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The brand attitude of automobiles

Is brand equity really the driver behind the relative success of one of two identical cars sold in the US market-place, or are there deeper issues relating to marketing strategy and the antecedents of branding? The author examines the fate of the Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Prizm and compares it to Senator Button's plan of Australia in the late 1990s, during which the Australian big five were forced to rely on badge engineering to distinguish their products. He concludes that some automobile brands have matured into extendable attitudes conducive to their survival while others remain fixed in narrow, product-reliant niches.

Jack Yan1

A RECENT McKinsey Quarterly discussed the fate of two identical cars in the United States market-place: the Toyota Corolla and the Chevrolet Prizm.2 The two vehicles are comparably priced, receive high marks from Consumer Reports, are built at the same plant in California, 'Yet the Prizm requires up to $750 more in buyer incentives to support its sales. Even so, only one-quarter as many Prizms are sold, and their trade-in value depreciates much more quickly.'3 The authors then say that relationship and emotional benefits are more the driver and that automakers should move toward brand-based strategies to help sales.
   They go on to say that strong brands do not have to attract as many prospects and convert them to sales. Solutions included various brand exposition activities such as festivals to build loyalty and brand equity and targeting high-potential segments. Common identities, or rather, easily identifiable ranges, capture more consumers, they believe. However, this ignores that Toyota itself, because of the way Japanese companies design cars (it is individual product line-based in the home market, not range-based), does not offer as coherent a range as Mercedes-Benz, the most successful converter of prospects to sales. So how can successful Toyota—which at the time of the study offered very disparate-looking Echo, Corolla, Camry and Avalon sedans—be reconciled with successful Mercedes-Benz?
   The Corolla and Prizm are good places to start in examining brands, but the author feels that while the conclusion is correct and that the study's recommendations are acceptable, there are far deeper issues at play. Additionally, the driver for these benefits outlined by the McKinsey Quarterly must come far earlier than at the exposition stages and need to be incorporated into a brand-based product-development strategy. In short, without determining the brand attitude, no festival—or any brand exposition event—can compensate. Identity first, branding second.4

An earlier badge-engineered experience
Like the Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Prizm, the Australian market once saw two identical cars: the Toyota Corolla and Holden Nova. These were almost contemporaries of the US-market Chevrolet Nova of the mid-1980s, which was the first product of the NUMMI joint venture in California that produced the Prizm. And as in the United States, the Corolla comfortably outsold the Nova, even though the cars were from the same factories and had similar pricing. The Corolla name had been in the market-place for considerably longer than the Nova name. Holden is to Australia what Chevrolet is to America: a proud domestic marque that often trades on patriotism and owned by General Motors. More than a decade on, the Corolla continues to have a following, while the Nova is consigned to history, a forgotten car from one of Holden's most disillusioned periods.
   While this conclusion seems to support the McKinsey Quarterly article, this was not the only example of badge engineering in late-1980s Australia. Under a plan for the automotive industry devised by Australian Senator John Button, the Australian Big Five manufacturers—Ford, Holden, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota, who each had plants in the country—were to cooperate to produce badge-engineered cars and realize economies of scale. While this ignored branding, it made economic sense. It would also ensure that "Australia's Own" Holden, which was at its weakest point historically, producing cars designed in other nations, wouldn't be alone. However, the Button plan did not last.
   Nissan hooked up with Ford before it had to withdraw from automobile production in Australia. Holden and Toyota joined forces.5 Mitsubishi had already occupied the intermediate niche comfortably with its Magna sedan, developed domestically by its engineers by widening the Galant platform as Australians demanded width from their family cars, and was successfully exporting the station wagon variant to numerous markets, including Japan.
   For a time, Australians could buy the Toyota Corolla as a Holden Nova (interestingly, they could have bought, a few years earlier, the Nissan Pulsar as a Holden Astra), the Nissan Bluebird as a Ford Corsair and the Toyota Camry as the Holden Apollo. In these three cases, the Japanese-badged (and Japanese-engineered) versions outsold the Australian-badged ones. They could also buy the Ford Falcon Utility as the Nissan Ute and the Holden Commodore as the Toyota Lexcen. In both cases, the Australian-badged (and Australian-engineered) versions outsold the Japanese-badged ones.
