Car sales improved in some regions, but they remained below pre-recession levels.
That was especially true in the US, where an improved economy drove a 13 percent year-on-year sales increase to 14.5 million cars. Sales spiked at the end of the year because of replacement demand following Hurricane Sandy.
Car sales rebounded in the UK as well, to over 2 million vehicles. The 5.3 percent sales increase compared with 2011 was the highest year-on-year rise since 2001, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
Sales growth in China continued, although at a somewhat slower pace. Weak consumer confidence continued to inhibit sales in Europe. Registrations declined 8.2 percent year-on-year to 12.1 million cars, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association.
The European slowdown impacted BMW's earnings and was in part responsible for the swap at the top of the rankings, as Toyota surpassed BMW to reclaim brand value leadership. The rise suggested that Toyota had rehabilitated a reputation for reliability compromised by the recall problems of 2010.
The brand value of the Top 10 brands improved 5 percent in the 2013 BrandZ™ ranking compared with a 7 percent decline last year. Brand value remained at only 71 percent of its pre-recession level. These other developments also shaped the category:
Carmakers continued to use common platforms for different brands to yield production economies.
Cars at all levels enjoyed the kinds of technological features once only available on luxury models.
Desire for price and performance was balanced with concern for the environment, although pure electric cars still sought acceptance.
US surge raises most brands
With US sales of 2.1 million cars, Ford was the country's best-selling brand. Its closest competitor, GM's Chevrolet, sold 1.9 million cars. With a 35 percent increase in sales, the Volkswagen brand recorded its third consecutive year of double-digit US unit growth. Its Audi brand experienced its best year ever in the US, with sales growth of 19 percent.
Volkswagen also improved in Brand Contribution, a measurement of brand equity. Its overall brand value rose only moderately due to reduced profitability, resulting from increased investment in revamping its popular car models.
Toyota's US sales climbed 26 percent and Honda's 24 percent. Chrysler's sales improved 39 percent. Korea's Hyundai brand sold over 700,000 cars in the US. The buying surge was enough to raise most brands.
With customers entering US car showrooms again, they also felt OK about buying luxury. The remaining question was, "what is luxury?" Cars at intermediate price points included features generally associated with luxury. The luxury distinction became the interior finishes and refinements.
Mercedes, BMW, Audi and other luxury brands relied on stories, heritage and authenticity to differentiate. At the same time, however, the threshold price point for luxury seemed to slip, with talk of a $30,000 luxury car intended to lure younger customers and cultivate a future clientele.
Many of the available features involved technology that further turned cars into another of life's computer command stations, a mobile phone on wheels. Cars offered remote starting, a helpful feature on cold mornings. For drivers approaching their vehicle with arms loaded down with packages, Ford offered this solution: An SUV tailgate that opens with the wave of a foot.
The electric car wasn't humming yet, mostly because of the technical issues involved with battery replacement. Shoppers seem pleased to purchase hybrids for the right price and without a diminished driving experience. Even high performance brands like Porsche and BMW were developing hybrid options.
Slower sales in fast growing markets
For the first time, the number of new cars registered in China exceeded the number in Europe, which declined. But car sales in China grew at a slower rate because of weaker GDP expansion and government restrictions aimed at reducing pollution. Still, total car sales rose 4.3 percent year on- year to 19.3 million, according to the China Automobile Association.
And China remained the key growth market for international car brands. Luxury brands, including BMW, Mercedes and Audi, enjoyed relatively strong sales in China, driven by the rise of Chinese millionaires and, to an extent, by government fleet purchases for officials. To promote the domestic Chinese car industry, the government planned to shift its contract purchases away from foreign brands to favor Chinese cars, such as Geely, Great Wall, BYD and Chery. Ford announced plans to introduce the Lincoln in China by 2014, as part of its effort to establish Lincoln as a global brand.
Marketing to differentiate
Car brands adapted diverse communication strategies, as evidenced during the 2013 Super Bowl. Affirming its determination to make the Chrysler-Fiat hook-up work in America, the company promoted its Ram trucks with an emotional tribute to American farmers.
Ford, in contrast, emphasized the idea that it's a company of real people helping other real people. Its Super Bowl commercial for Lincoln referenced a related social media campaign. Much of Ford's communication happened in social media, where it made direct contact with customers, hoping to turn them into brand advocates.
GM's marketing emphasized two brands: Chevrolet, which spans several market segments, and Cadillac, positioned as a luxury car. It also focused on Buick. Both Chevrolet and Buick share the same platform as Opel. The GM marketing effort for Chevrolet connected the brand with baseball and an idyllic vision of America.