Editor’s Note: This week, Peter updates our Brand Image Meter with the “We Told You So” Edition. It’s a highly entertaining must-read. In On The Table, a second look at Porsche’s sure-to-be $1 million Hypercar for the street. And, our AE Song of the Week is the wistful “Sentimental Lady” by Bob Welch. In Fumes, Peter revisits a subject close to his heart with “My Favorite Racing Cars.” And finally, we have results from the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Ferrari’s huge win, with additional commentary from Peter on Corvette Racing’s latest triumph, along with coverage of the Italian MotoGP, with another amazing photograph from AE Special Contributor, Whit Bazemore, as well as additional news from Alpine and Ford in The Line. Onward. -WG
By Peter M. DeLorenzo 
Detroit. As hard as it is for us to believe, our infamous AE Brand Image Meter that we brought back just six months ago is due for another update. Yes, beyond the parts and chip shortages, supply chain disruptions and myriad other issues that created a perfect storm of profitability for car companies and their dealers, we are now in the throes of full-on EV Fever, where rhyme and reason are being thrown out the window in favor of “Let’s get there ASAP, come Hell or High Water.” This has caused normally semi-rational CEOs to abandon all logic and reasoned thinking, with decidedly mixed results, needless to say. 
And the Muskian Nightmare continues, with The Washington Post reporting that the Tesla “Autopilot” system has shockingly been involved in 17 fatalities and 736 crashes, a number far higher than previously reported. Yet the smirk on St. Elon’s face is more pronounced than ever, as first Ford, then GM signed on to Tesla’s nationwide charging system, effectively allowing Tesla to set the EV charging standard for the future. This could be a bad sequel to the Wizard of Oz, as in, pay no attention to that Unctuous Prick behind the curtain. (And by the way, I stand by my prediction: Tesla will become liable to the tune of not millions, but billions of dollars when the real consequences of Tesla’s egregious behavior come due. It is going to be u-g-l-y, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving UP.) 
And so, here we are, with the inventory shortage slowly but surely being eased, yet with the dealers predictably clinging to the notion that it isn’t, so that they can continue to extract as much ca$h-ola from consumers as possible. Vehicles are still being sold before they’re even unloaded off of the transport trucks, but customers are beginning to see that getting on a wait list just for the “privilege” of getting their hands on the vehicles of their choosing isn’t really necessary anymore, especially when they do a little investigative looking around dealer lots.  
Transaction prices are – or I should say were – at the highest in this industry’s history. Were? Yes, were. Because paraphrasing Mick Jagger, the whip has started to come down. Prices are too high, financing is crushingly expensive, and payments are averaging hundreds more than they once were before the world went crazy. But incentives are slowly but surely working their way back into the system, and this will accelerate as we go forward, especially with ICE vehicles.  
In this calamitous environment, with 84-month – and longer – financing being shoved down consumer throats again and lease prices becoming untenable, it’s no surprise that “brand image” is taking a back seat, reduced to a dismal dance of “How much is that a month?” As a consequence, brand marketing damn near became an afterthought. Talk about a giant bowl of Not Good. 
But as much as this environment isn’t conducive to an analysis of brands, Brand Wranglers throughout the Autoverse still quake in their bespoke marketing boots dreading the thought of another Brand Image Meter column. I imagine that it’s like waiting for a root canal appointment: You know it’s coming but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. As for the weasels and wankers who are riding a perpetually weak brand hand – you know who you are – it is going to be a particularly Bad Day. Ah well, who said life in the auto biz was going to be all bunny rabbits and rainbows, right? 
There’s a reason our Brand Image Meter issue is one of our most-anticipated and widely read columns of the year. Brand image wrangling is the mystery science that brings out the best – and worst – in auto executives, with some being naturally savvy stewards of their brands, while others stumble around lost in the desert, achieving only fleeting success. The rest? Well, to say they well and truly suck at it is being kind. 
If we were a certain kind of publication, our Brand Image awards would come complete with glittery trophies and massive publicity campaigns attached, and we would be ka-ching-ing a happy tune as auto companies advertised their success to the world, with the Autoextremist brand logo prominently displayed in those ads. But we’re not slimy purveyors of vacuous marketing streams, thank goodness. We are, however, confident in the knowledge that the AE Brand Image Meter column has been in the top three in unique visitors and page views each and every time we have presented it, garnishing loads of buzz and in some cases, voluminous and pitiful “woe is me” and “we’re screwed” hand-wringing in executive suites throughout the industry. And now in our 24th year of publication, that’s not about to change.As I’ve said previously, when it comes to the power of brands and the inescapable importance of brand image, it’s the one thing that car companies – both good and bad – cannot escape. How a brand is perceived can make or break a car company, regardless of how long and illustrious a run that brand has enjoyed up until any given point in time, because one false move or one discordant note can be crippling in a matter of months.Not surprisingly, none of that has changed in the dawn of the EV Age. Image wrangling is still the Number 1 priority in this business. Why? The democratization of technology – particularly with the use of EV “skateboards” – and luxury has allowed auto manufacturers the world over to have access to the crucial ingredients that make automobiles desirable. And with supplier expertise greater than ever, any car company can dial up a witches’ brew of ingredients to compete in almost any segment they set their sights on. But does having the right cocktail of ingredients mean that success will be guaranteed? Not a chance, because the expertise of the rest of the organization in terms of design, engineering and product development comes into play. And even if the entire package is indeed thoroughly executed to the highest of standards, the last and most meaningful ingredient – brand image – has to be there in order for the effort to come together.Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Dial in the correct brand image and everything will be good, right? Yes, but it’s just not that easy. Far from it, in fact. This business is littered with strategic missteps, ham-fisted executions, endless streams of miscalculations and that ever-present danger – rampant cluelessness – that can serve to impede a brand image from resonating in the market. Get it right and a manufacturer can live to fight another day. Nail it perfectly and a company may be able to build sustained momentum for a brand for years to come. Get it wrong, and it will guarantee a life of misery for a brand as it flounders and sputters in the market.Winning car companies understand that expert brand image wrangling can make or break their efforts. Having outstanding products is a fundamental requirement, of course, but knowing how to present those products and being able to expertly nurture a brand’s image completes the equation. And less-than-winning car companies, or car companies only intermittently able to be on their games for whatever the reasons –infighting, lack of talent, abject stupidity or all of the above – pay for their mistakes exponentially, compounding their troubles with each misstep. 