   It appeared that Australians knew which were the "originals" and which were the badge-engineered and bought the former instead.
   The experience seems to put into question that brand equity drove the better sales' performance of the Toyota Corolla versus the Chevrolet Prizm. At JY&A Consulting, it is generally believed that brand equity is a consequence (and therefore, a suitable marketing objective) of branding, not an antecedent.6 Therefore, the author questions whether brand equity could have been responsible—likewise branding events which come after the brand strategy for an automaker is formed—for the Toyota's success. What had driven Corolla's market-place victory over the Prizm may be to do with which stratum the brands are strongest.
   Meanwhile, the strongest brands have progressed beyond product strata and into the hallowed realms of a brand attitude, vying for fame alongside Virgin and Caterpillar.7

Brands and their product strata
The author proposes a study to determine how brands are aligned to different product classes. The McKinsey Quarterly piece indicates the success of Mercedes-Benz. This is a valuable example of a brand that has had to undergo transformations in the last 10 years. For a start, Mercedes-Benz began production of a SUV in Alabama, the M-class. It had to convince buyers that the message was no longer 'Made in Germany' but 'Made by Mercedes', a concept that necessarily forced the company to look at its brand values. Second, Mercedes-Benz moved downmarket in most countries outside the United States with the A-class, a subcompact hatchback shorter than a Ford Focus while boasting the interior room of a C-class.8 This vehicle was so radical that the automaker had to begin running advertisements for it years before its launch so audiences would begin to accept the idea of a new concept of automobile as well as Mercedes-Benz building a subcompact.
   The company has succeeded with the moves, the A- and M-class vehicles becoming an accepted part of the brand. They are considered desirable, even if the price premium is not as great as those on the sedans. Therefore, when Mercedes-Benz introduced its C-class Sportcoupé to the United States, a compact hatchback, it had already realigned its core brand to mean something very distinct and had spent several years practising this new strategy.9
   The Mercedes brand attitude of today cannot be defined by product niche. Instead, it has to be defined by consumer benefits: the feeling a motorist gets when driving or being driven in a Mercedes, the impression of exclusivity (even if the A- and C-class have increased the number of Mercedes-Benz automobiles actually on the road), the heritage and the pioneering spirit of the company.
   Luxury brands do not always have an easier time in finding an attitude, but other examples can be quickly recalled. BMW, 'the ultimate driving machine' found it a simple matter to extend the philosophy to the X5 SUV. Provided that the X5 lived up to the BMW claim, buyers were willing to accept the München-based manufacturer as a source of SUVs as well as performance sedans and coupés. The X5 is probably an even better example of a product born out of a brand attitude and how that shaped BMW's identity programme: every department, including engineering, product design and marketing, were coordinated in making the SUV exhibit traditional BMW brand values. The company did not even have to shift its focus, having positioned itself as the 'ultimate' long ago, with a top-down identity and branding strategy that saw this filter throughout the whole organization.10 The BMW 3-series, despite being in the top 20 of global automobile sales, maintains an image of desirability as a result. The BMW 1-series, previewed at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2002, will succeed for the same reasons.
   Cadillac is moving towards the same. Of the models that premièred during the 2002 Superbowl, Cadillac has been most successful with its new CTS model,11 proving that the make can be extended downwards from established models such as the De Ville—and despite disappointing compact entries such as the Cimarron of the 1980s (a rebadged Chevrolet Cavalier that didn't appear very different, reflecting no Cadillac values whatsoever) or the more recent Catera (a rebadged Opel Omega that also looked nothing like a Cadillac). The new model reflects Cadillac brand values in its product design. However, the shape is more aggressive, suiting the younger buyers that Cadillac wishes to court. While the soundtrack for the television commercial is by Led Zeppelin, the marketing effort ties in with the direction that Cadillac has been heading in in more recent years for its Seville and Escalade SUV models. All the Cadillac lines are consistently tied together by its new slogan, 'Heritage reborn',12 a prelude to new models that include a roadster and a means to remove itself from brand-damaging past models.
