Mark Grueber’s first day at Ford was June 12, 1996. “It’s a fun story,” he said, the lighted first-generation Bronco grille hanging on the wall behind him in his home office. It was on that day that Ford built the last fifth-generation Bronco, ended a production process that began in 1966 and launched what became known as the Bronco Underground, a group of people within Ford dedicated to the return of the off-road SUV.
This year, they got their wish. The Bronco is back, and Grueber, now Ford’s marketing manager, is tasked with both current and future brands. Of course, he’s not alone in his excitement, and Ford isn’t the only automaker leaning on its past, though it may have been the hardest. In addition to the Bronco, Ford took advantage of two more classic names, Lightning and Maverick, but implemented them in a new way. And then it took its most iconic badge, the Mustang, and put it on an electric crossover.
General Motors is gearing up for the return of the environmentally maligned Hummer, but now it’s an electric pickup and 9000 pound SUV. Acura relaunches the Integra, which has been missing for more than two decades. Jeep revived the Wagoneer nameplate this year and fitted it in a luxury SUV built to park comfortably next to all McMansions. And if you’re still wondering why manufacturers made this dive into the archives, you probably already know. It’s about money.
“A company that stands on assets like Grand Wagoneer, why not use it?” said Elea McDonnell Feit, a professor of marketing at Drexel University and a former market researcher at GM’s advanced vehicle development center. Decades of communication and success (or failure) have made these names meaningful to people. There is power in meaning, and gain in power—even if the strategy with the signage is different.
At Ford, dealers have dedicated separate showrooms for the Bronco and the smaller Bronco Sport crossover. Owners can visit one of the four Bronco Off-Rodeo schools wearing Bronco merchandise—or wait and pick up merchandise on site. “The Wagoneer is definitely a premium extension of Jeep,” said Jeep CEO Christian Meunier That Threshold’s Decoder podcasts in October. But there’s no Jeep badge anywhere on the new full-size SUV. And while Hummer was its own brand under General Motors before its demise in 2010, it is now under the GMC umbrella.
General Motors is questioning bringing back the Hummer name because of its history, said Phil Brook, GMC’s vice president of marketing. Unlike Ford with the Bronco or Jeep and Wagoneer, GM tried to change people’s perception of a name, and that perception was part of why it failed the first time. The company attempted to sell the Hummer to a Chinese manufacturer in 2010 but when the deal fell through, GM shut down the brand because the trucks consumed a lot of gas.
“The look on people’s faces when we said the Hummer was coming back—they went ‘really?’ As soon as you say electricity, anything that is in any way a concern or negative will evaporate completely,” said Brook. But GM should repeat that. “They can say Hummer, and that immediately means excess,” said McDonnell Feit. “They must also communicate the second part of the new message.”
NBA superstar LeBron James, who owned a Hummer H2 in his early years in the league, starred in a commercial for the new Hummer, and the brand is calling it the first electric supertruck. In place of the TV, storms, lightning strikes, and the slogan “A quiet revolution is coming” appeared on the screen to indicate the truck’s electric powertrain. However, “auto companies are notoriously bad at assuming that people understand,” says McDonnell Feit.
Americans are also spending at a higher price point, and Jeep is aware. Its roots are military-inspired off-roaders, but the brand’s best-selling model last year was the Grand Cherokee, which ranged in price from $35,105 to nearly $100,000 for the 707-hp Trackhawk model. The Grand Wagoneer is the company’s new flagship, and can cost over $110,000 fully equipped. GMC supports this too, and that’s why Hummer has placed Hummer under its brand, rather than standing alone as before. Brook says that GMC’s highly-equipped Denali models account for nearly half of its sales.
They don’t just spend more. Americans have a newfound desire to be adventurous and outgoing, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford saw this and entered the tough off-road SUV space, which the Jeep Wrangler had dominated for years, with the new Bronco. And it nailed the retro-inspired Bronco look almost perfectly—especially the grille, which is reminiscent of the one hanging on the Grueber wall.
Prior to the Bronco’s debut last summer, the Bronco Underground made three major attempts to bring it back. The first was when Ford built a prototype in 1999, but then the automaker was hit with a recall of more than 14 million Firestone tires, mostly on its Explorer. Four years later, a clumsy-looking silver Bronco concept was revealed, but it’s not yet considered production ready. Then Ford tried to build the Bronco on an actual platform, but the market turned to a larger four-door utility vehicle instead of a rugged two-door SUV. In 2013, Ford risked losing the Bronco trademark, thus issuing a one-off Expedition and placing the Bronco name on it.
The breakthrough was when the market shifted away from sedans, Grueber said. Ford removed it from its lineup in 2018, which freed up space at the Ford Assembly Plant in Michigan when the Focus was discontinued. “We activated the underground and started to work out a plan to bring it back,” he said. Now Ford hopes its new Maverick compact pickup will appeal to former sedan buyers.
These names evoke nostalgia in consumers, a reminder of the way things used to be. Especially with millennials, McDonnell Feit points out. “Auto companies are trying to capitalize on the millennial’s fascination with all things old-fashioned,” he said. This demographic is listening to LPs again; party watching Stranger Things, a Netflix science fiction series set in the 1980s; and, Detroit automakers hoped, bought Broncos, Hummers, and Wagoneers.
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