2010: The Year in Marketing

By Dale Buss December 28, 2010

Economics, politics, finance and safety engineering all took the front seat for the auto industry at various times during 2010, diminishing the primary roles that products and marketing typically assume during good times.

But when it came to branding and marketing, there were still plenty of important, impactful - and intriguing - things going on.

Here's our list of the Top Ten Marketing Stories of 2010 in the U.S. auto industry, in order of their overall significance:

Toyota Brand StrugglesToyota Akio Toyoda testifying.jpg

For what long had been a bullet-proof brand, Toyota's quick fall from grace - beginning with its spate of safety recalls early in the year -- was breathtaking to behold. Soft spots in its product-replenishment cycle left Toyota with some stale staples as well; even Prius seemed tired. Brand brass countered with their biggest-ever incentive programs in the spring and with advertising reminders of the quality and dependability that made the company great. Loyalists stayed with it, but Toyota simply couldn't conquest other brands like it used to, leading to its first significant share loss in the U.S. market.

Electric Drives Charge the Market2011 Nissan Leaf - 250.JPG

With the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf making their debuts as the year ended, electric vehicles took the industry's center stage. Chevy touted Volt's "green" chops in its advertising, of course, and cleverly reminded consumers that the car's reserve gas engine would save them from experiencing the "range anxiety" destined for owners of the all-electric Leaf. Restaurant chains and not-for-profits joined government agencies and utilities in building and promoting charging-station infrastructure. Yet plenty of automakers and outsiders still doubted that many Americans would pony up for pricey and relatively impractical EVs, at least in the early stages.
GM Reinvents ItselfGM marketing VP Joel Ewanick with Chevrolet Volt.jpg

General Motors began the year with a renewed financial foundation based on the federal bailout, lower costs mandated by the same process, fresh no-nonsense corporate leadership, and a new-product pipeline spitting out a steady stream of hits. But GM couldn't get its arms around that branding and marketing thing. So it eliminated marginal brands and brought in Hyundai's wunderkind marketer, Joel Ewanick, as its new CMO. So far, he gets an "A" for effort but only a "B" for execution: "Chevy Runs Deep" isn't blowing anyone's socks off, and despite his protestations, people are still taking about the "GM brand" because of November's initial public offering.

Ford Gains Traction - Lots of It2010 Ford Super Duty on rocks - 240.JPG

If the Detroit Lions blocked and tackled like Ford, they'd be undefeated. Under Chief Marketing Officer Jim Farley, Ford counted only as a starting point the advantage of consumer goodwill over its independence from government bailout. Cannily, Ford also marketed the practical aspects of its bulls-eye new models, such as infotainment technology and greatly enhanced fuel economy. Brand stewards once again promoted Ford heavily in moribund markets such as California. And they doubled down on the once-shaky pickup truck segment with testosterone-fueled advertising for the new heavy-duty F Series models. Ford capped two consecutive years of share gains unmatched in recent history and captured Edmunds.com's Marketer of the Year award.

Upstarts Take Advantage2011 Hyundai Sonata rear view - 297.JPG

It's been decades since the U.S. auto market was so up for grabs, because of the Great Recession. And one aggressive brand took full advantage of the opportunity: Hyundai. The insurgent Korean automaker built nicely on consumer loyalty created by its "Assurance" program of 2009 with product-centered marketing, especially around the Hyundai Sonata, in 2010, and buttressed its dealer network to boot, on the way to about a 4.7-percent share for the year - about a 0.4-point gain. Audi also picked up a bit of share through its identification with clean diesel. Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru and Volkswagen also gleaned extra shards of the market.

Brands Harness Social MediaFord Explorer on Facebook - 241.PNG

BMW's The Hire series of "short films" on the web debuted almost a decade ago, but automakers were slow to pick up on the marketing potential of the internet. Social media has allowed them to catch up quickly. Some early efforts have whipped up wonders, such as the six-month "Fiesta Movement" that concluded for Ford early this year after greatly goosing interest in the new subcompact. Ford followed up with a case study-worthy online launch of the Ford Explorer, which was accompanied by Ford executives spanning the country for a live launch of the SUV. But other campaigns have brought pratfalls, such as when Honda opened the door to widespread criticism of the design of its new CrossTour model on its own Facebook page early this year.

Tech Trumps TransportationHyundai Equus iPad - 248.JPG

More than 70 percent of buyers of the new Ford Edge are opting for installation of MyFord Touch, the brand's navigation-heavy upgrade of its original Sync infotainment system. Every automaker, in fact, is reporting huge consumer interest in onboard devices that coordinate and facilitate hands-free operation of cell phones and other mobile devices, and iPods and other music gear. Hyundai was first to introduce a car -- its $55,000 Equus with an iPad loaded with the owner's manual. This year, in fact, seemed to mark the industry's entry into an era where many consumers are more concerned about the number and types of electrical jacks in the car than what the vehicle does on the road, especially younger buyers.

Chrysler Squeaks By2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee - 270.JPG

The once-proud No. 3 domestic automaker did a pretty good job of papering over its vast deficiencies in new products with decent marketing execution in 2010. Its Fiat masters authorized an easy spigot with dealers and consumers, as Chrysler's average per-vehicle incentive skyrocketed to more than $5,000 one month, which then receded somewhat. Then marketers could talk up the winning new Jeep Grand Cherokee over the summer. And by the end of the year, Chrysler could make a credible case that "the cavalry" was finally here in a coming new-product stream. The company even picked up about 0.4 point of market share for the year.

Classic American Brands Say "Goodbye"Mercury grille badge 2010.jpg

What GM couldn't accomplish in brand rationalization over the course of a decade or so, the industry slump and federal takeover accomplished quickly. This year, the company said goodbye to its venerable Pontiac marque as well as later additions Saturn, Saab and Hummer, leaving it with just Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. And Ford finally got around to deep-sixing Mercury after years of concerns about the viability of its "me-too" brand that was set between Ford and Lincoln. They joined Oldsmobile and Plymouth as recent entrants in the pantheon of once-proud-but-now-defunct American mainstream brands.

Industry Gears Up for Hotter '112011 calendar - 243.JPG

Long before the snow flew or Thanksgiving turkeys were in the oven, auto brands were falling all over themselves heavily advertising year-end promotions to American consumers. They smelled a big finish to 2010 in the unseasonably cold air over the nation, and Christmas week has become a better and better sales period. Even more optimistically, more automakers than in several years grabbed TV-ad spots in the Super Bowl on February 6. BMW said it will return after a decade's absence, and GM will highlight the Chevrolet brand in the company's first spots during the big game in three years.

Dale Buss is a frequent AutoObserver contributing writer.


1 - Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, grandson of the automaker's founder, was on the hot seat before the U.S. Congress early this year.

2 - The Nissan Leaf went on sale in December. (Photo by Nissan)

3 - Joel Ewanick moved from Hyundai to Nissan to General Motors to beef up the Detroit automaker's marketing effort. (Photo by GM)

4 - Ford gained traction with virtually all of its models, especially the Ford F-Series Super Duty. (Photo by Ford)

5 - The Hyundai Sonata has been a rousing success, nipping at the heels in terms of sales of the venerable Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. (Photo by Hyundai)

6 - Ford used Facebook and live appearances by its executives to launch the Ford Explorer, a success being studied by other automakers as to how to use social media. (Photo from Facebook)

7 - The new $55,000 Hyundai Equus comes with an iPad that is loaded with the owner's manual. (Photo by Hyundai)

8 - Ford announced the demise of the Mercury brand by year-end. (Photo by Ford)

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