Challenger brand: Brand Union's Tim Gosman on 100 years of Dodge

The Dodge brothers might not enjoy the notoriety or quotability of the motor car’s inventor, but 100 years after the siblings waved goodbye to Mr Ford and set out on their own, their eponymous automobile marque is still revered as an American icon. Here Brand Union’s Tim Gosman takes a look at the history of the brand and its fight to remain relevant.

Henry Ford is widely celebrated as the man who invented the motor car. But were it not for the engineering ingenuity of the Dodge brothers, not to mention the financial faith they placed in his innovation, the famous Model T Ford would never have even made it into production. Together these three men laid the groundwork for the automobile industry, turning Ford’s vision for a new form of transport into a business that grew at an astonishing rate. Following the end of their partnership in 1914, the subsequent rivalry between Ford and the Dodge brothers created two of the most iconic American automobile brands.100 years later, and Dodge has become a brand largely famous for two things – trucks and affordable American muscle, those vehicles designed for raw, straight line speed. Like any iconic car brand, it has a few models that epitomise what the brand can do when it’s at the top of its game. In this case, the Ram truck, Dodge Challenger and Dodge Viper are the triptych for which it is most frequently feted. Dodge has been a cornerstone of the Chrysler Group since it was acquired in 1920, and has continued to be celebrated as a brand built on the American dream.A quick look at the current Dodge website shows a suitably aspirational (and exceedingly macho) strapline for each name plate in the portfolio. Phrases such as ‘Power to the Power of Power’ and ‘Take a Power Trip to Beast Town’ are wonderfully over-the-top and show a brand that has a strong belief in what its customers want (hint, it’s not fuel economy), but that also doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Dodge Durango commercials starring Will Ferrell are another example of the brand’s ability to hit the right tone for its young, ambitious target audience, as Dodge allowed Ferrell, in his Ron Burgundy guise, to write and produce every single one. Millions of YouTube views later for over 70 different spots (Ferrell clearly enjoyed himself), suggest both Dodge and the Chrysler Group should be applauded for having the guts to cede control to someone outside the organisation – a risk many brands aren’t prepared to take.This maverick attitude has been an ever-present part of the Dodge brand DNA since the two founders decided to take on Ford at his own game one hundred years ago. Whether this in-your-face machismo is what you’re after, the personality of the Dodge brand always rings out loud and clear across the entire experience. But while the brand’s heritage is full of bold decisions, that’s not to say every single one has received as rapturous a reception as Ron. Endless logo changes gave the brand a Frankenstein feel that caused a few grumbles, but the real outrage came in 2009, when the Chrysler Group made the particularly brave and contentious decision to spin off the entire Dodge truck portfolio under the Ram brand. It’s unclear whether this was a cost saving exercise by Chrysler Group, following its successful repayment of the $6bn bailout provided by the US government, and gradual acquisition by Fiat. But the party line was that it would help the Dodge brand focus on what it does best – making affordable performance vehicles for the masses.As for Ram, its former president Fred Diaz claimed at the time that “Ram trucks will always and forever be Dodges. Ram will always have the Dodge emblem inside and outside ... We need to continue to market as Ram so Dodge can have a different brand identity: hip, cool, young, energetic. That will not fit the campaign for truck buyers. The two should have distinct themes.” Diaz’s statement was a bit confusing, as he attempted to both retain association with Ram’s parent brand, and also create clear separation from it. If the target audiences are that well defined and divergent, then the brands should be too.Nonetheless, Chrysler Group did not stop there, and in 2013 continued to spin off the sub-brands by re-badging the Dodge Viper under SRT – its high performance group. In just a few short years, Dodge has been shorn of two of its most iconic vehicles, which contributed so much to its century of success.These decisions have inevitably raised the issue of ‘routelessness’ – where automotive brands that become part of a much bigger empire lose their direction, personality and appeal. Under its new ownership, has the Chrysler Group stripped the Dodge brand of its greatest assets, or allowed it to refocus on making affordable performance automobiles for the masses? Is the group limiting or maximising the brand’s potential? Public opinion is certainly split, largely based on their perceptions of the Dodge brand. For those who believe it has reliability issues, Dodge’s association with Ram was damaging. Truckers need a brand they can trust, and so the separation makes sense. For those who see Dodge as a proud American icon, this de-coupling exercise is madness and calls the brand’s credibility into question.From a business perspective, Dodge’s fortunes have also been mixed since these decisions were made. Chrysler has added new models to the portfolio to broaden the brand’s appeal, and initially these were a success, benefitting from fifty consecutive months of growth. However recent news that sales of the Dodge Dart – their compact offering – are down 33 per cent so far in 2014 shows that not all these bold decisions are guaranteed to pay off. While the brand has retained the brilliantly brash tone that made it iconic, is this personality now at odds with a product portfolio that aims to compete across the more everyday categories? The goodwill towards this maverick brand may still remain, but Dodge cannot rely on its iconic heritage forever. After a period of flux, it’s imperative that the brand focuses its proposition and portfolio to provide consumers with a clear, consistent and appealing brand experience that will ensure it remains an American icon.Tim Gosman is a senior consultant at Brand Union, working with clients including Land Rover, GSK and Shell.This feature was first published in The Drum's 14 May issue, available for subscribers to download here. If you're not a subscriber you can purchase a copy of the latest issue here or subscribe here.

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