Toyota's problems took a big toll on the brand last quarter, while Ford gained from Toyota's loss. According to Kelley Blue Book's 'Automotive Brand Indicator' (ABI), Ford was the top brand in opinion and consideration, followed by Toyota, Chevrolet, Honda, and Nissan.
In the Q4 '09 version of the ABI study, the top five were Toyota, Ford, Chevrolet, Honda and Nissan. The study uses brand consideration data and perception ratings from KBB's Market Intelligence's Brand Watch study and slices and dices it with new-car shopper activity and leads data from kbb.com (some 15 million visits per month) to get brand strength measures.
Rick Wainschel, senior VP of marketing intelligence and brand strategy, explains that Toyota's drop, which began last year, could have been a lot worse. He says Toyota was a bit like a racer who is so far ahead of the pack that the pebble in its shoe merely evens the playing field.
"They basically lost a very large lead," he says. "Ford has been climbing, but what led to the reversal in the placement was more related to Toyota's decline than Ford's increase. They were very far ahead."
He says Toyota's position would also have been much worse if the study had only been for January and February and not March, when the automaker made big sales gains using incentives.
Wainschel adds that the study takes a more holistic approach to brand health than previous KBB efforts, as it now looks both at what consumers are thinking and what they are actually shopping.
Changes in the former aspect are slower trends, while the shopping-based data can change from week to week based on incentives, sales and the like. "We have over the years collected survey work regarding consideration and brand perception by segment. Those are attitudinal and survey-based. And we have been collecting click-stream data and trending for some years, as well as lead submissions."
The firm now uses all of that data to generate a statistical model of brand health. Also, per Wainschel, since an automaker's scores include shopping activity on KBB.com and lead generation to dealers, the size of an automaker's portfolio -- whether a brand sells both cars and trucks, SUVs and pickups, for example -- necessarily makes a difference.
"For a brand to be in the top, it has very strong consideration and brand perception and shopper activity in every category. Ford was strong in trucks SUVs and weak in sedans until relatively recently. With Fusion and Taurus, they have made themselves a legitimate contender in sedans. Chevy is really strong in trucks and SUVs, not as strong in sedans." Hyundai saw big gains, rising from 11th place to sixth.
The luxury segment saw scores drop, not because of survey-based perception elements of the study but because of consideration. "It was driven by a drop in shopper activity and economics. People are much more in a mindset of need rather than want."
As for Toyota, "I think Toyota will be back in the number one spot in the second quarter. But the leadership mountain has gotten more crowded," he says.