Sacking John Elway: the brand not the man

Here in Denver, Colorado, we have a sports hero/legend who’s still revered by Bronco fans: John Elway. During his playing career, he purchased several auto dealerships and appended a new brand to each: John Elway Toyota, John Elway Chevrolet, etc..John Elway logo

In 1997, Republic Industries purchased the Elway franchise, and in 1999 as AutoNation, purchased another 16 dealerships in the market and co-branded them John Elway/AutoNation. Not long after that, the AutoNation logo took a secondary role to the Elway name.

Friday, AutoNation announced it will not renew its contract with Mr. John Elway, and what’s more, will re-brand its nation-wide dealership network with a new name: GO

My head swirls with ideas and opinions about this move. I’m sure AutoNation management, their branding consultants, consumer researchers and legal councel had many heated conferences before the decision(s) was made. Without being privy to sales trends, customer satisfaction research or financial considerations, my opinions can only reflect my experience in dissimilar situations, I’ve never had an auto dealer account. That said…

Assuming customer satisfaction scores were at least average for this market and that Elway did not price himself out of the market while negotiating a new contract with AutoNation, I suggest the John Elway name has a lot of equity in this market and shouldn’t be replaced. I wouldn’t care what goes on in other markets, in Colorado and environs, there’s still plenty of respect, bordering on awe, for this Hall-of-Fame QB.
I suspect on a national level, the real reason for rebranding AutoNation has to do with poor customer satisfaction and lower sales in relation to other dealerships in the markets they serve. Unless there are other mitigating circumstances, AutoNation is a pretty good name. Based on most accepted criteria a fine name, in fact. I know it was a name I resonated with the first time I heard it. I remember the name, I like the name.AutoNation logo

Here’s my take: It will be a very costly process to re-brand 272 dealerships over the next two years. There must be a lot of mistrust and bad buzz for this company to make such an investment. AutoNation has also stated they are going for a different experience on the sales floor – providing a single sheet with their best price, their trade-in allowance and their financing proposal so the traditional shopping experience will be more pleasant. But do you need to rebrand while introducing a “Saturn-like” sales experience? Let’s just say, on the strength of there public statement, I’d say no. A resounding no in fact.

Now for the last issue: the new name for AutoNation: GO. Yes, it’s short, memorable and even “catchy”. But I don’t seeing it in any way representing the company’s new effort to make buying a car less intimidating. I don’t see the name becoming a rallying flag for the “new AutoNation”. It’s a name that could fit just about any company, but few companies with relevance or credibility.

So that’s my take. I’d sure like to hear from you if you have an opinion one way or another on this move or about re-branding as a subject.

Martin Jelsema

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