Australians reflect on iconic Holden brand as GM announces its exit

General Motors confirms it's retiring the Holden brand after 160 years

Kristian Aquilina with the iconic Holden vehicle
Kristian Aquilina with the iconic Holden vehicle

Consumers and politicians have taken to social media to express their disappointment and frustrations following news iconic Australian brand, Holden, will exit the market after a 160-year run.

In a statement on Monday, General Motors (GM) announced defeat on its operations locally, confirming the Holden brand will be retired from sales by next year. Both Maven and Holden Financial Services operations will also be wound down.

GM international operations senior VP, Julian Blissett, said the “difficult” decision comes after efforts to maintain and turnaround local operations failed to deliver the returns GM was looking for.

Factors cited by the group included the fragmented right-hand drive market, the decline in sedan sales in favour of SUV vehicles, and the economics to support growing the Holden brand versus return on investment. The plan now is to focus the A/NZ strategy on specialty vehicles.

The decision comes less than three months after GM announced it would be scrapping Holden’s most iconic model, the Commodore, along with the Astra hatchback in 2020, to focus on SUVs and utes.

“After comprehensive assessment, we regret we could not prioritise the investment required for Holden to be successful for the long term in Australia and New Zealand, over all other considerations we have globally,” Blissett stated. “This decision is based on global priorities and does not reflect the hard work, talent and professionalism of the Holden team.”

GM Holden interim chairman, managing director and former EGM of marketing, Kristian Aquilina, said it was critical the company works with all stakeholders to deliver the brand a respectful and “dignified” wind-down.

“Unfortunately, all the hard work and talent of the Holden family, the support of our parent company, GM, and the passion of our loyal supporters have not been enough to overcome our challenges,” he said.

“Holden will always have a special place in the development of our countries. As Australia and New Zealand grew, Holden was a part of the engine room fuelling that development.

“Today’s announcement will be felt deeply by the many people who loved Holdens, drive Holdens and feel connected to our company, which has been with us for 160 years and is almost ubiquitous in our lives.”

Fans of the brand took to social media to express their disappointment, not only sharing memories of their Holden vehicles, but also questioning government policy around supporting and then pulling funding from Australia’s car industry.

Yet as CQ University marketing professor, Dr Saalem Sadeque, told CMO last year, for Holden, brand nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, especially given the car stopped manufacturing locally in 2017.

"Holden is part of Australian identity. So, the loss will be felt by a lot of people. I also think the GM had to make this decision because the sales number were continuously poor - this was the final nail," Sadeque told CMO this week.

"As I noted last year, GM did not attempt to tie Holden’s identity with Australian identity by focusing on the nostalgic aspect. The presence of nostalgic aspect is now clear as evidenced the number of people who have taken to the social media to share their memories of Holden, sometimes with photos which are 20-30 years old. I think GM simply did not pick up this existing nostalgic feeling.

"In short, there exists a certain kind of loving memory about Holden which GM did not utilise in its marketing communication. We are seeing this nostalgic feeling being expressed on social media but it is too late."

During CMO Momentum last year, Aquilina shared with attendees the work-in-progress initiatives he’d help put in place to turn the Holden brand around. These stemmed from identification and research into negative sentiment and what it was that made the brand tick, to a pivot from engineering to brand-led organisational transformation, a change in communications, and new servicing and warranty offers that backed up the credentials of the vehicles themselves.

Clearly these initiatives were not enough, with GM’s global announcement this week proof of the hard economic decision made outside of local shores. In September 2019, Holden posted its lowest car sales since 1948, its 18th consecutive monthly sales decline and a 38 per cent drop year-on-year to fewer than 3000 vehicles.

The company said it’s now working with its dealer network on transition arrangements, including the option to continue as service outlets to support Holden customers, and said it will honour all warranties and servicing offers made at time of sale. Servicing and spare parts will also be made available for at least 10 years.

An estimated 600 Holden employees are also being provided separation packages and transition support, the company said. Meanwhile, in a direct response to GM’s decision, rival manufacturer, Ford, said it was in Australia to stay and said it may be able offer jobs to some of Holden’s laid-off workers.

For Sadeque, one lesson marketers should take away from this is that when brands suffer from low sales after being at the top, go back and see why the brand was at the top.

"Look at what was unique about it and try to reconnect with that unique attribute," he advised. "Holden might have been in a better position if it tried to show how the brand is uniquely Australian – a differentiating attribute compared to other competing auto brands."

What consumers had to say



Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia.

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