Jeep® is one of America’s iconic brands, synonymous with adventure, ruggedness and the outdoors. Unfortunately, in the last few years, marketing fads and operational priorities have taken precedence over sound brand strategy and the brand seems to have lost its way.
Strike One: The Cherokee Goes Away
In 2001, Jeep discontinued the legendary Cherokee, after an unprecedented 17 year run without major styling changes. With its distinctive boxy shape, the Cherokee thumbed its nose at the styling trends of the day, and people loved it. Furthermore, it was inexpensive, reliable and easy to modify.
In its place came the Jeep Liberty, a “cute-ute” with softer lines and round headlights. The move was supposed to answer the global market’s demands for more creature comforts than those afforded by the rather spartan Cherokee. To Jeep enthusiasts, though, the move was a slap in the face. The Liberty was immediately dismissed as a “girl’s Jeep” and, to this day, Jeep die-hards are still claiming for the the return of the beloved Cherokee.
Strike Two: The Jeep Commander
Things got worse in 2005 when the Jeep Commander was launched. The new Jeep targeted a popular market niche: SUVs with three rows of seats. The move, however, came too late: competitors had been selling seven-seater SUVs for years. Furthermore, with gas prices now pushing $3 a gallon, consumers were staying away from large, gas guzzling SUVs.
To make matters worse, due to “operational efficiencies” the Commander shared the same platform as the Grand Cherokee (Jeep’s mid-size luxo-wagon). This made the Commander too small to comfortably accommodate seven passengers compared to the larger trucks it was supposed to compete with. Instead, the Commander ended up cannibalizing Grand Cherokee sales.
Strike Three: The Jeep Compass
Jeep’s third and worse move was the launch of the lame Jeep Compass, an unattractive, underpowered and not suitable for off-roading cross-over vehicle that didn’t share any of the Jeep brand’s attributes, and was a radical departure from the promising concept that inspired it.
Jeep’s marketing exec’s argued that the Compass would catapult the Jeep brand into new markets. Reality turned out differently: sales have been sluggish and Jeep’s brand equity has been diluted. Again, “operational efficiencies” may have had a role to play, since the Compass shares the same platform as the mechanically-identical Dodge Caliber.
The Compass recently earned the infamous #1 spot in the list of Top 10 Worse Automobiles of 2007 by a popular car review site.
The Tale of the Tape
Year to date sales figures are down double-digits for the Liberty, the Commander and the Grand Cherokee (the Compass is up only because it was launched late last year, so no relevant comparison can be made).
The bright star in the Jeep lineup is the Jeep Wrangler (the only Jeep 100% true to Jeep’s brand identity). Dealers can’t keep the four-door Wrangler Unlimited in stock, and sales were up 62% vs. 2006.
The objective of this article is not to beat up the Jeep brand, of which I am a vocal fan, but to underscore how important it is to nurture and protect our brands, even when that means going against the latest fads or the management flavor of the month.
Finally I would like to share my recommendations to Jeep’s brand management team (just in case they’re listening…):
- Get rid of the Compass and the Commander.
- Develop a true 7-seater and call it the Wagoneer (another iconic Jeep model of the past).
- Bring back the Jeep Cherokee and make it lean, fuel-efficient, practical and inexpensive.
In the meantime, I will happily keep on driving my faithful 11 year old red Cherokee Sport.