That there is such a wide range of talent in the auto marketing ranks is no surprise, because it’s indicative of the general reality for the business as a whole. But this gaping disparity between a few star performers and the rest in the automotive marketing arena can have a devastating effect on a brand’s image, as you’ll see below. 
Yes, some of the brands I’ll talk about today are blessed with auto marketers who actually get it and who know what their brands stand for (and almost more important, what they’re not), and the understanding that sometimes it’s better not to screw things up rather than set the world afire with their “I’m a genius, just ask me” brilliance. Other brands suffer the consequences of marketers who careen around throwing ideas and executions up against the wall to see what sticks, and their respective brand images pay dearly for it. 
In this column, I assess automotive brands on their fundamental raison d’etre, and of course, in turn, the people responsible for shaping what those brands stand for directly or indirectly find themselves in the crosshairs too. And believe me, no matter where these marketers fall on the competence spectrum, many of them believe that they’ve got it goin’ on, even though that isn’t even remotely the case. 
Automotive marketing is a very big deal. And expert brand image wrangling is a crucial part of making all of the effort to design and engineer great products worthwhile. Billions of dollars are spent on brand image wrangling by the auto companies each and every year. Why? Because having the “right” brand image is absolutely essential for market success.   
Executives at the underperforming car companies get into trouble because they actually start to think that they’re selling something they’re not, which leads them to deluding themselves into thinking that their products are something other than what they are. In other words, an incurable case of brand delusion. 
And when the people running the company don’t know how and why the brand earned its chops to begin with and are confused as to what their brand stands for now, how can they possibly guide it properly? The painfully short answer? They can’t. And even worse, they allow the wrong products to creep into their portfolios, which ultimately will lead to a corrosive level of brand dilution.  
Add to all of this the sobering fact that with the onslaught of electrification, some of these brands are going to suffer greatly. There’s no soul in BEVs to begin with, and subtract the distinctive sounds associated with some of these brands, especially the luxury brands, and you have a recipe for disaster. Generally, every brand should be on alert because of the sameness of electrification, and the chances it could all go badly for some of them are very real.  
On that jarring note, the difference between getting things right and getting them horribly wrong when it comes to this brand image wrangling business is the finest of lines. But then again people are paid very well to do these jobs, so it’s okay to expect them to know what they’re doing, even though some clearly don’t. 
So, who is on their game right now – in June of 2023 – when it comes to this business of brand image wrangling? And who doesn’t even have a glimpse of a clue? Who deserves a bone or two, and who will go to bed without a treat? Let’s do it, shall we? Frankly, I think it’s important for me to say right up front that most brands are so fu-ked up now, I hardly know where to begin… 
Acura. You could ask the following question of every brand in this column: What is _____ and why does it exist? In Acura’s case, does it represent the best of Honda? As someone who remembers the cool Acuras, like the high-revving Integras and such, I want it to be, but is it really? No. Sure, the NSX checks all of the right boxes, but what does it have to do with the rest of the lineup? Not much, it turns out. Acura continues to operate on the fringes of the top-tier luxury-performance segment, and it remains an enigma. Will this ever really change? I seriously doubt it. The honchos at Acura seem to think that they’re on the right track. They’re not of course, but unless and until they realize it, it’s more alphabet soup from Acura. This situation may well be enough for the overlords at Honda, but if I was associated with marketing Acura it wouldn’t be enough for me. Are Acura vehicles good? Yes, but you just feel that the brand is perpetually running in place, while lacking in overall juice. Acura and its ad agency continue to try to position Acura in the market, and they continue to fail miserably. Their last foray with a new brand campaign was based on the theme New World. Same Energy. Acura PR minions described it as “taking viewers on a fast-paced journey across the Acura multiverse in the brand’s Precision Crafted Performance vehicles. The new action-packed 60-second spot celebrates Acura performance and includes a first look at the brand’s all-electric future.” Did it work? No. Who they were aiming this spot at exactly is anyone’s guess, but here’s the High-Octane Truth: It was a visual kaleidoscope of Sound and Fury signifying not much, and subsequent executions hardly built awareness or purchase consideration for the brand. Oh, and by the way, when they used “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix for the electrification component of this campaign it made my head – and heart – hurt. 
Alfa Romeo. Yes, I really appreciate the fact that Alfa Romeo is officially the “march to a different drummer” Italian brand, but the painful reality is that Alfa Romeo is a niche brand that will always operate on the far edges of the automotive enthusiast spectrum. I used to think – albeit briefly – that this would be enough for the brand to survive here, and with the addition of the smaller Tonale hybrid crossover, which is arriving at dealers right now, maybe that will be the case. Does Alfa Romeo really have a long-term chance in this market? Alfa operatives assigned to this task fervently believe so, but will be that enough? Wishful thinking doesn’t count for much in this business. 
