Marketing professor: For Holden, brand nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

CQ University marketing professor sheds some light on the challenges brands face when they lose their foundational right to being with consumers

Brands can be built on many different foundations – personality, quality, luxury, locality – the list is endless. But what should a brand do when that foundation is taken away?

It is a question that has been perplexing CQ University marketing lecturer, Dr Saalem Sadeque, and was top of mind when he saw the sales performance of the once-loved Australian automotive brand, Holden.

Last year, the brand posted one of its worst result since its foundation in 1948, with sales slumping by a third and the iconic Commodore dropping out of the list of the top 20 passenger cars.

“Back in 2010 Holden was selling more than 100,000 units, so the brand must have resonated with Australian consumers,” Sadeque says. “But the question is, why is it not resonating anymore?”

For Sadeque, who is a Holden owner and has a self-confessed soft spot for the brand, the reason is obvious, and stems from the company’s decision to cease local manufacturing.

“Holden had an Australian identity, and suddenly stopping production and bringing cars from Germany was not resonating at that intangible level,” Sadeque says. “The second thing I started thinking about was what can Holden do to reverse this.”

According to Sadeque, the problem arises when the brand loses something that is also part of the self-identity the brand is advocating. When that shared identity trait is lost, something else is needed to replace it. Otherwise the two-way commitment advocates feel is lost, as the brand is no longer seen to be showing its pre-existing levels of commitment to its market.

Holden is by no means the first brand that has had to rebuild a component of its brand foundation. The challenge is similar to that faced by Pacific Brands when it chose to cease manufacturing in Australia, including for its much-loved Bonds brand. While there was significant outcry at the time, the impact on sales appears to have been short lived.

Sadeque says the solution for brands facing any sort of change that challenges their identity is to firstly understand what gave it brand equity in the first place. In Holden’s case, that might be something that expands beyond just locality of manufacturing. Then rebuild around that.

The idea is not without precedent. Sadeque says the once-declining Finnish clothing brand, Reino & Aino, was able to revive its fortunes, although its brand owners had to bring manufacturing back onshore to re-establish the association with national identity. Such an opportunity is unlikely to be available for Holden.

Regardless, repositioning to revitalise a declining brand is a long-term project that requires patience, and one that starts with understanding customers and the brand through a brand audit, Sadeque says. For Holden, for instance, the company still retains a sizeable market advantage through strong brand recall, even if the attributes that built that brand have eroded.

“At present Holden is focusing on features, but so are the other companies, so there is no distinguishing element,” Sadeque says. “So don’t do that, do something different.”

His solution? Nostalgia.

“It’s about the fact that the brand was driven by a consumer’s parents and grandparents,” Sadeque says. “But it has to be played in such a way that it is an intergenerational transfer.”

In Holden’s case, he advises collecting fond memories of driving or riding Holden and using it as part of marketing communication. Another step is supporting charities and events that are meaningful and match the brand image Holden wants to portray.

“All these activities are likely to form positive brand evaluation about Holden,” Sadeque adds.

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