By now we've all seen the headlines. Holden is no more. Its parent company General Motors has killed it. This story has captivated the media of two countries and drawn attention in many more, like nothing short of an international tragedy. That's because for many people it is.
In the initial coverage, we've heard about the distraught fans, the out of pocket dealers, and the business case that caused GM to pull the plug on 164 years of antipodean motoring history.
While we can be sure that GM was aware this move would generate a tsunami of upset, we can be equally sure that this decision was ultimately informed by numbers on a spreadsheet highlighting declining returns, untenable overheads and a bleak financial forecast.
Unfortunately, what those numbers — likely displayed on a powerpoint to a table of execs in a Detroit boardroom — can never capture is the emotional weight carried by 164 years of brand history.
You simply can't assess the financial ramifications of killing off an iconic brand like Holden in terms of losses recouped, assets sold off and overheads slashed. Holden has ascended to that rarefied altitude in the branding pantheon that few ever accomplish — it's part of the cultural fabric.
General Motors on the other hand is a brand that many on both sides of the Tasman are less familiar with. However, overnight GM has made itself incredibly famous in our part of the world. Famous as the company that killed an icon. The company that discontinued Holden and took the magic out of Bathurst.
I read this morning that GM intends to focus its growth in New Zealand and Australia on speciality vehicles such as the Camaro and the Corvette. Would you want to be the salesperson responsible for shifting those vehicles? You're not selling a Corvette any more. You're selling the car that overwrote 164 years of motoring history in this part of the world.
When marketing strategists talk to clients about brands we talk about building an emotional advantage. This is exactly what we mean. People are emotional beings and our decisions are charged with feeling. A brand that truly captures the emotions takes years, often decades, to build. Holden had this, although over the past decade they gradually stopped investing in emotional advantage.
Unfortunately, the economic realities of manufacturing a regionally popular vehicle in a globalised market became increasingly hard to stomach, but the Holden brand remained incredibly resonant. Had they maintained the love for the brand with a new generation of drivers, that may have translated into the ability to charge a premium, invest in future-proofed technology, and seen the brand thrive for another hundred years. This wasn't the road taken.
As GM looks to ramp up the marketing of its flagship vehicles in our region, it will endeavour to build its own emotional connection with consumers. Unfortunately for them, in 24 hours they've already built a powerful emotional association with antipodeans in the worst possible way, and to turn it around will be a long road back.
- Rupert Price is chief strategy officer at DDB New Zealand and Interbrand New Zealand