Aston Martin. If we go by the press releases alone, Aston Martin always seems to have it goin’ on. They’re churning out limited editions and special editions, and their luxury SUV – the DBX – may just save the company. Fortunately for Aston Martin, the brand isn’t for everybody, and in the nose-bleed segment it operates in, it still has an image of speed, power and drop-dead gorgeous design. But will that continue as the brand makes its obligatory foray into BEVs? That is highly questionable. But in the meantime, as long as Aston Martin continues to build some of the most stunningly beautiful cars on the road – DB12 anyone? –machines that unquestionably live up to the legacy of the brand, it will be fine. 
Audi. Audi has worked hard to ascend to the top tier of mainstream luxury brands here in the U.S. along with BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. But its transition to EVs – and the relentless price creep of its products – is presenting the brand with some daunting challenges. When Audi was a happening brand it could get away with its own version of the classic German automotive arrogance, but now? Not anymore. Audi isn’t just a brand image in flux, it’s in serious trouble. I am confident that the Marketing Meisters at Audi will still take themselves much too seriously and allow their “holier than thou” attitude to dominate the advertising, which results in smarmy and annoying work. But that isn’t going to do much to alter the perception of Audi right now. It’s no longer a happening brand, even though Audi operatives refuse to admit it. No bones for you, Audi. 
Bentley. Okay, to me the Bentayga SUV is an insult to everything Bentley should stand for, but this just in: Bentley can’t make enough of ‘em. Is the Bentley brand intact even after its foray into giant SUVs? Sure. In fact, some would argue that the brand has been made even stronger. I’m not one of them. I see that Bentley is teetering on becoming just another car company, and whether it can survive this latest chapter remains to be seen. I would still take a Continental GT V8, thank you very much, but it’s the Bentayga you see most of on the road these days. Is that the image Bentley wants to project? It seems that Bentley operatives are quite pleased with the ca$h-ola and the profits from it, so the answer is “yes.” But Bentley’s raison d’etre is being seriously challenged here, and where this shakes out is another giant “we’ll see.” 
BMW. The ubiquitous German brand, which once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away created its destiny with the funky little 2002, has shockingly become something else altogether. The blue and white “propeller” logo has become so ubiquitous on the streets and byways in the U.S. that it is akin to the Chevy of German luxury brands. This is the result of leadership teams over the years pushing the brand into every segment – both real and imagined – that seemed to make sense. This quest to be in every garage in every well-heeled community in America has delivered vast profits for the propeller brigade, but it has gutted its brand integrity. Yes, they still crank out “M” versions to remind everyone of what they used to be about, but they’re not fooling anyone anymore. And the Bucky Beaver front ends are difficult to warm up to, to put it mildly. BMW is just another car company cranking out SUVs and crossovers because, well, that’s what it is now and that’s what this business has become. Fold in the brand’s constantly increasing prices, and you have a giant Wiener Schnitzel of Not Good. Do any of these parameters change with BMW’s aggressive push into electrification? Not one bit. Because all of the aforementioned negatives are not only present and accounted for when electrified, they’re exacerbated. BMW’s brand image is boneless, lost in a choking haze of profitability over integrity, and there’s no point wishing that somehow this will change.  
Buick. This GM division is a fully engaged SUV and crossover company now. And Buick is operating on the conceit that more SUVs and crossovers can only be construed as a good thing. (It does kind of remind me of the halcyon days of Oldsmobile when if one Cutlass was good, six of them would be even better.) What does it all mean? You can forget about all of those visually arresting Buick concepts from the last few years, because Buick is all-SUVs-and-crossovers-all-the-time now, complete with a brand image as memorable as that old pair of socks that never leaves your sock drawer. 
Cadillac. This division is undergoing the most dramatic transformation of all of GM’s brands. Hard on the heels of launching some of the finest high-performance American cars ever built – the CT4-V Blackwing and the CT5-V Blackwing – Cadillac is now turning the page and going all-in on a fully electrified lineup. While it will stay the course with its luxury SUV juggernaut/ca$h machine – the Escalade – for the foreseeable future, the real action unfolding at Cadillac is its electric lineup. Except “unfolding” might not be the best word to use in describing the rollout of Cadillac’s EVs. Last year, Cadillac delivered 122 Lyriqs in total. One hundred twenty-two. Making sure the car is up to snuff in every way possible, Cadillac slow-walked the Lyriq’s introduction into the market to the detriment of its credibility. Make no mistake, the Lyriq is a wonderfully executed vehicle in terms of design desirability, engineering and on-road presence. But the ramp-up has been pathetically late, wasting months of outstanding advertising in the process. GM is assuring everyone that the Lyriq production cadence has now accelerated to meaningful numbers, but it’s time to put up or shut up, as they say. The hand-built, super-limited, hyper-luxury Celestiq on the other hand, is one of the most exciting automobiles to come out of the Motor City in decades. The Celestiq is all about enhancing image, projecting prestige and presenting a technical tour de force for Cadillac and GM to the world. And it delivers on that promise in prodigious amounts. The Lyriq, however, is aimed at the heart of the upper-mainstream luxury market. And GM has to get it out in the market in appreciable numbers in order to deliver on the brand image it wants to project. Cadillac marketers have the monumental task of creating that magic “I want one” for the brand. And that goes beyond making consumers take notice, especially in this new EV era. It’s all about creating desire for the brand. Cadillac has a historical legacy matched by few automotive brands in the world, yet it doesn’t occupy nearly enough space in the luxury market, which is a giant wreath and crest of Not Good. No bones available. At least not yet. 
