Do People Still Care About Their Car’s Brand?

January 31st, 2012

Consumer Reports Car Brand Perception study 2012

Two conflicting reports from the last couple of days have cast all kinds of confusion on what car buyers look for when shopping the major auto brands.

One story says car buyers don’t see any real differences in car companies, while another says car buyers are heavily influenced by their general feeling regarding a brand.

Yesterday, our man jgoods went into some great detail on one of those studies and what drives buyers toward, or away from, certain brands. I recommend you check out his story.

Both studies come from major, respected sources, and both make logical sense. But which is correct? Do buyers care about the brand of their cars or not?

Anybody in the market for a late-model car has a pretty good chance of avoiding a genuinely bad vehicle. Modern cars are safer and more efficient than ever and, even when not meticulously maintained, usually run strong for many years. A study by Consumer Reports suggests those improvements may have also led consumers to believe there are no real differences between the various vehicles offered by the world’s major automakers.

As long as a car has four tires, a steering wheel, some comfortable seats and doesn’t break down, what difference does it make what badge is plastered on the rear end?

As you might imagine, I have a hard time believing this logic. Cars have personalities, and a Toyota’s personality is different from a Kia’s. A BMW’s is in no way similar to an Acura’s. Just because each is safe and reliable doesn’t mean they all respond the same when driven or have the same reputation for performance.

Another study, this one by J.D. Power and Associates, supports a contrary view. It found that brand perception is among the major reasons many new-vehicle buyers don’t consider a certain brand.

That seems more obvious.

According to the J.D. Power study, 43 percent of people avoided a brand because of their perception of the brand’s quality and reliability issues, while just 38 percent based their decision not to consider a car on ratings and reviews.

That statement alone is why automakers spend millions on advertisements convincing the buying public of their superiority. The messages in ads are more trusted than the advice of reviewers. That’s pretty powerful stuff!

Maybe when it comes down to buying a new family sedan, there’s just not much difference anymore between the latest Fusion, Camry, Accord and Malibu. Look through CarGurus’ used listings, though, and you’ll likely see a different story.

What do you think—is there a difference between buying a Ford, a Toyota, a Honda and a Chevrolet? Or are they all pretty much the same these days?

-tgriffith

Find Used Cars in Your Area at CarGurus

Used Ford Fusion
Used Toyota Camry
Used Honda Accord
Used Chevrolet Malibu

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  1. panayoti
    | #1

    I think its pretty obvious that the younger one is the less one cares about the traditional “iconic” cars that that Senor and I grew up with. His earlier piece pretty much hinted at that. Now scribes are careful about labeling buyers as ignorant or uniformed lest they offend the industry that is providing them with their livelyhood.

    Truth be told there is very little difference in cars and the methods used to produce them. Since we’ve gone to this stupid globalization thing it is impossible to call a Ford a Ford or even a USA produced domestic. With all the outsourcing and insourcing going on, we’ve resorted to the even more ridiculous phrase of ” % domestic content”. Please stop it. In the 50s and 60s the world was ours. We dominated manufacturing and you were proud to say “Made in the USA”. Sadly all that is gone today, therein lies the problem. For all practical purposes there is no manufacturing capacity in this country any more and thus brand loyalty has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

    We older guys still get our testosterone levels stoked when talking about the icons of our generation. Speed, power, and torque were our measuring sticks. Today it is mpg, cupholders, child restraints and “green” this and “green that”. We didn’t talk about cars, we talked about “her” needing a tuneup and “she” had to have some front end work. To young people the important elements are touch screens, stereo setups, woofers and tweeters, GPSs, Bluetooth, etc. They could care less about tuneups, the kind of oil in the crankcase, checking tire pressure or getting an inspection. To them, vehicles are just another commodity. There is no brand loyalty and maybe that is a good thing since our manufacturers do little to encourage us to buy their product, one that used to be made in the USA by Americans for Americans. RIP.

  2. jgoods
    | #2

    @ panayoti
    Excellent points here, Sr. P., and I wish my testosterone levels were high enough to get more excited about today’s cars. I mean, who can get stoked about touch screens and Bluetooth?

    It’s not just a matter of young vs. old; it’s about cars becoming commodities. So the branding becomes more difficult as the differences become more negligible. Car marketers have become lazy sheep and, as you point, out there are plenty of differences still between a BMW and an Acura.

    Car marketing is as probably more art than science, and it takes art to penetrate to where the real differences are. For now, the marketers still rely on dumb initiatives like focus groups, where the real differences get papered over. And we get commodity cars.

  3. Jim Redd
    | #3

    I wish there were more differentiation in cars today. Sadly, that CR study is probably more accurate. The only reason to buy a Honda over a Toyota is because someone might like the advertising better. With all the federal regulations and requirements for cars today, you can be sure whatever you buy will have the same safety features as any other car. The difference, for those who still care, simply comes down to personality of the car brand; not the car itself.

  4. panayoti
    | #4

    Agree with both Senor and Jim, but what can we expect when the manufacturers themselves tell their marketing people to “sell” the car using singing dogs, Darth Vader Jrs., or love?? Rather than focus on the strength?? of their product they use surrogates to portray an image that is totally disconnected with the product. That’s how they “sell” their cars?? Maybe we old timers are whistling in the wind.

  5. Jim Redd
    | #5

    @ panayoti
    panayoti, it looks like those made-up marketing methods are the only real differences anymore. We’re not buying cars anymore, we’re buying the feelings associated with them.

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