Mark Grueber’s first day at Ford was June 12, 1996. “This is a funny story,” he says, an illuminated first-generation Bronco grille hung on the wall behind him in his home office. It was the day when Ford built the last fifth generation Bronco, completed a production line that began in 1966 and launched what became known as the Bronco Underground, a group of people within Ford who dedicated themselves to the return of the off-road SUV.
This year, they got their wish. Bronco is back and Grueber, now Ford’s marketing manager, is tasked with taking care of the brand’s present and future. Of course, he is hardly alone in his excitement, and Ford is not the only carmaker that leans hard on its past, even though it may lean the hardest. Apart from the Bronco, Ford uses two more classic names, Lightning and Maverick, but applies them in new ways. And then it took its most iconic brand, the Mustang, and put it on an electric crossover.
General Motors is preparing for the return of the eco-friendly Hummer, but now it’s a 9,000-pound electric pickup and SUV. Acura re-launches Integra, which has been gone for more than two decades. Jeep revived the Wagoneer nameplate this year and put it on a luxury SUV built to park comfortably next to all the McMansions. And if you’re still wondering why the manufacturers took this dive into the archives, you probably already know. It’s about money.
“A company that owns an asset like Grand Wagoneer, why would not it use it?” says Elea McDonnell Feit, professor of marketing at Drexel University and former market researcher at GM’s Advanced Vehicle Development Center. Decades of communication and success (or failure) have made these names mean something to people. There is power in meaning and profit in power – even if the strategies with the nameplates differ.
At Ford, dealers dedicate separate showrooms to the Bronco and the smaller Bronco Sport crossover. Owners can visit one of four Bronco Off-Rodeo schools while dressed in Bronco merchandise – or wait and pick up the merchandise on site. “Wagoneer is definitely the premium extension of Jeep,” said Jeep CEO Christian Meunier The edge’s Decoder podcast in October. But there is no Jeep brand anywhere on the new full-size SUVs. And while Hummer was its own brand under General Motors before its demise in 2010, it now falls under the GMC umbrella.
General Motors questioned the return of the Hummer name because of its history, said Phil Brook, GMC’s vice president of marketing. Unlike Ford with Bronco or Jeep and Wagoneer, GM is trying to change people’s perceptions associated with a name, and these perceptions are part of why it failed the first time. The company tried to sell Hummer to a Chinese manufacturer in 2010, but when that deal failed, GM shut down the brand because the trucks were gas-guzzlers.
“The look on people’s faces when we’re saying Hummer’s coming back – they’ve gone ‘for real?’ They can say Hummer, and that means direct abundance, “says McDonnell Feit.” They must also communicate the second part of the new message. ”
NBA superstar LeBron James, who owned a Hummer H2 during his first years in the league, plays the lead role in the new Hummer commercial, and the brand calls it the first fully electric super truck. In the TV spot it storms, the lightning strikes and the slogan “A silent revolution is coming” appears on the screen to point out the truck’s electric driveline. But “car companies are notoriously bad at assuming people understand,” says McDonnell Feit.
Americans also spend at higher price levels, and Jeep is aware of that. Its roots lie in military-inspired off-road vehicles, but the brand’s best-selling model last year was the Grand Cherokee, which ranges in price from $ 35,105 to almost $ 100,000 for the 707-hp Trackhawk model. Grand Wagoneer is the company’s new flagship, and it can reach prices over $ 110,000 fully equipped. GMC is investing in this as well, which is why it put Hummer under its brand, rather than on its own as before. Brook says GMC’s well-equipped Denali models account for nearly half of sales.
They do not just spend more. Americans have a newfound desire for adventure and getting out, exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic. Ford sees this and enters the rugged off-road SUV space, which has been dominated by the Jeep Wrangler for several years, with the new Bronco. And it nailed the Broncos’ retro-inspired look with almost perfection – especially the grilles, which are reminiscent of the one hanging on Grueber’s wall.
Ahead of the Broncos’ debut last summer, the Bronco Underground made three major attempts to take it back. The first was when Ford built prototypes in 1999, but then the carmaker was hit by the recall of over 14 million Firestone tires, mostly on its Explorer. Four years later, a difficult silver Bronco concept was unveiled, but it was not considered ready for production. Then Ford tried to build a Bronco on a real platform, but the market switched to larger four-door commercial vehicles, not two-door robust SUVs. In 2013, Ford risked losing the Bronco brand, so it issued a one-time expedition and put the Bronco name on it.
The breakthrough was when the market shifted from sedans, says Grueber. Ford released them from its 2018 range, freeing up space at Ford’s assembly plant in Michigan when the Focus was removed. “We activated the subway and started putting together the plan to take it back,” he says. Now Ford hopes its new Maverick compact pickup will attract previous sedan buyers.
These names evoke nostalgia in consumers, reminders of how things used to be. Especially with millennials, McDonnell Feit points out. “Vehicle companies are trying to exploit millennials’ fascination for everything old-fashioned,” she says. This demographic is listening to vinyl records again; look straight Stranger Things, The Netflix science fiction series set in the 1980s; and, Detroit carmakers hope to buy the Broncos, Hummers and Wagoneers.
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