Chevrolet. There’s no question that nurturing one of the most iconic American brands of all time presents one of the biggest challenges in automotive marketing. If Chevy marketers spend too much time wallowing in nostalgia, they’re in danger of miring the brand in the past, which would threaten to leave it behind in the market. If, on the other hand, they get too far over their skis, there’s a danger of projecting the brand as something it isn’t. We’re talking again about an extremely fine line here. And while operating with one of the biggest marketing budgets out there, the stakes for Chevrolet marketers are huge. A distinct advantage Chevy marketers do have is that over the next 24 months they will have one of, if not the strongest product portfolios in the market. The key for Chevrolet will be its mainstream EVs, which will hit the heart of the market at exactly the right time. Add to this the continuing success of Tahoe, Blazer, Suburban, Silverado, the strong new Colorado and of course, Corvette, and Chevrolet as a brand has a huge upside. With all of this potential marketing momentum, the only thing missing for Chevrolet is a new advertising theme line, as “Find New Roads” has decidedly run its course. Bones in limbo, for now. 
Chrysler. Would you miss it? Because the “why” of Chrysler – other than vans – has been lost for a while now. Is that going to be enough? Nope. 
Corvette. The rollout of the eighth-generation mid-engine Corvette has been everything GM and Chevrolet had hoped it would be. A milestone machine, the eighth-generation Corvette presents the latest – and very best – thinking of GM’s True Believers, and it’s a remarkable statement for the end of the ICE Age. With the unveiling of the hybrid E-Ray Corvette (I am decidedly underwhelmed with the E-Ray, by the way), and new Corvette models due to appear in other segments, Corvette as a brand is solidifying its reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the market. And for countless True Believers of the brand, it is long overdue. Despite too many previous GM marketing missteps with the brand, the Corvette name and image have managed to shine through. And I expect that this will not only continue going forward, it will be enhanced, including its latest class win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans last weekend. In fact, until further notice, the Corvette shares the top tier in our AE Brand Image Meter.  
Dodge. It’s duly noted that muscle cars and cop cars are this brand’s thing. Is that enough to go on? Apparently not, as Stellantis is promising “new” muscle-fied EVs, complete with artificially-projected growling sound effects. Let’s just say I won’t be shocked if a great deal gets lost in the translation. In the meantime, Dodge is the brand for people who don’t want to live in today’s world. Can’t say that I blame them, but the harsh reality is that the life expectancy of this muscle circus is fading fast. 
Fisker. A brand that’s perpetually on the come, one that always seems like its time in the spotlight is right around the corner. But, WTF is it? And when? And why? Until further notice, it’s the official “It Won’t Be Long Now!” brand. 
Ferrari. The brand with the impeccable legacy and unequaled image seems to find a never-ending supply of moneyed enthusiasts to seduce. That some of those true Ferrari enthusiasts are drifting off to other shiny automotive objects, or drifting off of this Mortal Coil permanently, is not lost on Ferrari management. Ferrari’s answer? Ramp up its volume, as in almost 50 percent more, while continuing to deliver an endless supply of sensational cars, like the nostalgia-fueled Roma and the luscious 296 GTB. Add to these machines the stunning, V12-powered, $400,000 Purosangue crossover, and you have a brand that’s not only not shying away from the realities of the market, but instead one that’s putting its foot down hard on the throttle. Can Ferrari prove to be different from the other hyper-luxury high-performance manufacturers by being able to hold on to its rarefied brand image? It already has. Which is why it remains at the top of the AE Brand Image Meter along with the other select few. Ferrari gets a prosciutto-encrusted T-Bone, at least for now. 
Fiat.  The new, upcoming electrified 500 EV has a chance because it’s actually affordable. But Fiat is perpetually a giant “we’ll see” brand until further notice. 
Ford. It’s no secret that I’m not buying the “Grand Transformation” at Ford under its current CEO Messiah du jour, who is desperately insisting that Ford will be something that it will never be: a tech company that happens to build vehicles. The CEO suffers from the “whoever he spoke to last” syndrome, which dictates direction and perceived relevant thought. The result is a careening CEO with an organization scrambling to make sense of his latest weekly missives. Setting that aside, Ford is a car company of wild contradictions. On the one hand, it’s one of America’s iconic brands, boasting the F-150, which is the envy of the industry, the Bronco – which will soon be piling up on dealer lots as the first-on-the-block syndrome runs its course – the Mach-E EV, and the most important new product Ford has introduced in decades in terms of affordability, the Maverick. On the other hand, where Ford goes from here is anyone’s guess. Is it a mobility company? I’m not buying that in the least. Especially if the pursuit of mobility forces the company to take its eye off of the ball and gets in the way of Ford’s real bread-and-butter business. If, on the other hand, Ford puts the pedal down hard and keeps its product focus and momentum, it can remain a formidable competitor for the foreseeable future. The AE Brand Image Meter rating for Ford is split. If we’re talking about the F-150 pickup, it’s white hot and one of five top-rated brands in our ratings. As for the rest of the machinations going on at Ford, like the endless recalls that are still a major issue, and the endless self-promotional bluster of its CEO? Boneless. And the less heard about that, the better. 
Fu-King Motors. James “Jimmy” Fu and S. L. “Sonny” King have admitted to me recently that the entire company is on hold, except for the six-wheeled, all-electric, Fu-King Gargantuan SUV. They freely admit that the shortages decimated Fu-King Motors, and in the meantime, they’ve been spending a lot of their downtime partying. (Shocker. -WG.) The only “new” news about the Gargantuan is that its six wheel-driven electric motors will have a projected output of 2,500HP, a 500HP increase. Add to that incredible number the following: 10,000 lbs., retractable electric step ladders (“not steps, ladders,” Jimmy insists) and “a look that will humiliate all that other crap out there,” according to Sonny. When I asked about the price, Jimmy and Sonny answered in unison in their now standard refrain: “Enough to make grown men cry!” Any other plans while waiting the chip shortage out? “Press conferences!” they said in unison. “Dog and Monkey shows!” Seems logical, at this juncture. “We dangle the bait and flip the switch!” I could have pointed out a few linguistic disconnects at this point, but why bother? I admit to being completely biased in all of this, but Fu-King Motors remains the greatest brand of all time. All hail Jimmy and Sonny – the Kings of Boneville!  
