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Williams: As automakers transition to EVs, can old brands learn new tricks?

By Casey Williams, Tribune News Service
Published: March 11, 2024, 5:50am

Facebook is littered with memes blasting the Chevy Blazer, a full-size crossover that’s nothing like the original off-roader of the same name. It’s often contrasted unfavorably with the hyper-masculine Ford Bronco, another OG of the sport-utility class but one whose brand image has been burnished and reinforced of late.

As if that’s not bad enough for some critics, now there’s a Blazer EV, and that is a bridge too far.

Chevy isn’t alone in electrifying iconic nameplates. Ford makes the electric F-150 Lightning and has stretched the Mustang Mach-E into a five-door, all-wheel-drive electric crossover.

Ford has also reintroduced the Maverick compact as a hybrid pickup. The Dodge Hornet is an Italian crossover. Rumors have the Chevy Camaro going electric while Dodge confirmed all-electric versions of the next Charger. It seems confusing, but for younger generations who never knew the classics, it’s all fresh.

Electric minded

Play this little mind game with me. What do you think of when you hear “Mustang”? Probably a rumbling V-8-powered monster with two doors and rear-drive but not a five-door electric crossover. What about “Cadillac”? You’re probably thinking opulence, glitz and powerful V-8 engines. Again, not electric crossovers.

Now, think about Tesla, Rivian and Lucid. There’s no confusion because all three only produce EVs.

“You have to make sure the brand dominates a category,” said Laura Ries, co-founder of marketing consultancy firm Ries & Ries. In the EV space, she argues, “Tesla dominates the mind. Sales numbers reflect that. It’s better to launch a new brand when there is a new category. With electric in particular, the car is a huge status symbol. Buyers are very particular about what it states. They want an EV that looks like an EV.”

Automakers recycle classic brands because they believe it will be cheaper and easier to connect to a nostalgic past than to conjure an unknown name. For it to work, though, people must have mostly forgotten about the old one. That’s why it works with Maverick, Hornet and Dart but not necessarily with Mustang or Blazer. It helps to have unique style.

The Toyota Prius proves Ries’ point. Even when virtually every automaker offers a hybrid, Prius dominates the mind because it was first to market and has an iconic shape. Why buy an imitator when you can drive the original?

“F-150 is the strongest truck brand in the world, but I think most people would prefer a Rivian,” Ries said. “As for the Tesla Cybertruck — wow, that is a different looking thing! It is not going to replace the F-150 to haul manure, but it is new and different.”

I’m not sure it’s that simple. Having driven the Lightning with its 320 miles range and 580 horsepower, I suspect many truck fans will prefer it, too. With enough seat time, minds can be trained.

Heritage proud

Technology shifts wreak havoc on storied brands. Kodak and Nokia were once giants, but are no longer driving forces in their industries. Kodak failed to own digital, while Nokia missed the next generation of smartphones.

Traditional automakers face the same challenge. Along with its luxury competitors, Cadillac is committed to an all-electric line-up by 2030. If launching a new brand is the cleanest way to enter a new segment, why didn’t GM launch an electric-only brand?

“They were in love with their brand,” Ries said. “It was sacrilege to say you can’t put our brand on a new product. Buyers want Tesla the brand because it stands for the category. When you say, ‘I bought a Cadillac,’ it doesn’t mean anything. A new category demands new brands in order to succeed.”

As Cadillac moves into the future, it is leaving “CT” and “XT” names in the past, re-embracing actual names like Lyriq, Celestiq, Optiq, and Vistiq — with one exception: Escalade IQ. The plot thickens with the all-electric Escalade IQ sitting alongside an Escalade V with a 682-horsepower supercharged V-8.

“Escalade IQ is classic inside-out thinking,” Ries said.

Sure, but maybe an Escalade is an Escalade, no matter the powertrain. Perhaps Mopar enthusiasts won’t care their Charger is electric when it blows the doors off gasoline versions.

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Consider another classic marque, one whose most famous advertisement proclaimed, “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” The fully electric powertrain of the Rolls-Royce Spectre may finally live up to that claim as it silently spirits its owners to their Gulfstream jets. We’ll see.

Youth breeds opportunity

Younger buyers may not see their parents’ favorite auto brands the same. Crossovers rule over sports cars and electric charging stations will eventually replace gasoline pumps. Bold moves are required to stay relevant.

“Mach-E is reinventing Mustang as an electric,” Ries said. “But younger drivers want a new brand. You can take a brand that’s out of sight, out of mind, as electric only, but if you’re going to do it, you have to stop making gas versions. It does spell opportunity for those like Rivian. It’s not easy, a complicated business, which is why traditional car companies think they have the edge. They don’t if they don’t manage their brands correctly.”

GM once took the bold step of launching a new brand to attract a new generation. Ironically, it also leased the first modern electric car, the EV1. That brand was Saturn, which had its own cars, assembly plant and retailers who practiced “no haggle, no hassle” pricing. It was a raging success until vehicles became less unique as the mother ship sucked it in.

Saturn died in 2009, but what will be the fate of today’s EV producers? Some are doing it better than others.

It was Tesla, Ries said, that did everything right. It created a new brand, the first that comes to mind when most people think of electric vehicles. “They launched one model at a time, not 10,” Ries said. “(A) new brand for a new category, then driving PR, making it look different, too.”

So, which brands are not doing it so well?

“Take your pick,” Ries said. “All traditional automakers are doing the opposite, line extending their gas brands into EVs. They have tremendous opportunity and resources, but are not taking time to build the brand. You should make the most of gas brands as long as you can, but also need a second brand to prepare for the future.”

Casey Williams is an Indianapolis-based automotive journalist and a long-time contributor to the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at AutoCasey@aol.com and on YouTube @AutoCasey.