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The venue is the introduction of the 2014 Dodge Durango, a revised version of the 2011 full-size SUV. Full-size SUVs are, in some circles, anathema, considered to be gas-guzzling behemoths. Make no mistake: the Durango is big. It has three rows of seats. A six-foot friend climbed into the third row and admitted that he might not want to take a cross-country trip back there, but found it to be sufficiently accommodating for something more than a run to the grocery store. But the engineers have addressed that gas guzzling issue by things like providing the 5.7-liter V8 with cylinder deactivation and an Eco Mode for both that engine and the 3.6-liter V6 (the selectable mode modifies throttle response, shift schedule, and, for the V8 version, cuts fuel delivery when the vehicle is coating). Most significantly to address the fuel-drinking, it is deploying an eight-speed transmission—as a standard, which is something that plenty of its competitors don’t have.
But this isn’t about the Durango. It is about what Tim Kuniskis, president and CEO of Dodge Brand, said about Dodge and, more broadly, about what it takes to compete in a highly competitive auto market.
One thing that you rarely hear an auto executive talk about is the potential of the demise of the organization he or she leads. Yet Kuniskis candidly admitted that sometimes he’s asked about the survival of Dodge. After all, Plymouth went away in 2001. More to the point, Ram was part of Dodge until 2010, and now it is an operation onto itself.
Yet Kuniskis has the sort of stats that plenty of executives would lust over, like the August sales numbers. That was the 27th consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains. The Durango—the 2013 model, as the 2014 model was yet to roll out of the Jefferson Avenue North Assembly Plant in Detroit—was up 117%. Since 2009, it has been the fastest-growing brand in the Chrysler Group. It has an abundance of traffic on its website, and it even has some two-million fans on Facebook. Kuniskis says that some might think, “Maybe it’s those old guys who want to bring back carburetors,” except that the average age of the Dodge customer is 48, which he says is 10 years younger than the customers for Ford, Chevy and Toyota.
Kuniskis points out that if there are 14-million retail sales, that means that there are 40,000 people buying a car every day. There are 40 brands, which is a lot to choose from. “So to stand out, we need to provide something different.”
And that’s what Dodge is committed to doing. It is unapologetically different. Distinctive. Kuniskis cites the Dodge Charger. If one were to create a spreadsheet to figure out what car to buy, they would probably include a variety of vehicles, like the Toyota Avalon and the Ford Taurus. And there would be similarities and differences. “Do you know what the number-one cross-shop for the Charger is?” Kuniskis asked. “Nothing.”
In other words, people want that car.
The Dodge Dart may have had a slow start, but it is picking up momentum. Can you think of another compact in the market that has the same level of styling? And while on the subject of styling, when describing the front-end design of the 2014 Durango, Joe Dehner, head of Dodge and Ram Exterior Design, used the word “sinister” on more than one occasion, a word that is probably stricken from the vocabulary of other manufacturers given its potentially controversial nature.
The point is, at Dodge they understand the importance of standing out. No, not standing out like a clown suit at a funeral, but standing out in a crowded market by providing products that are similar to other vehicles out there, but which have a clear distinctiveness, both in how they look and how they perform. And given the nature of the market, it is also about what they provide in terms of amenities.
It isn’t about being different for the sake of being different. It is different for the sake of having a position that separates you from other competitors. One notable aspect of what Dodge is doing is that they aren’t providing just a single “halo” vehicle that embodies what they’d like to have represent the company’s character, but are imbuing all of their cars—from the Dart to the Durango—with it. That’s how you achieve month-over-month sales gains, whether you’re making cars or components: Be clearly different.