Genesis. The luxury division of Hyundai is presenting machines that are exceptionally executed, artfully rendered and offering real value in the luxury space. The real challenge for Genesis marketers is to go beyond the brand’s early adopters in order to gain consideration from those serious consumers out there with the financial wherewithal to actually buy or lease one of their vehicles. Not an easy task, by any means, but the Genesis products are beautifully turned out and hold up to close inspection. Right now, word of mouth and favorable reviews are carrying the water for Genesis. But that can only go so far and will take a long, long time to gain traction. Genesis needs a serious, big-dollar, consistent marketing push. In other words, it needs to garner attention, and in a hurry. It won’t earn its bones in this market without it. Perhaps an IndyCar engine with the full weight of the Hyundai/Kia conglomerate behind it? Why not? 
GMC. This brand just keeps on chugging, in some cases even defying rational thinking. Everyone knows that GMC vehicles are massaged versions of Chevrolet models, but the difference is in the details, and right now consumers are digging those details. And it’s no secret that with each new model iteration, GMC is carving out its own distinct product identity. As for GMC advertising, it has been a hit-and-miss affair. When it hits, it’s pretty good. When it misses, it’s eminently forgettable, when it’s not annoying. (The Queen ‘We Will Rock You’ clapping spot is enough to make me puke every time I see it. -WG.) I chalk up GMC’s success to a very clear-cut marketing reality: For consumers, GMC isn’t a Chevy, which apparently counts for a lot. And it’s not a Cadillac either, which in their minds counts for even more, not being showy types and all, even though GMC pricing is awfully close to Cadillac. GMC is a solid brand – the kind that has a T-Bone steak and eggs for breakfast – which in this chaotic marketing world is really saying something. 
Honda. The brand with such a rich legacy seems to be on the rebound with consumers, which is noteworthy. Honda is touting that it is getting back to its roots, with company operatives insisting that’s why things are on the upswing for the brand. Honda and its dealers seem to be gaining on the lack of products available to sell, with inventories slowly but surely increasing. Honda enjoys a positive brand image for some very good reasons, but the brand used to accumulate bones by the bushel. Not anymore. Now it’s one, hard-earned bone at a time. 
Hummer. It’s the brand that never went away, even after GM put it on the shelf in the heat of the bankruptcy. And that’s a good thing, because before GM operatives put Hummer to sleep, it was the King of Off-Road, with even Jeep reluctantly having to play a gloomy second fiddle to it. Now? Hummer is back. Electrified, fortified, magnified and ready to take its rightful place at the top of the heap, nothing comes close to it in the segment for that matter. Hummer enjoys a truly legendary brand image, but GM can’t seem to build enough of them. Not even close, in fact. Hummer should be at the top level of the AE Brand Image Meter, but if they can’t build ‘em, the brand gets an incomplete. 
Hyundai. Hyundai continues to suffer from a severe case of TMMS (Too Many Models Syndrome), which results in a confusing showroom filled with a lineup of cars and SUVs that blend together and land on top of each other in the market. But there’s no denying that these are, for the most part, excellent products. The fundamental problem for Hyundai marketers is telling its product story in a compelling way, while presenting an image that resonates with consumers. So far, they’re doing this in spurts – some good and some bad –but that’s not even close to being good enough. Brand image? Confused. The word of mouth about Hyundai among consumers is stronger than the actual marketing and advertising being presented. That’s good, but it’s not enough to get the brand where it needs – and wants – to go. But design matters, and Hyundai – and Kia – are really getting their act together. Which helps, a lot. 
Infiniti. Quite simply, Nissan’s luxury brand has had its following, a core group of consumers who for some reason can’t be bothered with other Japanese brands, let alone with the go-to German luxury brands. In the past, you would call Infiniti the “marching to a different drummer” brand, but that would be attaching too much gravitas to it, and besides, Alfa Romeo has now claimed that space. No, Infiniti has been a cynical ploy by Nissan to grab a share of a market that it believes it has just as much right to as any other manufacturer. Except everything about Infiniti seems like Nissan operatives are phoning it in, and devoid of a single original thought. Infiniti is now officially a “ghost” brand, one that’s invisible except for the select few who have been issued the special glasses from the factory so that they can appreciate the inherent goodness of the brand. Brand Image? A well-intentioned – albeit boneless – afterthought. And one not long for this world without a major reboot. 
Jaguar.  Jaguar used to be on a brief roll. Now? It doesn’t exactly feel that way, does it? The brand still has a brace of excellent vehicles, but that may not be enough when the next Giant Automotive Downturn happens. That’s when brands like Jaguar will take it on the chin. 
Jeep. This American icon used to occupy a top spot in the AE Brand Image Meter, but there are signs that the magic has slipped. Stellantis marketers and product planners have a serious case of the Red Pricing Mist, exemplified by the usurious option prices put in place on Jeeps. It has gotten so bad that it’s almost laughable, if it wasn’t so pathetic. The Jeep option list – which is an homage to Porsche marketers, who are the OGs of Greed – creatively gouges customers in the interest of considerable short-term profits. But long term, that pricing strategy is hurting the company. Jeep customers basically have to sign up for a vehicle and then build-out what they really want with the pricey option list. The result? Jeep prices are soaring through the roof. No, I’m not against auto companies making profits, that’s the name of the game after all. But gouging people? That’s another thing altogether. It’s no secret that this brand, with the impeccable credentials and unrivaled imagery attached to it, has benefited from some superb image wrangling. But all of that wonderful image wrangling comes apart when showroom prices are too damn high. Yeah, Jeep is still near the top of our AE Brand Image Meter, but it’s coming dangerously close to screwing the whole thing up.  
