Sales Approach Pre-crisis Levels, But Overcapacity Hurts Margins

US, Europe and China experience growth

The brand value of the car category improved 17 percent after a 5 percent lift a year ago. Car sales accelerated 8 percent in the US to 15.6 million units, and are expected to reach pre-crisis sales levels this year. Western Europe continued to improve, although discounts weakened margins. Sales advanced sharply in China but declined in the other BRICs.

Overcapacity remained the chief concern, affecting profits in the US and Europe. Although some capacity was removed during the recession, it exceeds demand, leaving the industry with excess inventory and perpetual discounting by dealers, which erodes margins, cheapens brand equity and limits capital for future investment.

Consumer preference has moved toward utility-looking vehicles, smaller, crossover SUVs built on car frames. These types of cars are the sweet spot in most of the world with the exception of Brazil and India where car size is smaller. The trend results in part from smaller family size as boomers becoming empty nesters.

Unlike in some other categories where consumers gravitated to the value and premium options, abandoning the broad middle, the mid-market brands came back strongly in the car category.

Toyota sold almost 10 million cars, making it the largest carmaker in total units for the second consecutive year, followed closely by GM and Volkswagen. Exports, and a weakened yen, drove Toyota’s growth.

Ford enjoyed one of its most profitable years ever, with record profits in North America and Asia, and strong results in the weaker economies of South America and Europe. Ford re-entered the BrandZ™ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands. Its brand value increased 56 percent.

Chevrolet sold almost five million vehicles last year, a record, with a sale of 1.9 million in the US, followed by 650,000 in China and around the same number in Brazil and under 200,000 in Mexico and in Russia. The Cruze small car was Chevrolet’s top seller worldwide.

These midmarket models were loaded with the latest technology, as technology became almost a hygiene factor rather than an expression of luxury.

In luxury, both BMW and Mercedes experienced a strong year, with car models that resonated with buyers. The stock market reacted positively to sales results. Audi remained the best-selling luxury brand in China. Hyundai, which offers its premium brand Genesis in South Korea and the US, planned to introduce it in Europe. These other trends emerged:

  • Technology
    Consumers expected cars loaded with technology, regardless of price point. Conditioned by rapid smartphone apps, they also expected car technology to improve with the speed of downloads.
  • Safety
    Safety remained an overriding concern. A key reason people trade in cars after the third year of ownership is to upgrade to new safety features. Luxury brands are moving beyond crash survival to crash avoidance.
  • Trust
    GM conducted two large recalls and apologized for its slow response to a critical safety problem, promising a transparent investigation. Toyota accepted a $1.2 billion fine from US regulators for misleading consumers during its 2009 stuck accelerator crisis.

Fuel efficiency and emissions shape preferences

Hybrids continued to do well, with sales up about 30 percent in the US. It’s not that shoppers preferred the styling or performance of those cars, but they wanted to enjoy the key benefit – fuel efficiency. Toyota hybrid sales in Europe grew 43 percent, driving strong profit for the brand in that region.

The prospect of stricter regulations encouraged manufacturers to invest in electric alternatives. Price, limited range and the lack of recharging infrastructure remained significant barriers. Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt experienced soft sales. Tesla generated excitement, but did not sell many units, although it has become a status symbol. BMW is introducing its i3.

Minivans sales in the US declined with the rise of SUV crossovers, particularly at the premium end of the market. Europeans preferred small utility vehicles that fit into small parking spaces and emit less carbon, an important issue in Europe.

The need to reduce carbon emissions is prompting European luxury brands like Mercedes and BMW to produce smaller models. Regulations to improve air quality in China, expected to be similar to the European standards, will impact the Chinese produced cars.

Fast growing markets

China car sales increased 13.9 percent to 22.9 million units in 2013, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Sales declined in Brazil and India for the first time in about a decade. With slowing sales and a weakened rupee, international carmakers in India turned to export to deal with overcapacity.

The European luxury brands sold well in China, led by Volkswagen’s Audi, which is the car of choice for official government transportation. Ford, which introduced several new models in China, experienced almost a 50 percent increase in sales to over 935,000 units. Ford plans to introduce its Lincoln brand in China to compete in the luxury sector.

Sales of Toyota and Honda rebounded in China after tensions subsided between Japan and China. Honda sales also were helped by the introduction of an updated Accord Sedan. Nissan sold 1.3 million cars in China, a 17 percent increase.

Action Points

Be safe.

Consumers may enjoy slipping into the driver’s seat and feeling as if they’re surrounded by cooler technology than they can access on their smartphone. But the stakes are much higher behind the wheel. Ultimately, people want to feel confident that their families are safe.

Be transparent.

Even in today’s world of incessant social media it’s possible to keep a secret, at least for a while. But keeping a secret has consequences. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, the public may disapprove of the original misdeed but it’s less likely to forgive the cover-up.

Demonstrate leadership.

Younger consumers especially are making product choices driven by concerns about the environment. Car brands can react or they can lead with innovative technology.

Cars Up 17%

The car category includes mass market and luxury cars but excludes trucks. Each car brand includes all models marketed under the brand name.

BrandZ Top 100 2014

BrandZ Global 2014 Report Top 100 Report

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Methodology and valuation by Kantar Millward Brown

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