Badge Engineering: When badges hide the truth

Posted on April 19th, 2012 by Rob Marshall

During the Easter holidays, my mother’s 20+ years-old washing machine ground to a halt and was deemed uneconomical to repair by her local service engineer. Having had such sterling service from her trusty Hotpoint, her natural inclination was to buy another one, until she was informed that times have moved on.

When she interrogated the engineer further, she was informed that market forces had seen the Hotpoint washing machine disappear in all but name. No longer made in the UK, the latest models contain the mechanical entrails of Indesit washers, with slightly different design of fascias. Therefore, while she may have thought that a new machine that bore the same name as her old appliance was an act of buying British, mother was buying an Italian one instead, to which was affixed a badge that bore no relation whatsoever to her trouble-free and long-lasting old stager.

This ‘badge engineering’ is nothing new and has thrived in the motor industry for decades. Just like white goods, new cars have become considerably cheaper in real terms and increasingly more price competitive, which has led to a degree of cooperation and company buyouts, as firms struggled to maximise economies of scale and share development costs.

As profits tend to be smaller per unit for smaller cars, it is common for several manufacturers to ‘club together’, when developing entry-level models in particular. Although one might imagine that Citroen C1 and Peugeot 107 are made in France, their petrol engines and transmissions are Toyota units and the cars, along with the almost identical Toyota Aygo, are all assembled in the Czech Republic. Although the typical blue-rinsed pensioner might view Nissan and Suzuki as being dependable Japanese products, the identical Pixo and Alto models are produced in India, as is the latest Nissan Micra, while its predecessor was built in Sunderland.

Yet, as with Hotpoint and Indesit, when one large company owns several brands, with each marque having its own loyal purchasers, the temptation to re-badge the same product, and market them separately, is irresistible. The British Motor Corporation (BMC) was a past master of this and buyers often found that one car was badged as a Wolseley, Riley, Austin, Morris, Vanden Plas and even MG, when the primary differences were chrome strips, a few extra clocks in the dashboard and a different radiator grille. At least Ford of Britain admitted that a Cortina was a Cortina, even if buyers could pay a little more money to adorn the boot lid with extra letters. Still, badge engineering continues, such as the lauded Volkswagen Up! being sold as the almost identical Skoda Citigo and the SEAT Mii, all of which are built in Slovakia. The difference lies in the marketing.

Despite that, even more supposedly prestigious and expensive cars might not be all that they seem. Would the owner of the up-market and ‘German’ Audi Q7 be aware (or even care) that the model is really built in Slovakia, or that many examples of the BMW 3-Series that grace Britain’s roads are built by South Africans? Maybe the buyer of the MINI Countryman believes that he/she is supporting Great Britain, when the truth remains that the model is assembled in Austria.

Although some badge engineering efforts are quite successful, not everyone is convinced by slick marketing. SAAB and Subaru fans in North America reacted with horror, when the Swede’s front end was grafted to the nose of an Impreza but nothing could have prepared Aston Martin aficionados for the horror of the Cygnet (pictured). It might wear an Aston Martin-esque grille but the car remains a Toyota IQ underneath. Only time will tell whether Aston Martin has caused long-term damage to its brand, in favour of short-term profits.

Armed with the fresh information and being aware that all might have not been as it seemed beneath the badge, Mother’s allegiance with Hotpoint was cut and a replacement machine was supplied that really was what it proclaimed to be.

Badge Engineering: When badges hide the truthBadge engineering is nothing new but can it be taken too far?