Kia. It used to be the case that consumers didn’t really care how Korean auto executives parsed their brands, because Kia and Hyundai both fell into that subset of “deal” brands in the American market. Then the hotter-than-hot Telluride came along, which changed the game for Kia, moving the needle for the brand in a big way. But it proved to be only the beginning, and Kia’s days of being the “commodity car” brand are long gone. In, fact, the company’s bold move into electrification with design in its spectacular EV6 has changed the game again, and Kia has ascended to be a frontline player, occupying one of the top spots in our AE Brand Meter. 
Lamborghini. This exotic, high-performance Italian supercar brand is aimed at knowledgeable enthusiasts who don’t worship at the altar of the Prancing Horse. Everything about Lamborghini has been elevated, from the products to its brand image. In ancient times, the name Lamborghini would never have been uttered in the same breath as Ferrari. Now? There are plenty of enthusiasts out there who consider Lamborghini to be the most desirable exotic Italian sports car. (One discordant note: The Hurracan Sterrato is a Lambo too far. It never should have happened.) The runaway success of the Urus has reinforced Lamborghini as a healthy, happy, boned-up… and H-O-T brand. 
Land Rover. That these super-luxury crossovers and SUVs have found such favor in suburban jungles across America is still a little bit hard to believe. It wasn’t too long ago that Land Rovers were something to appreciate but not drive, because they were too problematic for most people to deal with. Now, bristling with cachet and boasting sumptuous interiors, Land Rover has become one of the touchstones of affluent suburbia, and another brand at the top tier of the AE Brand Image Meter. 
Lexus. Toyota’s luxury brand has moved beyond the “excellent service and customer care” brand to occupy the steadily consistent and predictable luxury space. And that’s just fine, I guess. Are the cars good? They are. And the new 2024 GX is a certified grand slam home run. There are plenty of people – the Lexus core buyers to be exact – who like Lexus just the way it is. Impeccable customer service still resonates, of course, and as long as Lexus doesn’t stray too far from that winning formula, it will continue to be a bone-filled force in the luxury market. 
Lincoln. Lincoln has come a long way. The switch back to names helped rejuvenate the brand, and Lincoln’s calculated product development direction to make its interiors sumptuous and alluring paid huge dividends. But the buzz around the brand has stagnated. Lincoln has a name with historical relevance, but that is no longer enough. This is a business that revolves around the idiom of “what have you done for us lately?” Which begs the obvious question to Lincoln marketers: What exactly have you done for us lately? 
Lotus. Talk about the OG “marching to a different drummer” car company, Lotus is that and more. Colin Chapman, who rightfully sits among the greats of automotive history, was the brilliant innovator whose designs for Lotus racing and street cars remain legendary to this day. The fact that Lotus still exists with its founder’s name on it is one of the miracles of the modern automotive age, as its tumultuous history can attest. But then again, there have always been True Believers associated with the brand it seems, and they have managed to keep the flame alive through some very lean times. Lotus cars aren’t for everyone, thank goodness, and it’s easy to see why people seriously looking at the Porsche 718 didn’t give the Evora even a sideways glance, and won’t give the upcoming Emira a cursory look, either. But that will be their mistake and it’s probably as it should be, because Lotus has always appealed to iconoclast enthusiasts, those who march to a different drummer themselves. Lotus has had an infusion of ca$h from China, and I believe the future of the brand is secure. Lotus has a new glow and new hope. 
Lucid. The marketing for the Lucid Air has been some of the most arrogant in automotive history. As in “We’re Lucid, and you’re not.” And that was all well and good for a while, until the handful of first-on-the-block buyers got their fill. Now? Lucid finds itself in a deep, dark hole, sitting on fully-loaded examples of its EV sedans in a market that’s looking for clarity. Translation? More affordable EVs. And Lucid intends on playing in that space, but it’s not going to be soon enough. The “air” at Lucid headquarters is bone-chilling. And there’s no warmup in sight. 
Maserati. This luxury performance machine is the attractive Italian sports car brand name with a historical legacy that repeatedly suffers in comparison to the rest of the competition. Does Maserati have attractive cars? Yes, somewhat, but the brand is not top of mind. In other words, Maserati exists, but in a galaxy so far removed from the real luxury-performance retail action that it hurts. Will the Grecale SUV save the company? It might keep the brand above water, but just barely. The AE Brand Image Meter? The bones are few and far between for Maserati. It still has some appeal, but only for those who still give a shit. 
Mazda. Even though Mazda builds some notably outstanding cars, the brand always seems to be scrambling for respectability. Will it ever be more than it is right now, the scrappy purveyor of interesting cars if you would just take the time to look, and a media fanboy favorite? I seriously doubt it. And with Mazda operatives now pursuing a level of elevated legitimacy and luxury, are there any guarantees that Mazda can take the next step up? No. Sometimes big-league brand image wrangling involves knowing what the brand isn’t. If you’re into the brand, it’s hot. For most of the rest of the automotive world it’s an interesting afterthought. 
McLaren. This exotic English sports car micro-manufacturer keeps pouring on the credibility by building formidable high-performance machines that supersede the one before. Except that they’re getting dangerously close to churning out too many incremental variations on the same theme, which is annoying because it suggests that they’re listening too closely to the dulcet tones of their own thought balloons. That said, though Ferrari may dismiss McLaren as a legitimate threat to its perpetual dominance of the hyper-exotic car market, the British supercar maker boasting the legacy of one of racing’s true legends keeps making serious inroads onto Ferrari’s turf. I wouldn’t bet against McLaren, because the entire organization is focused on delivering excellence, except when it comes to its lukewarm racing exploits, apparently.  
