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The Whiteboard: German engineering provides us with a multitude of brand lessons

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Who owns the idea of German engineering among German car brands?

The best or nothing. The Ultimate Driving Machine. Truth in Engineering.

These are the current taglines of Mercedes, BMW and Audi, respectively, the German auto-making trio that is battling for the lead in U.S. and global luxury car sales.

BMW's slogan is easily the most familiar because it's the oldest — 38 years and counting. The newer Mercedes tagline continues its promise of top quality and the sense of status that goes with it. Audi, a latecomer to the luxury car segment, has boldly stated that its goal is to be No. 1, globally, by 2015.

The taglines do a good job of differentiating their brands. Mercedes, once the undisputed leader in the category, still makes a claim for leadership with no compromise, which, of course, appeals to the Mercedes owners and prospective buyers, who want to see themselves as leaders and uncompromising.

BMW has dramatically grown its brand into the U.S. and as global leader (by just a few percentage points), based on the promise of outstanding performance and by the deft distinction of making "driving machines," not cars.

Audi uses a clever underdog appeal by promising that its cars are more authentically designed and built for style, presumably for those who are less impressed by the status conveyed by the Mercedes brand or the performance promises of BMW.

But behind the more familiar slogans of these German luxury carmakers, their messages can appear uncannily similar. From the website of one of the three: "We combine artistry and engineering to create cars that are visionary from every angle."

From another: "From the very beginning, advanced technology has been at the very heart of (our brand's) DNA. In practice, this means the relentless pursuit of new and better solutions to the automotive challenges of an ever-changing world."

And from the third: "Engineering what if … It's led our engineers to develop everything from industry leading mobility solutions to impressive technology..."

("Industry leading mobility solutions?" Seriously? No wonder these cars cost so much.)

The copy came from Mercedes, Audi and BMW, in that order, but all of them revolve tightly around a message that remains unsaid by any of the three brands: "We're German, and we know you believe in the quality of German engineering."

This is an example of the simple concepts we keep in our heads about brands, even brands grouped by country. We are likely to think in simple terms, such as the French make great wine, the Chinese make inexpensive and occasionally unreliable products, and the Germans, indeed, engineer great cars.

So for BMW, Mercedes and Audi (and Porsche, which is only a niche brand), "engineering" is a common refrain, but, for each of them, "German" goes without saying, because they believe it is what everyone is already thinking.

Ironically, though, the very German-sounding car brand Volkswagen (I suggest pronouncing the "w" like a "v" for maximum linguistic effect) puts the words "German engineering" in every one of its ads and has been since the days of their Fahrvergnugen campaign.

VW's official slogan is still "Das Auto," reminiscent of the short-lived Renault model from the late 1970s, Le Car. But listen carefully, and you will hear the words "German engineering" in every ad, most recently as a refrain that follows the tagline, as in: Das Auto, the Power of German Engineering.

The funny thing is, if you head to the VW website, you won't find any further discussion of engineering, German or otherwise. Under the Value tab, they talk about Performance, Safety, Design and Quality. But the engineering promise that is stated so literally in the advertising is only alluded to in the broader message platform.

Still, I have to give VW credit for knowing where it stands. Even though the company desperately wants to compete head-to-head in the luxury car segment, its market slot is much more at the value end of the scale, with low lease rates and many entry-level cars priced well below the luxury level.

Which is why VW places "Performance" under the Value tab on its website. In fact, that's why it places everything under the Value tab on its website. It is the value-based German brand. If you want "mobility solutions," buy a BMW, but if you want a lower-priced car with German heritage, VW is the place to go.

The moral, of course, is that all four of these German car companies have established differentiated brands, while leaning heavily on the shared equity of high-quality German engineering. And, while none of them own it outright, for each it serves as a major premise for its brand of car, driving machine or mobility solution.

So does VW own "German engineering?" Nein, they all do.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via

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