Oldsmobile: Victim of Its Own Brand

The apparent wave of nostalgia that is greeting GM’s decision to kill off the Oldsmobile line has caught me somewhat by surprise. In part this is probably because I haven’t really thought about the brand since the late 1980s, when Public Enemy paid tribute to the classic Oldsmobile 98 model series in the lyrics  of “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” which included Flavor Flav declaring the 98 “the ultimate homeboy car.” Of less significance to me at the time (since I was about 19 and not really in the market for a new car) was the debut of the ad slogan, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

According to a time line in today’s Wall Street Journal, that tag line made its debut in 1988. The (probably correct) conventional wisdom now seems to be that this marketing strategy pretty much marked the beginning of the end for the Olds. What’s interesting about this is that it shows how a strongly defined brand identity–generally seen as a good thing–can, over time, become that brand’s undoing.

As it happens, my father really did have an Oldsmobile or two. In the 1950s he drove a Rocket 88. Later, the Olds Cutlass was the “company car” provided to him for his sometimes driving-intensive work as a salesman. He’s retired now, and my parents have long since become Ford loyalists, but the point is that there actually was a period when the Oldsmobile epitomized achievement in distinctly middle-class terms–a high-quality car, but nothing so snooty as a Cadillac.

What Oldsmobile was grappling with by the end of the 1980s was that middle-class achievement as an idea seemed sort of outdated, or at the very least, that was being redefined. Hence Olds’ attempt to distance itself from everything it had stood for up to that point with the “Not your father’s car” slogan. The problems with this, of course, were: a) It said what Olds wasn’t, but not what it was, and b) it more or less informed a generation of Olds loyalists that their choice was now considered an embarrassment. This had the net effect not of reinventing the Olds brand identity but of carving it in stone. The tag line was replaced a couple of years later with the hilariously unwieldy: “We have got a brand new Oldsmobile, this is a new generation of Olds.” This didn’t help either.

Anyway, it’s possible that a different marketing strategy would have helped, but I’m not sure. The real problem was that the old Olds identity had become so clearly and widely understood that it would have been almost impossible to overcome. Every company wants its brands to have a powerful meaning, and the idea of being perfectly in sync with the cultural moment sounds great. But the Olds story points to the related risk: When the cultural moment passes, a brand can quickly become the object of what may not be your father’s nostalgia but is nostalgia just the same.