In today's automotive environment, true brand uniqueness on the part level is an antiquated concept. It's the illusion of brand identity that allows advertising pundits to convince you that a Buick Rendezvous is entirely a different vehicle than a Pontiac Aztek.

So the next time you hear the "brand" argument, think of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, because they don't exist either.

The Octavia is produced by Skoda in what is called a "fractal" factory.