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Ford Brand-Management Plan Aims to Stand 6 Brands Apart

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ford Motor Co. says its days of producing and marketing similar, look-alike vehicles that are different in name only are coming to an end.

No longer will the Mercury Sable mid-size sedan be a knockoff of the Ford Taurus, the Tracer subcompact a tweaked Escort or the Mountaineer sport-utility vehicle a slightly more expensive twin of the Explorer.

“That day at Ford is over,” said James Schroer, the company’s executive director of marketing strategy and brand management. “Badge engineering is out.”

Both Ford and General Motors Corp. have been wrestling with how to better distinguish and market their diverse and often overlapping portfolios of vehicles around the world.

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After several years of contemplation, Ford finally is rolling out its new brand-management strategy as part of an 82,000-square-foot display Jan. 9-18 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

For the first time, Ford will display its six global auto brands together--Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Mazda. Until now, each brand has been displayed separately, and many consumers have no idea that Ford owns Jaguar or controls Mazda.

The company plans to market the Ford name as a “trustmark,” one that symbolizes overall quality, safety and reliability and stands behind each of its distinct nameplates.

Although the auto maker will not explicitly advertise Jaguars as Fords, it believes that customers who are aware of the connection will feel more comfortable with the product.

Ford also is developing explicit definitions of what each of its brands stands for in the marketplace. These will be used to help design and engineer vehicles that display qualities that appeal to specific consumer groups.

For instance, the Ford vehicle brand is defined as genuine, progressive and smart. Lincoln stands for American luxury, whereas Mercury is innovative, expressive and individualistic. Jaguar is seen as elegant, sensuous and original; Aston Martin exclusive. Mazda is stylish, spirited, insightful.

Clearly, some brands are further along in fulfilling their promise than others. The one with the murkiest image is Mercury, which hopes to benefit from a change of scenery after the move of Lincoln Mercury headquarters to Irvine this year.

“That’s the brand that needs the greatest change and innovation,” Schroer said.

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He notes, however, that the new Cougar coupe, with its edgy, sporty design, gives hints of Mercury’s future. Also the Sable, which will be completely redesigned by 2004, will be sharply distinguished from the Taurus.

Schroer distinguishes Ford’s new marketing strategy from traditional consumer-product brand management, which depends heavily on advertising to create the perception of difference among similar products.

Automobiles require a more sophisticated marketing approach because vehicles are varied, costly and complex. The purchase decision is more emotional, requiring the product to connect with a consumer’s needs and desires.

This connection can be made on many levels. Ford designers and marketers are working together to develop “visual languages” that impart a brand’s individuality through textures, colors, materials and shapes.

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These ideas will be on display at Ford’s exhibit at the Detroit auto show. While the six brands will be shown contiguously, each will have a distinct look and feel, as projected not only in the vehicles on display but also in the colors, props and materials that surround them.

The Jaguar stand consists of dark wood and rich leathers, consistent with the brand’s elegant image. The Mercury stand will be more expressive with a green glass floor lit from underneath.

“This is a road map for us,” said J. Mays, Ford’s design vice president.

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Diesel Power: Recent regulatory rulings by the California Air Resources Board would appear to make the future of diesel engines in passenger cars and trucks a dim one. But that is not discouraging Detroit from forging ahead with diesel research and development.

DaimlerChrysler Corp., for one, will show a new concept vehicle at the Detroit show that purports to prove that a large pickup truck doesn’t have to be a pollution-belching gas guzzler.

The Dodge Power Wagon is a big pickup with brawny design cues plucked from the 1946 model of the same name. It is equipped with a huge 7.2-liter, direct-injection turbocharged diesel engine. Built on a Dodge Ram chassis, it is about the same size as the Dakota Club Cab pickup.

The concept vehicle is meant to display the potential of modern diesel engines to provide greater fuel economy--as much as 40% better than gasoline--while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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California, however, recently labeled diesel particulates as a toxic contaminant and ruled that beginning in 2004 diesel engines must meet the same emissions standards as gasoline power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency is considering similar restrictions.

The auto industry is upset with the new regulations because engineers believe that diesels hold the best hope of increasing fuel economy while reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Diesels are increasingly popular in Europe and elsewhere.

“We see a future for the diesel engine,” said Bernard Robertson, DaimlerChrysler’s senior vice president of engineering technologies.

Industry officials say that diesel engines could provide a cleaner, more efficient alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles with refinements in engine technologies, exhaust after-treatments and cleaner fuels.

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The Power Wagon is designed to run on a sulfur-free “designer fuel” made by Syntroleum Corp. of Tulsa, Okla. DaimlerChrysler says the fuel, made from natural gas, is “potentially the cleanest practical hydrocarbon fuel ever made.”

Environmental groups are unlikely to be convinced. They see Detroit’s obsession with diesel as simply an effort to put off investing in more promising technologies like fuel cells.

And they are likely to see the muscle-bound Power Wagon as a symbol of Detroit’s obstinacy on environmental matters. “It makes an in-your-face statement,” said Matt DeLorenzo, Detroit editor of Road & Track magazine.

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Hybrid Mania: It used to be fairly easy to tell a car from a truck. But these days, auto makers are busy blending cars and trucks into so-called hybrids or crossover vehicles.

The idea generally is to create a vehicle that combines the ride, handling and comfort of a car with the image, utility and ruggedness found in SUVs and pickups.

The trend will be on full display in Detroit. GM will display three crossover vehicles: the Pontiac Aztek, based on a mid-size sedan; the Chevrolet Nomad, a 21st century version of the 1950s sport wagon; and the Oldsmobile Recon, a compact SUV.

Mitsubishi is expected to display a Galant-based crossover dubbed Mad Max that has elements of both an SUV and a station wagon. BMW enters the fray with its new X5 Sports Activity Vehicle, a passenger car with advanced four-wheel-drive technology.

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DaimlerChrysler may top them all with the unveiling of a “hybrid-hybrid” concept vehicle. The Chrysler Citadel is a luxury performance crossover that offers four-wheel drive, high ground clearance and SUV-like cargo space. It offers a dual powertrain: A gas engine drives the rear wheels, electric motors powered by batteries drive the front wheels.

DaimlerChrysler also is expected to show a hybrid based on the Neon subcompact.

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Donald W. Nauss is The Times’ Detroit bureau chief. He can be reached via e-mail at don.nauss@latimes.com.

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