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Do Awards Still Reward Brands?


Do Awards Still Reward Brands?

Brand perceptions are shaped in the mind with the help of associations that are aligned with the central meaning the brand represents. The search for associations that bolster brands is a constant.

For decades now marketers have turned to the awards industry for help in building positive brand associations. It’s easy to see why as America’s appetite for winning and winners makes awards very attractive. Who doesn’t want to back or buy a winner?

Of all the ways to differentiate a brand, do awards still make an impact? Let’s begin to assess their value by looking at an industry that just can’t seem to lose: the Automotive Industry.

You would have to be a castaway on a deserted island for the last 40 years or so not to recognize the ubiquitous J.D. Power & Associates award trophy, proudly displayed in what seems like every other automotive ad. Founded in 1968, J.D. Power has become an American cultural institution, ranking almost 30 classifications of automobiles and trucks by Customer Service, Dependability, Quality, and Performance and Design categories, each and every year. Wonder how there seems to be so many awards and claims? Do the math. J.D. Power has also extended its influence over automotive marketing communications, such as with TrueCar.com advertising its J.D. Power website award.

And while J.D. Power is probably the best known and most respected brand of industry award, it is certainly not the last word in automotive rankings. Other ratings institutions and publication features populate the automotive media environment. Among them:

Autos Cheat Sheet
Best Car Show Winners
Car & Driver Editors’ Choice
Car Design News Award
Consumer Reports
Consumers Digest
Digital Trends Car Awards
Edmunds.com Top rated Cars
Esquire’s Car of the Year
Forbes Best Cars at Best Prices
Good Housekeeping Car Awards
Green Car Awards
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Awards
Kelly Blue Book Best Buy Awards
Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award
Motor Trend
NY Daily News Autos Award
National Car Club Awards
Top Gear magazine awards
US News & World Report Best Cars for the Money
World Car Awards

In addition to these and many others, the manufacturers also rank and award their own dealerships, service departments and the like, which in turn, are promoted heavily by the dealerships via local advertising and are strategically placed throughout the dealership.

Validation Is The Destination

Why the preoccupation with awards and rankings in the automotive industry? There are a variety of reasons, starting with the power of “Third Party Endorsement.” Studies repeatedly confirm what we all know intuitively to be true, it works. When someone besides the brand endorses itself; the endorsement comes with a greater degree of credibility.

In the case of awards, Third Party Endorsement takes the form of Third Party Validation and becomes particularly keen in a category like automotive, where the stakes are high and emotions run deep around the entire purchase decision-making process. A $20,000+ item is hardly an impulse buy for most people, not to mention the risk of dissatisfaction afterwards with the hassle and expense of service issues. Validation is sought in the shopping cycle for reasons that include:

  • Crowded, confusing marketplace with brands across multiple sub-categories
  • Personal experience or influence by friends or family
  • Conflicting claims and promotions between brands
  • Complex and expensive product for most consumers
  • High-anxiety decision making and purchase process
  • Heavily advertised on the national and local level
  • Fear of having made the wrong decision after the sale
  • Depreciation of the vehicle and resale value
  • Safety, operational, maintenance and environmental unknowns and costs

Given the saturation of awards, rankings and ratings in the automotive marketplace, where it seems every make or model of car or truck claims a trophy, are they still an effective tool for brand building? To a degree.

Third party validation, as a “reason to believe” in construction of a brand’s value proposition and positioning statement is always warranted as support. This can take the form of laboratory tests, clinical data, customer surveys, sales results, historical evidence, unique or proprietary ingredients or formulations, and yes…J.D. Power awards. Reasons to believe are foundational to the marketing strategy. Their selection must reinforce the unique selling proposition for the brand.

Winning Isn’t Everything

Within the industry, automotive awards are no doubt a source of pride and bragging rights for the brands and the dealer franchises. However, these awards are not without shortcomings.

For example, the awards and rankings are based on model year performance and are subject to change year to year. Unless an auto brand can demonstrate award dominance, year after year in a particular category of vehicle, it will have negligible impact on the car or truck brand name plate as a whole. Moreover, studies are mixed regarding automotive awards as a positive effect on a brand’s shareholder value. Again, this could be due to the general “award fatigue” of the industry. Lastly, even the awards themselves have not been without suspicion, as in a 2011 Car and Driver article, questioning J.D. Power’s Initial Quality study when comparing drastic variations in results from year to year on the same models.

Is it the consumer’s quest for validation, the media’s exploitation of that need for validation, or the manufacturer’s competitive drive to tout its wins as the driving force in the awards arms race? It’s probably all of the above. And it shows no signs of slowing down. It’s important to note there is also an incentive for the awards companies. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that J.D. Power sells the findings from their surveys to automakers for $300,000, and then charges the same price for companies who want to advertise the fact that they’ve won.

The object lesson in this discussion for brands is the ever present need for purchase validation. Granted, the automotive industry is over the top in this regard, and as we’ve seen, understandably so. The higher up the price ladder you go, the greater the perceived risk, and the greater the need to provide validation as part of a solid arsenal of reasons to believe in a brand. However, over reliance on awards, rankings, Top 10 lists, ratings and the like is no substitute for a value proposition built on unique and irrefutable reasons that uniquely position your brand as the indisputable choice. It’s the brand…its reputation, its essence and its promise…that ultimately wins, regardless of the awards it may garner.

The Blake Project Can Help: Accelerate Brand Growth Through Powerful Emotional Connections

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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