It was more than 20 years ago, at the launch of the first Audi Allroad, that then-company boss FJ Paefgen told me that a brand "was a promise".
The all-important question for an automotive brand is just what is that promise?
It’s a remarkably hard thing to pin down and the first question I’d be asking about Hyundai’s new Genesis brand. Having driven a Genesis model in Korea, I have no doubt about the material and engineering quality. But what is this brand about? What is the promise to the potential buyer?
The turn of the century saw car makers taking themselves much more seriously as brands, the 1990s boom in ‘designer’ labels and luxury goods pointing the way forward, hopefully, to being able charge higher prices. And design is perhaps the easiest and most clear way to change brand perceptions. After all, the TT did it for Audi.
You might remember Renault channelling the kind of avant-garde design more associated with the boutiques of Paris, the Avantime appearing in 2001. But changing hard-baked views about a brand is hard, as Renault found out. Jaguar, possibly one of the best-known automotive brands, also failed to break into the big time, despite 30 years of investments and relaunches.
But then again, the history of building an automotive brand from scratch is hardly encouraging.
Nissan’s Infiniti brand (launched in 1989) is currently struggling to break 200,000 sales globally each year and it pulled out of Europe in 2020. Honda’s Accura (launched in 1986) is also well below 200,000 global sales a year.
Toyota’s Lexus division (also launched in 1989) has been much more successful and is looking good for 900,000 sales globally in 2021. Aside from 30 years of serious investment, what was the Lexus difference?
Firstly, the brand launched with a clear promise of ultimate mechanical refinement, bettering the European establishment. That was followed up by a very early adoption of hybrid drivetrains. Remarkable reliability and longevity - two things that can’t be faked - became notable. Dealerships were also rigorously trained into being better than the rest - a trick that few others have matched.
Looking back, it’s easy to see the Lexus promise, although it might have taken a consistent decade to crystallise. Genesis cannot avoid taking a similar route, to my thinking.
The first decade is the most important. There needs to be absolute clarity about what the brand is offering over existing premium car makers. And without a conventional dealer network to reinforce things face to face, that message and promise are even more important.
There’s another thing that’s easily overlooked and even foxed Lexus for quite a time. If somebody buys a Genesis and his or her neighbour asks why, what would the owner reply? Nail that, and you are on the way to success.