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Branding is for Cowboys

Oh, for the good old days when branding was something that happened to cattle.

Oh, for the good old days when branding was something that happened to cattle. Back then, a cowpoke would rope a steer, wrestle it to the ground, and a compatriot would use an iron heated over a campfire to burn a mark into the cow's hide. This mark identified the bovine as belonging to a particular ranch, and went a long way to reducing theft of another's property. Think of it as an Old West version of etching a vehicle's VIN number on the windows.

Nowadays, branding has taken on a whole new meaning. Coca Cola has even co-opted Santa Claus to the extent that his red, trimmed in white, clothing causes a subliminal connection with the soft drink maker. To me, that is troubling, and indicative of a cynical view of the world and its inhabitants.

This side of the branding coin says a manufacturer must establish its brand, and leverage it as much as possible in order to capture more money from the value stream. If you're Lotus and design and build a carbon-fiber bicycle that wins an Olympic gold medal by putting a lap on the field, you should be able to build a line of bicycles in the wake of that feat. They should have credibility—if they perform as expected. (Unfortunately, Lotus squandered this opportunity.) Can the same be said for Porsche, BMW, and any of the other automakers who have, or had, bikes to sell? No. Only Peugeot, which has been building bicycles for dog's years, has any credibility here. In some corners of the world, its bikes are better known than its cars. Do they add to Peugeot's automotive brand? Good question.

Clothing with automotive branding falls under the same umbrella, in my book. Sure, there are those purists who want to wear the company's colors on their polo shirt or pullover, but the numbers aren't that great. You might bond a bit tighter with the owner of your vehicle if you have quality merchandise, but you'll be singing to the choir, not changing the buying habits of the general public.

And then there are initiatives like Ford's Trustmark, which is based on a seductive premise: Letting the world know that your Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar, Mazda, or Land Rover is backed by the resources of the Ford Motor Company (identified by the script logo, not the divisional blue oval). Does this really matter? Is an Aston Martin owner going to care that Ford is paying the niche maker's bills in Newport Pagnell, England? No. His main concerns are that he gets the expected value for his $100,000-plus investment, that it is a true Aston Martin, and that it doesn't have too many Ford parts visible. Ditto Jaguar, Mazda, Lincoln, and the rest.

But is what the Trustmark attempts really branding, or is it something that, in simpler times, we used to call "reputation"? And wasn't that built on actions, not words? It's a concept all automakers—not just Ford—seem to have forgotten. Good product builds a good reputation. Touching a nerve in the buyer's psyche makes your product a consideration rather than an also-ran. And staying true to your brand promise—the core values each division holds dear—is much more important than any possible combination of sliced-and-diced brand characteristics the market research folks are chasing at any one moment.

Those geniuses seem to believe the buy-ing public can be herded along a path of their choosing, and branded on the trail. Forever after, goes the thinking, they are part of the herd. But who are the cattle here, the buying public or the myriad branding gurus singing the same tune?

Face it, product is king, and it must score well in each of the quadrants (Quality, Reliability, Value, Personality) to warrant a buying consideration. No amount of clothing or ancillary product will ever change that fundamental truth, either in the showroom or out on the trail.

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