Brand allegiance isn’t what it used to be. Did you have a dad, or maybe it was an uncle, who thought that one carmaker could do no wrong? The days when men of a certain age would lean back, jingle the change in their pockets and proclaim undying fealty to Chevrolet, Ford or Chrysler are long gone. (Women had views on cars, too; just not so loudly expressed.)
This is the 100th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, and it is becoming apparent that loyalty to its brand is slipping. In 2001, it had the highest non-luxury loyalty among American buyers (an impressive 58 percent in a study by JD Power and Associates), but in 2002 it sank to fourth place, with 55 percent, behind Chevrolet, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. There may be several reasons for this, but Ford’s well-publicized financial woes are certainly a factor.
Henry Ford was a staunch conservative, but in the 1950s the conventional wisdom was that Fords were for Democrats and Chevys for Republicans. But that’s changed, too. According to retired Ford spokesperson Bill Day, "When I was at the University of Chicago 40 years ago, a classmate at the business school did a sophisticated analysis and found there was no statistical difference between Ford and Chevy owners. I think the preconceptions people bring to their buying decision have a good deal to do with what they end up driving."
Loyalty patterns are certainly changing. The Detroit-based R.L. Polk Company, which tracks trends through new car registrations, says that 56 percent of American buyers returned to the same brand in 1999, and only 54 percent in 2000. A worrisome trend for American carmakers is that when buyers abandon a domestic nameplate, their next car is often a Toyota or Honda.
Often, the issue is perceived quality, and in recent years Japanese manufacturers have the edge. That point was made clearly by a recent McKinsey and Company study of two identical cars, the Toyota Corolla and the Chevrolet Prizm. They were built in the same plant in California until the Prizm was discontinued after the 2002 model year. Both cars received high marks from Consumer Reports and were comparably priced, but even though the Prizm was supported by $750 in buyer incentives, its sales were a quarter of the Corolla’s.
The dedicated loyalists are still out there, but Joanne Krell, a spokesperson for General Motors, says they tend to be older Americans who have held on to their prejudices for a half-century or more. In some cases, these older loyalists don’t desert the company, the company deserts them. Old-line Cadillac owners, for instance, are flummoxed by the division’s stylish, Euro-derived front-wheel-drive sedans. But youth is served in the car business.
Tom Wilkinson, director of communications for Chevrolet, concedes that his brand lost some lifelong partisans in 1996 when it stopped selling the Chevrolet Caprice, the last of the "traditional" rear-wheel-drive sedans. "They felt abandoned," Wilkinson admitted.
One of those people feeling seduced and abandoned was my father-in-law, Martin Masarech. A Caprice-driving retired banker in Greene, N.Y., he came by his General Motors loyalty as a birthright. His father and three brothers all worked at the GM assembly plant in North Tarrytown. He’s owned everything from a gas-guzzling Buick with a four-barrel carburetor to an economical Chevy II Nova. The family assumed Mr. Masarech would be a GM lifer, but when it came time to replace his 1987 Caprice he couldn’t find anything suitable.
Then he saw an ultra-traditional 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis on a Ford dealer’s lot. "It was green," he said. "It looked sleek." He bought it, and the ingrained habits of a lifetime fell away.