   Arguably, these are luxury brands with already an aspirational quality, but lesser brands have shifted their branding as well as positioning. Volkswagen had to go from downmarket to upmarket with its Phaeton sedan, built to rival Mercedes-Benz's S-class, the full-size Lexus LS and the Volkswagen Group's own Audi A8. It was not going to confront the luxury brands directly—it had to manage its own brand vis-à-vis sister brands Audi and Bentley—but it was going to compete on a quality-first, "classical" niche. Volkswagen's models are well-built, "mature" automobiles that suggest longevity, not just in the perceived quality (a consequence, rather than antecedent), but in the heritage of the model "bloodline". Hence the original Käfer or Fusca, depending on where one grew up, "evolved" to become a classic, and the same has applied to the Golf, which has been designed and marketed to maintain a set image. This steady development of the Volkswagen brand—which, too, had reached a low ebb in the 1980s—paved the way for the Phaeton, which could turn out to be the early 2000s' surprise success.
   Another Volkswagen brand, Skoda, has removed the shackles of being perceived as an Eastern Bloc joke to a cheap yet quality-conscious brand. It has also moved beyond small cars into the mid-sized sector with the Octavia sedan. While residuals are not high, Skoda cars have by and large shed their unreliable, communist image.
   In this context, it is not hard to see why some brands face more difficulty. The McKinsey authors cite Mercury as being less successful. And for good reason: over the years, Mercury has been inconsistent in its identity and its brand.13 Mercury's range has shrunk, with models disappearing from the lower end upwards: the Tracer and, soon, Cougar, are history. Mercury seems to be defined by its most profitable models, the Sable and the Grand Marquis, and to some extent, the Mountaineer SUV. A distinct Mercury character—an attitude—can be discerned from these three models alone, but Ford has not yet done so. However, there is clearly something that makes Mercury buyers choose the Sable over the equivalent and identically engineered Ford Taurus (is it the fact that the Mercury is less likely to be seen in a fleet?), the Grand Marquis over the Ford Crown Victoria and the Mountaineer over the Ford Explorer. It cannot be luxury items alone, which a brandless analysis would suggest.
   The Australian situation is more clear-cut. Australian automakers have traditionally been known for family-sized cars. Ford's Falcon is, by modern standards, a full-size car, larger than the Taurus. Holden exports its Commodore and Statesman to the Middle East as the Chevrolet Lumina and Caprice, filling the positions left by the former full-sized American-built Chevrolet Impala and Caprice. In Australia, these companies are known for big cars. Even when Holden built foreign-designed automobiles, it was really known for the Commodore, which for most of its life was powered by domestically designed motors.
   Relative to this, the Japanese manufacturers in Australia had to adopt a flanking strategy to compete against the two American-owned brands which were seen as Australian. Their entries into Australia were not dissimilar to that of the US: Mitsubishi started supplying compact cars to Chrysler (and when Chrysler withdrew from Australia, Mitsubishi purchased its operations); Toyota and Nissan were known for small cars.
   These five brands became defined by product: Ford and Holden for well-engineered large cars developed for local conditions; Toyota and Nissan for compacts and mid-sized cars; Mitsubishi for the intermediate-sized cars, namely the Magna and Diamante.
   Therefore, a study will probably find that Mitsubishi's sales for its compacts are not as strong as for the Magna and Diamante range, even if its compact Lancer Evolution has a cult status in many markets. Toyota will have strong positions for its Corolla and Camry, but the Avalon will not find itself as established as Diamante, Ford Falcon or Holden Commodore.14 Nissan is currently repositioning itself as a driver's car, moving toward an attitude, and will probably find, once the strategy is in full swing, that its models will benefit sales-wise.15
   Holden is known for the Commodore and the models based on it, but it has the added honour of being "Australia's Own" and has, in more recent years, been able to shift smaller Astras and Vectras. Ford remains linked to the Falcon as far as its Australian range is concerned, with its compact Laser relatively failing to capture the buying public's imagination.

The product design question
If Mercedes-Benz's consistent product design is right for branding, then Toyota's is wrong, but the McKinsey Quarterly evidence shows otherwise. One might conclude that the authors of that article were incorrect in their view of Toyota, or that there are other branding antecedents at play.
