Oldsmobile succumbs.
December 12, 2000 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Oldsmobile succumbs. Another auto nameplate goes the way of the dodo... and Plymouth... ending up nowhere but in memories. While corporations seem to want brand above everything else, doesn't reducing the number of brands equal a contradiction?
posted by hijinx (20 comments total)
This interests me for several reasons. First, when DaimlerChrysler killed off Plymouth, people were up-in-arms over it, saying the parent had basically thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In this instance, Olds has a product line that is often considered to be GM's strongest... and I have yet to see a similar reaction to Plymouth's demise.

Second, as I mentioned above, brand is pretty much the King element when it comes to marketing and advertising. I can't help but wonder if Olds' strategy backfired, though. The Aurora, for instance, was just called the Aurora when it first came out. Only in the past two or three years did the Olds name become affixed to the car (literally and figuratively.)

So if you've got about 5 different cars that people might know by name: Alero, Intrigue, Bravada, Aurora, and Silhouette... how do you make those vehicles cohesive? Outside of really using the Olds name, I think they did a fine job; the cars have common design elements, common interiors, and so on.

American consumers still want choice when it comes to brands; that's why the Dodge Neon outsold the Plymouth Neon, you can buy generic or name-brand detergent, and you can get five hundred different brands of white bread. It doesn't matter to the usual audience if all 500 brands are from the same bakery, just so long as they can get their brand.

Now, over at GM, if Olds is your brand, you can't get it.
posted by hijinx at 10:47 AM on December 12, 2000

But in the case of the big car companies, hasn't it become pretty much a truism that the proliferation of brands dilutes the value of the overall brand? By segmenting their market into so many smaller chunks, GM ends up spending more to maintain their overall position. At least two of the models you name are available - with different styling - from other GM brands. Somebody who really wanted an Oldsmobile Bravada is far more likely to just buy the GMC Envoy than to abandon GM altogether for Mercury Mountaineer (and even if they did, they'd have to hurry up because Ford's following in GM and Chrysler's footsteps and killing off the Mercury brand...)
posted by m.polo at 11:01 AM on December 12, 2000

In the case of GM, what is the overall brand? GM in and of itself really isn't a consumer-level brand the way Ford is, and Chrysler was. You can buy a Ford, you can buy a Chrysler, you can't buy a GM.

There aren't any vehicles unique to Olds, true, but there are differences between, say, an Alero and a Grand Prix. Options, engines, and overall aesthetics tend to vary between the brands.

I wonder if GM is headed towards an uberbrand... a GM Chevrolet Cavalier, for instance.
posted by hijinx at 11:17 AM on December 12, 2000

Or say, GMC.
posted by ethmar at 11:20 AM on December 12, 2000

Mercedes/Daimler Benz is the oldest brand worldwide, Oldsmobile was the oldest US brand. So now is Ford going to be oldest active US brand?
posted by riffola at 11:47 AM on December 12, 2000

The British view of this isn't to do with the loss of a brand, but of 3,000 jobs from the Vauxhall plant in Luton. Yet another foreign-owned car firm going through a familiar process: threaten to close; get state aid to retain jobs; close anyway a few years later. Wonderful.
posted by holgate at 1:16 PM on December 12, 2000

Oh, and GM's already an ├╝ber-brand in the rest of the world: Vauxhall in the UK, and Opel in Europe and elsewhere.
posted by holgate at 1:18 PM on December 12, 2000

The GM uber-branding's (too lazy for umlauts!) already begun in North America. "GM Service" ring any North American bells?
posted by cCranium at 1:33 PM on December 12, 2000

After a bit of poking around, here's what I've been able to find on the ages of the US auto companies:

1897: Oldsmobile Founded
1902: Cadillac
1902: Rapid Motor Van (GMC name appears in 1912)
1903: Buick
1903: Ford
1908: Oakland (Pontiac name appears in 1926)
1909: Chevrolet
1914: Dodge
1920: Lincoln
1925: Chrysler
1938: Mercury
1941: Willys-Overland builds the first Jeep
1990: Saturn
posted by Aaaugh! at 1:34 PM on December 12, 2000

What, no mention of Tucker? Or Hudson??

Or are you just going for "Big Three" auto companies?
posted by ethmar at 1:42 PM on December 12, 2000

Ethmar, I restricted the list to nameplates still building cars. I would have been at that all day if I'd included Templar, Auburn, Studebaker, etc. - and I've wasted far too much time on that list already. =]
posted by Aaaugh! at 1:52 PM on December 12, 2000

I think the only vehicle branded as GM is their electric, the EV-1. (And they've been sandbagging that thing since it first hit the streets.)
posted by mrbula at 1:59 PM on December 12, 2000

Wasn't the A-Team van a GMC van? :)

Thanks for the list Aaaugh!, I didn't know that Cadillac came before Ford.

posted by riffola at 3:00 PM on December 12, 2000

"Oldsmobile's current models will continue to be produced and sold until the end of their current product life cycles or as long as they remain economically viable." Take it from someone who's been around and involved in this for his entire life, you won't see Olds die too soon.

