These days we hear about a lot of “negative” things—negative interest from central banks, negative ad campaigns—but have you ever seen negative brand equity? Theoretically, that happens any time a brand actually decreases a company’s value (think BP’s brand after Deepwater Horizon). But during Super Bowl 50, I witnessed an example of negative brand equity that I’m sure the company didn’t intend to promote.
The latest episode of GM’s “Real People Not Actors” campaign promotes the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, a car that has long suffered under the shadow of its brothers in the Chevy sedan lineup—the more muscular SS, the cooler Impala, the sexier Cruze, the smarter Volt. Truly a middle child complex.
Chevy’s designers and engineers finally sharpened the pencils and gave the Malibu its long overdue makeover. Hence, the need for promotion was certainly well deserved from a marketing standpoint. The Malibu got its day in the sun with a 60-second Super Bowl ad, the most prestigious (and expensive) promotion a product could ask for.
The ad brings in a half dozen unsuspecting customers to give the car a lookover, but this time the vehicle is debadged—all Chevrolet emblems and logos have been removed. The reviewers express their admiration for the look and feel (notably, no test driving is done) and are asked to guess the car’s price. The customers weigh in with ranges from $50,000 to $80,000. The payoff comes when the badged Malibu rolls out, revealing that it’s just a Chevy, ringing in at $22,500. Amazing, right?
If I’m a car dealership manager, I’d want to ask those customers: “If this car sported four interlocking rings, you woulda paid upwards of 60 grand, but because it’s got gold bowties front and rear, I lose 40 thousand dollas??”
And then it hit me: this is negative brand equity in action. With its humble and much maligned Malibu, Chevrolet has proven that it makes better products than its brand can support. My advice to the president of the Chevrolet division for increasing profitability is to make badging optional for dealers. Heck, the Corvette doesn’t bear any bowties, and you have to squint to find them on the Camaro.
This post may draw the ire of GM brand managers and car enthusiasts alike, but you really can’t argue with the fact that Chevy owns the cheap brand in the GM lineup. And the company’s Super Bowl ad proved just how steep the negative brand equity can get—even without a product flaw.
The lesson for us all: work on your brand just as hard as you work on your product or service. Both must be excellent to support your business. Never underestimate the value and power of your brand to produce positive or negative equity, and do everything you can to keep that ledger positive.