   Toyota products cannot be identified as rapidly as Mercedes'. The Japanese automaker purposely creates model lines that do not fit together in a coherent range, because its home-market buyers do not care about purchasing into a Toyota heritage. Rather, the consumer purchases automobiles based on individual styling. Hence, Toyota cars tend not to have a clear evolutionary bloodline in their product design. A 2002 Corolla looks very different from a 1988 model. However, a 2002 Mercedes C-class is clearly a product-design evolution of the 1988 190E, since European automakers build on their pedigree and European customers prefer to buy from an identifiable range of automobiles—a range orientation, for want of a better term.
   Even amongst the Toyota range there is no clear design direction. The US entry-market model, the Echo two-door, shares little in the shape with the top-selling Camry. Toyota's sports cars, the MR2 and Celica, might as well have come from two different companies.
   In the US market, the Toyota brand succeeds on factors outside product design. There are other things that identify Toyota, from the way the company strives for continuous quality improvement to the customer service which keeps customers returning. These antecedents of corporate identity logically enter at the strategic stage, well before brand equity. However, the brand equity consequences are consistent with the earlier phases: for example, there are clearly identifiable brand assets, such as the three-circle Toyota symbol,16 and the Corolla and Camry names which date from 1966 and 1980 respectively; perceived brand quality is very high amongst US consumers; and strong brand loyalty has resulted.
   Balancing home and export demands has always been difficult for Toyota. The Japanese and American markets seem to forgive Toyota's disparate product design, so the McKinsey Quarterly conclusion appears wrong as far as the United States is concerned. However, it is probably correct across the Atlantic: Toyota products have not succeeded in Europe, where a range orientation is more important. It is why Toyota has its European studio working on the hatchback versions of the Corolla, tying them into the subcompact Yaris hatchback (also developed in Europe). The Corolla sedan, deemed more important for the US and Japanese markets, was designed in Japan.

Moving toward the automotive attitude
However, there is an additional aspect. The author believes that Toyota has moved, in Japan and the US at least, into the attitudinal area of branding. The cars may not excite much, but that is the secret: Toyota has become a synonym for automotive quality. Therefore, rational buyers seeking sensible automotive solutions will actually aspire to own a Toyota, even if a Corolla sedan will not make it on to a teenage boy's bedroom wall. It need not matter that the models look disparate because they have been created with the same attitude in mind. The entire corporation understands this, as do buyers.
   Automakers need to realign their brands, but not on brand equity. While they need to understand the outcome in brand equity terms, maximizing each of Aaker's five determinants,17 effort should be placed more on shifting the corporation toward a new identity that can be summarized as an attitude. Every aspect of the organization should reflect the identity, from the way the automobiles are engineered to the way the telephones are answered by an after-sales service department receptionist.
   While this has been recommended by identity and branding writers for decades, very few organizations other than the ones here have succeeded.
   There are other reasons beyond making the audience feel welcome. Automakers now need to extend their ranges to maximize economies of scale, unless they have carved a rich niche, such as Lamborghini and Ferrari. Neither brand can realistically develop non-sports cars outside their home markets, even if the Lamborghini name first appeared on tractors.
   This has not been lost on Porsche which considered a four-door sedan in the late 1980s (the 989), only to kill it off before it was launched, and will release its Cayenne SUV soon. Porsche has seen its name on eyewear and while that is a separate company, it trades on similar brand values. The SUV can only succeed if Porsche has sufficiently become an attitude or if it accurately reflects the philosophy of the company. Consequently, Cayenne teasers running at the time of writing discuss the meaning of Porsche, not the products of Porsche. Will the market-place accept a Porsche that has been built on the same platform as a Volkswagen SUV? (Perhaps not, hence there is no mention.) How real is the transformation within Porsche? There are suggestions to show that internally, the identity programme has worked, with Porsche having shifted to outsourcing in recent years. Even the entry-level Boxster sports car is assembled in Finland, not at Porsche's traditional home of Stuttgart, Germany. As with the shift at Mercedes-Benz, it has moved from 'Made in Germany' to 'Made by Porsche', but whether this will extend to covering a sector as dissociated as SUVs remains to be seen, since Porsche has tried hard to align its range orientation with its most famous models, such as the postwar 356 sports car and the 911. Styling is said to reflect the current Boxster and 911, however, in an effort to remind customers at product level of Porsche's heritage.
   The step-by-step plan has to be top-driven, following the best-practice principles outlined by the author in earlier works. A marketing strategy should be just that: something that unifies functions along brand philosophy lines. Without clarifying what that is at board level, no amount of authority on accessing resources by individual functional specialists in marketing will help the company.