This is going to be a common trend in the next 20 years. It's not that people don't buy the Olds brand, it's a great way to reduce work forces and put facilities that are redundant. By the way, the Aurora is unique to Olds. Buick adopted the model for it's Riveria in 1994 and re-engineered it with two doors.

GM (and a lot of other automates) are trying to move to the Saturn model of production and sales. Eventually they will move every brand in this direction. This may indeed mean an Uber brand. If is does or doesn't, you can bet it's not going to be a marketing decision.

Anyway, believe it or not, there are some sad people in GM today, they are very proud of that 1897 date.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 3:31 PM on December 12, 2000

I wonder if Oldsmobile is being sacrificed so that Saturn can succeed. GM attempted to position Olds as its "import fighter" division, and that's exactly the same role Saturn fills. Now that Saturn has a larger model, the Opel Vectra-based L-Series, is it possible that Olds was viewed as standing in the way of future Saturn growth?
posted by Aaaugh! at 7:39 PM on December 12, 2000

It could be, but Olds had the better looking vehicles (IMHO).

The current AutoExtremist is a good read.
posted by hijinx at 6:29 AM on December 13, 2000

I did in fact once read one automotive writer refer to Saturn styling as "warmed-over Oldsmobile." (Think it was in Car & Driver.) Saturn has always struck me as a sort of downmarket version of Olds in any case.

GM's problem is that it has too many "import fighters." Cadillac's Catera, Pontiac's Bonneville, and the entire Olds and Saturn lines (along with other makes and models I'm probably forgetting) were all competing with each other for "import fighter" mindshare. There's only so much of that mindshare to go around, and the more you fragment it, the less people identify with any GM brand. Wose, the various marques themselves begin to lose their identities because you have shoehorned in one or two "import fighter" into the Caddy or Pontiac lineups, eroding those brands' traditional strengths: "luxury American style" or "sporty" respectively. All GM's domestic brands used to have a very American-style image and now they're getting eroded by trying to be European. What GM should have done is just brought the Opel marque to the US -- it's a legit European brand, and having Euro-style cars associated with it would be natural.
posted by kindall at 9:05 AM on December 13, 2000

Ford already tried selling their European models in the US - remember Merkur? That didn't exactly work out the way Ford had hoped. GM sells Opels and Vauxhalls in Europe and Holdens in Australia because they meet the needs of the drivers in those areas. For a variety of reasons, people in North America and Europe have come to expect different standards for their cars in terms of styling, size, economy, etc. Plus, in order to import the cars, there would probably be some re-engineering required for most European models to meet US safety and emissions regulations. That alone could be enough to make the project a financial failure.
posted by Aaaugh! at 10:04 AM on December 13, 2000

GM had a strong stable of brands a generation ago, when they had slightly over half of all domestic auto sales. They still have almost half, but that domestic auto sales pool has shrunk from something like 90% to more like 60% of annual US sales. With a shrinking demographic, something had to be chucked.

GM is still the highest total cost of production per vehicle in the industry. A big part of that is duplication, as stated, where each division had its own "import fighter" model.

GMC built a strong "just trucks" brand. Chevy is still "value". Pontiac is "performance". Cadillac, despite losing ground daily to Lexus and Inifiti, is still "luxury". Buick and Olds were fighting over the same middle ground, unfortunately. When it gets to "our demographic is 42-to-47 year old DINKs considering early retirement with a second home, a cat, and two pet llamas" ... you're in trouble.
posted by dhartung at 10:39 AM on December 13, 2000

There's no reason Opel couldn't have had slightly different cars in the US than in Europe. In any case, there are a lot of European car makers that do pretty well in the US. This is because certain American buyers are looking for something different, even if it doesn't meet their needs as well as an American car would.

Merkur had a different problem -- too similar to "Mercury" (thus not enough differentiation from Ford's other lines), difficult for Americans to pronounce, and their debut car was the "XR4Ti." That's a five-syllable name! How many successful products with five-syllable names do you know of? True, a lot of Euro cars of the time did (and still do) have letter/number names, but that one was particularly atrocious. Although the name had meaning in Merkur's product line (each letter indicated something about the car in contrast to Merkur's other models), it was meaningless when it was the only Merkur model sold in the US. Also, Ford at the time was making pretty crappy cars if I remember correctly.

At the time, GM was having all its marques build variations on the same platforms, making a Cadillac into essentially a tarted-up Chevy. That got 'em in a bunch of trouble at the high-end, because a car that was affordable enough for Chevy buyers just didn't have the quality that Buick, Olds, and Cadillac buyers were looking for or the performance Pontiac buyers wanted. They've spent the last couple decades recovering from that debacle.
posted by kindall at 11:43 AM on December 13, 2000

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