Mercedes-Benz. As I’ve said countless times before, when Mercedes is “on” – see the new, electrified S-Class, the various Mercedes-AMG entries and the perpetually hot G-Class, for instance – they build absolutely glorious machines that live up to one of the great legacies in the automotive world. When they’re off, well, they can stink up the joint like no other. Part of the problem is the fact that Daimler is forced to stretch out its model lineup because it’s trying to fight a brutally competitive auto world without the resources of the other auto manufacturer conglomerates. But the majority of the problem lies in previously piss-poor marketing and advertising strategies that have deeply damaged the brand. And now that Mercedes has decided to kill its “EQC” branding for its EVs after just two years, it’s apparent that left to its own devices, the company is still capable of screwing everything up. The Mercedes-Benz brand is on a perpetual roller-coaster ride, which means it’s always teetering on being the latest Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking.  
Mini. The brand that was initially successful is about to fall out of the market altogether, despite the protestations of its BMW overlords. The reality is that the brand is played out in the U.S. and it seems that there’s not much BMW can do to stop the freefall, even with its push into EVs. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow for most car executives, especially since they’re constantly reminded of their brilliance by hordes of bootlicking minions looking for their next promotion, but for BMW/Mini executives this pirouette into The Abyss has been a humiliating and inevitable blow. Mini exists in its own little world, which seems to be a speck in everyone’s rearview mirror at this point. 
Mitsubishi. Still no. 
Nissan. This company occupies space in the U.S. market, and that is about all I can say about it. Does it offer excellent products? Well, sort of, but not really. In fact, they’re mediocre and for the most part, hideous to look at. Is the marketing decent? Some of the Brie Larson creative is very well done, but that isn’t nearly enough. The only rational reason – and I am paraphrasing a hoary adage by H. L. Mencken here – is that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Mediocrity, when it comes to automobiles, is bliss for most consumers, apparently, because at the end of the day too many of them don’t understand the difference and couldn’t be bothered to care, as long as the payment is where it needs to be. Confounding and tragic, but there you have it. Despite Nissan operatives’ best efforts, I have full confidence that the abject mediocrity will continue. 
Polestar. The thinking person’s EV, Polestar is a very attractive, albeit a bit quirky, brand, with real design chops. And we like it a lot, even though like most desirable EVs, they’re just too damn expensive. The quirkiness will only be able to take the brand so far, however, but we’d take any of its offerings over anything from Tesla any damn day. Polestar gets a free all-day pass to The Boneyard. 
Porsche. The OGs of Greed, those wonderful folks who created and refined the concept of the Hose-O-Rama Option List to achieve spectacular levels of enhanced profitability. To say that it works exceptionally well for them is an understatement. Despite almost unconscionable levels of arrogance, Porsche is the automotive company that’s better at executing a vision for its brand and staying relentlessly focused to the task at hand than any other car company in the world, except for Ferrari. Porsche’s mission has been to build the most enticing enthusiast machines they can muster, and in the process of doing so it has made Porsche one of the most desirable automotive brands in the world and one of the top-tier brands on the AE Brand Image Meter. But, there’s a giant “but” lingering out there. (Yes, there’s always a “but.” -WG.) The VW Group’s push into BEVs has proven to be challenging for Porsche operatives in Zuffenhausen. Yes, the Taycan was initially a hit, but it has cooled considerably. Porsche insisted that the ubiquitous industry parts shortage problem decimated Taycan sales, and that is partially true, but it doesn’t account for all of the slowdown. I think there’s more to it than that. Devoid of sound – electronically manufactured or no – a BEV Porsche is a BEV. Meaning that for all intents and purposes, it’s a soulless appliance with Porsche accoutrements. Sure, Taycan has the Porsche look, the badges and the instant monster torque of a BEV – and, of course the usurious option list – but beyond that, what? And this has nothing to do about Porsche purists vs. the onslaught of inexorable change, either. This is about the Porsche brand potentially losing its raison d’etre overnight. Porsche’s savvy marketing operatives are acutely aware that the momentum for the brand won’t last indefinitely without consistent efforts at shoring up the brand’s legacy. Even with a brand that has been wildly successful for a long, long time, Porsche True Believers understand that they will have to fight and claw to maintain their grip on the soul of the company. And this is being tested more than ever with the brand’s foray into BEVs. Despite all of its glorious success, Porsche is about to find out just how fragile this brand image business really is.  
Ram Trucks. As I’ve said repeatedly, crafting a brand image is one of the most challenging tasks in this business. The True Believers out in Auburn Hills know trucks, and they’re building a first-class pickup truck. But there’s more to it than that. Not only are they executing their trucks almost flawlessly in terms of design, engineering and features, they’ve managed to hit it out of the park when it comes to image wrangling. The only questions remaining are: How far can Ram go, and how long can they keep up this momentum in the EV era? 
Rivian. Exceptionally well-executed with impressive design presence, the Rivian RT1 lacks some of the consumer-focused interior details that other manufacturers get right, but it drives well and delivers the right amount of cachet for buyers willing to shell out six figures. Can the brand keep it up and can it consistently deliver what it does best while bringing out less expensive models? A giant “we’ll see,” but in the meantime this is another brand with a double-secret pass to The Boneyard. 
Rolls Royce. Old School before Old School was even remotely cool again, Rolls Royce is still firmly planted in its own little brand world – especially with such products as the iconic Phantom, the riveting Ghost, the majestic Wraith and the seductive Dawn. Rolls operatives couldn’t resist taking the regrettable – and insanely profitable – step into SUV Hell with the Cullinan, but that’s the way of the auto world right now. And as far as Rolls-Royce is concerned, what a wonderful, splendiferous world it is. The Rolls-Royce brand Image is impeccable and still smokin’ hot. 