   The attitude should be defined by researchers with broad authority within the company. Cross-functional groups within and target customers outside the company should be canvassed. A careful plan moving the brand from its current position to the desired one should then be prepared for executive management approval. This should include potential bottlenecks in delivering the attitude: what benefits do the audiences expect from this brand? Where are we least likely to deliver them? How can we fix that?
   An identity system such as this should happily exist alongside the financial and information ones because those two departments have been involved, creating buy-in.
   This has not been done often enough. It is largely why Chrysler has not succeeded since the merger with Daimler-Benz AG. Chrysler Corp. may have had lean product development processes that made it very attractive to Daimler-Benz, but the branding was never brought in line with the new reality of the organization. When Chrysler's principal "car guys" such as Bob Lutz and François Castaing left, precious few understood what the brands stood for, even if the company was well capable of designing and producing passionate automobiles, exploiting niches and creating cross-functional agreement for each one. DaimlerChrysler found itself with three American brands that had not really been defined, a process that it has only begun to repair, firstly by abandoning Plymouth and second by shifting Chrysler into a more Volkswagen-like role, rather than act as a Lincoln–Mercury rival.
   Bob Lutz's move to General Motors in 2001 may be more successful. Faced with five automotive brands, GM is forced to examine each one in light of Lutz's much-hyped input as a "car guy" and its new head of product operations. While still a product, and not a brand, role, there seems to be evidence that Lutz's clout will extend to the boardroom—and consequently become top–down. That will not be lost on GM's brand managers. GM should take the unrivalled opportunity to re-examine where each brand stands. Is there a Chevrolet way of doing things? A Cadillac way? And how does each one fit into the corporation?
   Ford has fared better even if ousted CEO Jac Nasser was unable to carry out his plans fully. Owning very distinct luxury brands such as Volvo, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Jaguar gives Ford the opportunity to analyse individual brand strategies, understand what contributes to the brand equity of each one and preserve them, while bringing platforms, motors and development processes within the core strategy. The essence of each brand has been preserved.
   This analysis has helped Volvo understand that part of its strengths are Scandinavian design and station wagons. When it launched its XC90 SUV, looking like a tall station wagon in the Volvo fashion, audiences accepted the new model readily. Jaguar managed to extend its range downwards to the front-wheel-drive X-type but cleverly launched the four-wheel-drive model first to win buyer acceptance that there was now a compact entrant. Aston Martin has a two-model, soon to be three-model, line-up, each model conveying the brand's mystique without dilution.
   However, none of these American efforts have been as complete as the Japanese ones, or that of post-Rover BMW.18
   Japan's Nissan is on its way to become a far stronger global brand, for example. After years of losses, Nissan has discovered that the key to survival is with strong design and a performance orientation in the market-place. Happily, this has been consistently communicated throughout the company. Nissan's latest automobiles are among the most distinctive on the road regardless of market. While the European marketing transformation is only beginning, the American situation shows how far it can go. Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn states that there will be no model-sharing with Renault, which owns a controlling interest, which will preserve the branding.
   The unity of each Nissan function is a matter of record: the financial department has been shifting the currency footprint of the UK-built models to euros, aiding profitability. All of Nissan's US car lines are profitable (less so in Europe and Japan, but that is changing for the better). There is a healthy operating margin which, while behind Toyota and Honda, is improving. Ghosn says the improvements are only a start, that Nissan's recovery plan is only partly in place, and that the gains made are fragile,19 but the company will keep up its new-model programme in line with its identity, brand and marketing strategy.

If automakers wish to succeed as brands, then there are precedents for showing them how. While none are as complete as what the author and others20 propose as ideals in identity and branding, they should know that a brand-led strategy will not harm profitability or their financial systems. It is, as hindsight at Chrysler suggests, something that can sustain automobile ranges through hard times and permit extensions.
   Earlier evidence has shown that getting the vision, philosophy and strategy right—as well as all other steps that ensure the brand is understood internally before it is communicated externally—leads to stronger brand equity and business performance, whether financial or strategic.21 Part of what is needed in automobile marketing is the wider definition, including, and possibly beginning with, an understanding of the brand attitude. There is no mystery behind it: it is discerned the same way as other intangible brand aspects of an organization. Corporations do need to understand that because audiences judge them on subjective, usually emotional terms, then they have to communicate to them in the same way. Such terms are not always logical or empirical, but demand an understanding of consumer behaviour and full research on how brands are perceived and how managements wish them to be perceived.

