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The end of brand loyalty

How important is “brand loyalty”? Well, it’s more important to NASCAR than it was five years ago, because its officials are talking about it again.

They still talk more often about the NASCAR brand, as in every other paragraph. But what about Chevy? What about Ford? And Dodge? And, yes … Toyota?

Five years ago, the unofficial position was that fans were no longer interested in “brand loyalty.” NASCAR fans were interested only in individual drivers. That, of course, was a useful rationalization at a time when the cars of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were being made indistinguishable from one another.

This I can say. When I started writing about NASCAR, more or less full-time, in 1993, brand loyalty was greater than it is now. Those were the days when I’d be stuck in traffic on the way into Martinsville Speedway, marveling at the rarity of Chevys with Bill Elliott stickers and Fords with Dale Earnhardt’s. Now the stickers have little correlation with the fans’ cars. A Dale Earnhardt Jr. sticker in the rear windshield is about as likely to be on a Hyundai as a Chevy.

But I don’t think it’s dead. I still think Carl Edwards sells Fords and Kevin Harvick sells Chevys, particularly when they win.

This, by the way, has always been my suspicion. The kind of car is important in the formative stages of a fan’s NASCAR addiction. He or she starts following a driver based — at least in part — on the car. Once that allegiance is formed, the fan follows the driver if he changes teams or manufacturers, even if it hurts a little.

When Rusty Wallace switched from Pontiac to Ford (and later to Dodge), it caused considerable angst among his fans. But they moved grudgingly. Few drivers spend their entire careers with one manufacturer. Even Earnhardt drove Fords for two years. When last we saw Elliott, once the darling of Ford fans, he was in a Chevy. One reason Ford fans have a special place in their hearts for Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle is that, so far, they have spent their entire Cup careers driving cars with blue ovals on the hoods.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans swallowed their pride when he switched from one Chevy team to another, but if he showed up one week in a Toyota, it would still create come culture shock.

The reason that brand loyalty diminished, quite possibly, is that the brands themselves diminished. The fans are smart enough to notice that when the principal difference between the cars is the shape of a simulated headlight decal … well, it’s not much of a difference. NASCAR stopped caring about being able to tell one make from another, and the fans stopped caring, too. They had little choice.

The trend has reversed. The Nationwide Series introduced new models that are discernible from one another even for fans who have no extensive knowledge of exactly how the indented lines on the hoods are sculpted. Adjustments to the noses have been made in Cup, and individual differences are being incorporated in a redesign scheduled for 2013.

It used to be, of course, that these redesigns occurred in Detroit, not NASCAR’s R&D Center, but at least the powers that be are paying attention again.

Monte Dutton covers motorsports for The Gaston (N.C.) Gazette. E-mail Monte at nascarthisweek@yahoo.com. ©2011 King Features Synd.

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