Subaru. The most successful brand that no one thinks about (except for its rabid owners), Subaru has attracted loyal followers by emphasizing function over fantasy, and detailed execution over smoke-and-mirrors gimmickry. More important, unlike some other automotive entities we know, Subaru marketers understand what the brand is and what it isn’t, and because of this and its focused consistency, it has been rewarded with intense brand loyalty. As long as Subaru marketers continue to clearly understand who its customers are and what the brand means to people – and to animals – it’s going to continue to reap the kudos (and an endless supply of bones) and the profits. Subaru continues to maintain its place in the top tier of the AE Brand Image Meter.  
Tesla. Nothing new here. With blue-sky thinking, old-time religion, and enough smoke and mirrors to last this industry a frickin’ lifetime, Elon Musk is a huge success, dammit, and don’t you dare forget it. Tesla is the car built for politicians in Washington and Northern California, and EcoSwells needing even more validation for who they think they are. But it’s no secret that the Tesla miracle has finally run out of juice. Elon’s embarrassing foray at Twitter has exposed him for what he is: a petulant brat who’s in desperate need of someone to tell him “no.” And consequently, Tesla’s image has taken a huge hit. But make no mistake, to the green intelligentsia, Tesla is still The White-Hot Future. For the rest of us, it’s a rocket ride to oblivion.  
Toyota. Toyota is back with a renewed sense that it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants to. Why? It is armed with the richest war chest in this business by far (it dwarfs the other top companies combined), which allows the company the wherewithal to pursue anything it wants to do. Toyota’s resilience and success in the market are proof positive of its focused consistency, and it never, ever quits. The blandtastic appliance era for Toyota is fading from view, thanks to Akio Toyoda’s push to heat things up. The air of substance at Toyota is growing, and it shows, the new Prius being glowing evidence of that. The EV question is still hanging over Toyota like a guillotine, however, but I tend to agree with the company in its insistence that it will be able to cover all the bases. Another giant “we’ll see,” but anyone counting Toyota out is a fool. 
Volvo. This car company has honed its product focus to such an extent that it has become a force to be reckoned with again. Volvo used to be the brand for people who questioned why they even bothered to own a car in the first place. Not anymore. Now, Volvo is the beautifully executed smart choice, with EV savvy thrown into the mix. And if the EX30 small EV isn’t a huge hit, I will be shocked. Bones all around. 
VW. After the serious financial hit and image headache from the Diesel cheating scandal, the VW brand has rebounded, at least somewhat. In the U.S., the VW brand didn’t suffer permanent damage to its image because Diesel loyalists loved their cars and still do. It’s easy to see why people love the VW brand because it provides an interesting alternative to the American, Japanese and Korean brands, while adhering to the basic values of overall efficiency with a fun-to-drive component that still resonates with consumers. It doesn’t hurt that VW offers two of the best enthusiast cars in the market in the GTI and the R, either. And the Atlas SUV has been a much-needed boon (bone? -WG) for dealers, because they continue to fly off of the lots like free beer. And the new Taos is a noteworthy product entry too. Despite shortages and a notable lack of product flow, the VW brand is still alive and somewhat well.  
As I’ve stated repeatedly, if this stuff were easy, everyone would have 30 percent market share and the streets in auto centers around the world would be paved with platinum. And when you listen to the blah-blah-blah from CEOs long enough, you get the idea that is exactly what they expect. But this just in: It doesn’t work that way, and when you have multiple manufacturers clamoring for the same slice of the pie and making the same sort of promises, something has to give, which means brand image becomes even more crucial. 
This automotive marketing business is tough, unforgiving and relentless. Hundred-million-dollar marketing campaigns can be left in a smoldering heap by the side of the road because of a bold miscalculation, a flat-out wrong-headed decision or auto executives egos running amuck. Or, as I like to call it, The Trifecta of Not Good.  
That last one can be particularly devastating, because as smart as some of these people think they are, their ability to sort through the real from the imaginary sometimes gets lost in translation. Much of this is the result of a completely unrealistic assessment by these executives as to their brand’s place in the automotive world. They are so buried in the day-to-day minutiae of it all that they simply don’t have the wherewithal to step back and objectively see or understand what’s really going on. And to compound that, they don’t really like people telling them what to do or that they’re wrong either, because after all, they’re geniuses, remember? Just ask them.  
After 24 years of writing this column, I find the insularity at the auto companies to be astonishing. Understandable, mind you, but still astonishing. That’s really the only adjective that fits. This insularity causes major missteps and blown opportunities left and right. When I see an iconic brand offering so much to work with, with so much historical relevance to bring to bear, and yet it is so misguided and mishandled, it is simply unconscionable. Squandering a legacy is unforgivable in my book.  
I would suggest that the brand marketers who got hammered in our latest Brand Image Meter go back and reread my words carefully, because though painful, half the battle is realizing what you’re doing wrong before you can even begin to see your way clear to making things right. As for the rest who fared better, I wouldn’t get too complacent, because you’re only one boneheaded decision away from disaster.  
Automakers that are in search of a brand image and understand the power that comes with having a solid one garner the tiniest bit of slack from me, because at least they know what they want and where they need to go. But the automakers that have a brand image and don’t have the first clue as to what to do with it, or worse – have squandered a great brand legacy because of cluelessness, ineptitude, or both – draw zero sympathy from me. 
It’s duly noted that the companies that are overflowing with True Believers and that focus every waking moment on the integrity and the fundamental desirability of the product are doing very well right now in the brand image department, and they will continue to do so.  
The rest? Well, for them flailing and floundering about seems to be standard operating procedure, if not a full-time career trajectory. And living in a world of reduced expectations is oddly comforting for them. In other words, we told you so.
Brand image is a fleeting thing, except for those brand marketers who understand how they got it, what it took to get it to that point, and what it will take to keep it. 
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week. 

Editor’s Note: You can access previous issues of AE by clicking on “Next 1 Entries” below. – WG

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