   1. LLB, BCA (Hons.), MCA. CEO, Jack Yan & Associates (https://jyanet.com); President, JY&A Consulting (https://jya.co). Copyright ©2002 by JY&A Consulting, a division of Jack Yan & Associates. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form without the written permission from the copyright holder.
   2. Chatterjee, Jauchius, Kaas and Satpathy: 'Revving up auto branding', McKinsey Quarterly, no. 1, 2002.
   3. Ibid.
   4. With the terms as defined by Olins: The New Guide to Identity. Aldershot: Gower 1995 and cited in Yan: 'Online branding: an antipodean experience', in Kim, Ling, Lee and Park (eds.): Human Society and the Internet. Berlin: Springer 2001, pp. 185-202.
   5. Cf. the Autolatina alliance in Brazil between Volkswagen do Brasil and Ford. This led to similarly unusual vehicles with Ford-badged Volkswagens and Volkswagen-badged Fords. However, the author could not readily find comparative sales figures for this piece.
   6. Yan: 'The business of identity', CAP, vol. 4, no. 3, spring 2000, pp. 4-10.
   7. Brands cited by Olins in Yan: 'The attitude of identity', Desktop, October 2000, pp. 26-31.
   8. Daimler-Benz AG also cooperated with Swatch on the Smart city-car, but because this vehicle is not sold as a Mercedes-Benz, it is not discussed.
   9. The author acknowledges that the strategy is not wholly global, which is why Mercedes-Benz-branded light commercial vans will not be sold in the United States for fear of devaluing the brand.
   10. See also Olins, op. cit.
   11. Cantwell: 'Cadillac CTS ads spark consumer interest online', Automotive News, March 4, 2002, <http://www.autonews.com/article.cms?articleId=38491>.
   12. The author found that mission statements are unimportant in an earlier study and that the company's functions can be tied together equally effectively by a tagline. Yan: 'The business of identity', op. cit.
   13. See Yan: 'Redefining Mercury', CAP Online, February 6, 2002, <https://jyanet.com/cap/2002/0206fe0.shtml>.
   14. In addition, Toyota sells a previous-generation version of the Avalon which dates back to the early 1990s. The same model has been obsolete in the United States and Japan since 1999. This Australian-built Avalon suggests that Toyota did not wish to invest heavily with an all-new model into the Australian market, knowing that market-place credibility for large cars had to be earned.
   15. When Nissan tried to reposition itself in the US market, it used a similar tack, recalling past glories such as the Datsun 240Z and 510 models. This has successfully seen new models such as the 350Z, Maxima and the 2002 Altima find their positions. Product designs were brought into line, with US-market models noticeably sportier than Japanese and European equivalents.
   16. The three ellipses depict 'the heart of the customer, the heart of the product, and the ever-expanding technological advancements and boundless opportunities that lie ahead,' according to Car, July 1999, quoted at <http://gawlowski.com/matt/cars/car_logos.html>.
   17. Aaker: Building Strong Brands. New York: Free Press 1991.
   18. The author believes that Rover's problems were not caused by the British company, but identity and branding uncertainty by the German parent. See Yan: 'How John Towers can save Rover', CAP Online, May 10, 2000, <https://jyanet.com/cap/2000/0510ob0.shtml>.
   19. Treece: 'Nissan CEO: "We still have a lot left to do"', Automotive News, December 17, 2001.
   20. See e.g. Olins: The New Guide to Identity. Aldershot: Gower 1995.
   21. Yan: 'The business of identity', op. cit.


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Yan: ‘Redefining Mercury’, CAP Online, February 6, 2002
Yan: ‘Carry on globalizing’, CAP Online, October 18, 2001.
Yan: ‘Brands transcend economics (and The Economist)', CAP Online, September 25, 2001.
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Ford Mustang Ilaria (ed.): Ford Mustang Ads: the Marketing of America's Ponycar. Montville, NJ: HI-Tech Software 1999. CD-ROM. $19·95
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