Hummer: a beast of a brand

Branding is tricky business.

It’s not enough to crisply differentiate a product, provide stellar service and reinforce your customers’ delusions of grandeur. The whims of the market might still bring you down.

That’s what’s happened with the Hummer. Say what you want about the make, now being euthanized by GM, but you can’t deny the brand’s potency. Huge. Tough. Dangerous. Cavalier. I am a force. Reckon with my a**.

The problem was, the brand couldn’t contain its own machismo. Like a downhill ski racer hurtling off the course, the machine’s daring was its downfall. Utterly and unapologetically ginormous, it came to stand for everything that’s wrong with our auto-addicted, fossil-fueling, high-beaming selves. As we used to chant on the playground, Hey! Hey! Get outta my way! I just got back from the USA!

Which reminds me, a buddy of mine rolled up on a sexy new BMC racing bicycle the other day. Beefy, squared-off tubes. Not to be messed with.

“Dude,” I said, “that baby is the Hummer of bikes.”

Like a good liberal, he blanched.

Oops, sorry, meant that as a compliment. He likes the bike because it’s Swiss.

Anyway, a pending deal to sell Hummer to a Chinese concern fell through this week, prompting GM to say it will begin the “orderly wind-down of the Hummer operations.” As with the other brand GM recently tried to retire, Saab, there’s a glimmer of hope. That would be of interest to the 3,000 people who make and sell Hummers in the US, including 950 who work at an already shrinking GM plant in Shreveport, La.

If the brand does collapse, you can’t blame it on the brand per se. Gas prices, recessionary times, heightened eco-consciousness and a more touchy-feely zeitgeist also played roles. But wait, that’s getting back to the brand, isn’t it?

After all, the Hummer isn’t the only vehicle that gets paltry mileage. In fact, the Hummer H3T at 16 mpg was green enough to get on the cash-for-clunkers trade-up list – not as a clunker but as an approved replacement. There’s a fair number of Audis and Beemers in that mileage range, and no one’s calling for their demise.

So maybe the Hummer got a bad rap. Or maybe it didn’t. Either way, the Hummer is gone (nearly). In the elegiac words of the Bard of Big,

This is the end, my only Hummer friend, the end. Bad news for those who love the H make. Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten.

It was a beast of a brand.

A few environmental predictions worth checking out

Forecasting anything except the weather in Antarctica is a low-margin game, at best, so I usually discount forecasts and predictions (including my own) at a hefty rate. Having said that, however, the American Society of Landscape Architects recently wrote some environmentally-related predictions that were engaging enough that I hope they come true – or in a few cases, don’t come true.

Aside from the subject matter itself, the thing I like about the ASLA’s predictions is that they communicate well. What I mean is that most of the predictions describe changes that would be very visible in the average person’s life – the proliferation of bicycles for commuting, or the growing cost of fuel making urban agriculture economically viable again. Check out the predictions on the ASLA’s “The Dirt” blog. What do you think?

Smart grid marketers rejoice

Marketers for smart grid products have had it rough because it’s like trying to sell a movie without a story line. Few people outside the energy industry have a clue as to how the smart grid will work. Unresolved standards keep us from knowing what it will be made out of. And the smart grid’s promise of energy efficiency and cleaner air have been unsubstantiated guesses at best.

But on this last point, smart grid marketers now have a reason to smile. The U.S. Department of Energy has done the math and has finally wrapped some great numbers around smart grid efficiencies, providing much-needed fuel for the marketing machine.

According to a new DOE report, the smart grid will enable us to cut energy consumption by 12% by 2030, and cut carbon emissions from power plants by the same amount.

Smart grid marketers can now crisply message around how they’re going to reduce your electric bill while also greening the planet.

But for the message to stick, they also have to tackle the other fore mentioned obstacles by scrubbing the unnecessary technobabble from smart grid conversations. Today, smart grid marketers trumpet things like Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), peak-load demand response and home area networks (HANs). These terms are fine for B2B sales and marketing within the energy industry. But to create the consumer pull-demand that could accelerate smart grid deployments, marketers will need to create a new consumer-friendly lexicon.

Toyota’s reputational challenges: a job for George Mitchell or Madeleine Albright?

Of the latest developments in the Toyota saga, the most potentially harmful to the company’s brand equity lacks the flash of its brethren, but packs a stronger long-term wallop. The most interesting new development in Toyota’s woes is the growing chorus of mumbles about the Prius, the world’s marquee hybrid vehicle and an icon in the green community.

Powering that story line is Steve Wozniak’s speculation that a software-related problem made his Prius accelerate on its own, and growing concerns that the Prius’ brakes are as problematic as the accelerators in its other models. Coming in a close second to the Prius is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s offhand statement (since retracted) advising owners not to drive their recalled vehicles until a new safety device is installed. Although LaHood said he misspoke, the damage was already done.

However, the most worrisome news for Toyota is the DOT’s apparent willingness to fine the company for failing to respond quickly enough to reports that its gas pedals were sticking. That cuts right to the heart of Toyota’s competence and regard for consumers. If the feds fine the company, it will legitimize accusations that the company didn’t move quickly enough to correct a potentially dangerous problem. Again, it gets back to consumers willing to forgive mistakes, but not inattention. It will be interesting to see whether Toyota greets the growing chorus of criticisms with the transparency we advocated in a recent blog.

One PR case study after the next has shown that as bad as things can get because of the facts, evasiveness makes it worse. Maybe the best thing the company could do is hire an outside investigator with sterling credentials to trace the problems from beginning to end, and cop out to whatever he/she dishes out. Sounds like a job for Madeleine Albright, George Mitchell or Sandra Day O’Connor.