Mark Grueber’s first day at Ford was June 12, 1996. “This is a funny story,” he says, an illuminated first-generation Bronco grille hanging on the wall behind him in his home office. It was the day Ford built the final fifth-generation Bronco, ending a production run that began in 1966 and launching what became known as the Bronco Underground, a group within Ford dedicated to the return of the off-road SUV.
This year they got their wish. The Bronco is back and Grueber, now Ford’s chief marketing officer, is tasked with taking care of the brand’s present and future. Of course, he’s hardly alone in his excitement, and Ford isn’t the only automaker leaning heavily on its past, though it might be leaning the hardest. Aside from the Bronco, Ford is leveraging two more classic names, Lightning and Maverick, but applying 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 the return of the eco-friendly Hummer, but now it’s a 9,000-pound electric pickup truck and SUV. Acura is relaunching the Integra, which has been gone for more than two decades. Jeep revived the Wagoneer nameplate this year, putting it on a luxury SUV built to park comfortably next to any McMansions. And if you’re still wondering why the makers took this dive into the archives, you probably already know. It’s about money.
“A company sitting on an asset like the Grand Wagoneer, why wouldn’t 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 wearing Bronco merchandise – or wait and pick up the merchandise on-site. “The Wagoneer is definitely the premium extension of Jeep,” said Jeep CEO Christian Meunier The edge’pp Decoder podcast in October. But there’s no Jeep badge 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 bringing back the Hummer name because of its history, said Phil Brook, GMC’s vice president of marketing. Unlike Ford with the Bronco or Jeep and the Wagoneer, GM is trying to change people’s perceptions associated with a name, and those 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 fell through, GM shut down the brand because the trucks were gas guzzlers.
“The look on people’s faces when we’ve said Hummer is coming back — they’ve gone ‘for real?’ As soon as you say electric, anything that was in any way a problem or a negative evaporates completely,” Brook says. “But GM has to repeat that.” They can say Hummer, and that directly means abundance,” says McDonnell Feit. “They also need to communicate the other part of the new message.”
NBA superstar LeBron James, who owned a Hummer H2 during his early years in the league, stars in new Hummer commercials, and the brand calls it the first all-electric super truck. In the TV spot, there is a storm, lightning strikes, and the slogan “A Quiet Revolution Is Coming” appears on the screen to highlight the truck’s electric powertrain. But “car companies are notoriously bad at assuming people understand,” says McDonnell Feit.
Americans are also spending at higher prices, and Jeep is aware of that. Its roots are in military-inspired off-roaders, but the brand’s best-selling model last year was the Grand Cherokee, which ranges in price from $35,105 to nearly $100,000 for the 707-hp Trackhawk model. The Grand Wagoneer is the company’s new flagship, and it can reach prices above $110,000 fully equipped. GMC is targeting this as well, which is why it put the Hummer under its brand, rather than on its own like before. Brook says GMC’s well-equipped Denali models account for nearly half of sales.
They don’t just spend more. Americans have a newfound desire for adventure and getting outside, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford sees this and is entering the rugged off-road SUV space, which has been dominated by the Jeep Wrangler for years, with the new Bronco. And it nailed the Bronco’s retro-inspired look with near-perfection — especially the grille, reminiscent of the one hanging on Grueber’s wall.
Before Bronco’s debut last summer, Bronco Underground made three major attempts to bring it back. The first was when Ford built prototypes in 1999, but then the automaker was hit by the recall of over 14 million Firestone tires, mostly on its Explorer. Four years later, an awkward silver Bronco concept was revealed, but it was not considered production-ready. Then Ford tried to build a Bronco on an actual platform, but the market shifted to larger four-door utility vehicles, not two-door rugged SUVs. In 2013, Ford was in danger of losing the Bronco brand, so it issued a one-off Expedition and put the Bronco name on it.
The breakthrough was when the market shifted away from sedans, says Grueber. Ford dropped them from its lineup in 2018, freeing up space at Ford’s Michigan assembly plant when the Focus was dropped. “We activated the subway and started putting together the plan to bring it back,” he says. Now, Ford is hoping its new Maverick compact pickup will attract those former sedan buyers.
These names evoke nostalgia in consumers, reminders of how things used to be. Especially with millennials, McDonnell Feit points out. “The auto companies are trying to tap into millennials’ fascination with all things old-fashioned,” she says. This demographic is listening to vinyl again; look straight Stranger Things, the Netflix science-fiction series set in the 1980s; and, Detroit automakers hope, buy Broncos, Hummers and Wagoneers.
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