Ford may need to focus on Focus. And GM on Malibu. Yes, the domestic brands’ trucks and SUVs are selling, but their cars were less hot last month. Which makes sense. It was February, after all, and the brutal winter weather kept people in their caves. What did move were larger vehicles, what with gasoline prices under $2 in some places, and cake-and-eat-it-too engine improvements and weight savings that let consumers go large without sacrificing too much at the pump.
Overall car sales, industry wide, were down some 30,000 units versus the month last year, with sales of sub-compact cars down 5.4%; compact cars were up just 1.9%; mid-size cars down 2.7%, and full-size cars down almost 10%, per KBB.com data. But it seems, with all of that, the imports had some big car successes, while GM and Ford were hurt by declines almost across the board.
Ford saw sales declines in all but the Mustang, which accounted for 8,454 units delivered. It's 8.1% decline in car sales last month helped make it one of the few auto brands that posted overall sales declines, while the industry overall saw about a 5.3% increase in sales. Not having enough of the new F-150 to meet demand sure didn't help, notes Edmunds.com Analyst Jeremy Acevedo. "GM actually did experience a sales lift in February; Ford was the only major automaker to register a sales decline in the month. One of the primary culprits for Ford's sales dip is the still-limited production of the F-150, the best selling vehicle in the country," he says. "It's such a huge part of Ford's portfolio that when sales of the F-150 are restricted, it has major bearing on Ford's sales totals. Additional upcoming redesigns for Ford like the Edge have slowed the brand's sales pace as well."
Nobody at Ford and GM wants to return to the days when they were buying car share with big incentives, and trucks and SUVs were their only revenue stream. Ford's new U.S. marketing boss Mark LaNeve (who, having been at General Motors back in the day, certainly has memories of the incentive trench warfare) said last week that he does not want the automaker to slide back to having to “buy the business,” as he put it. Rather, he said, he wants to earn it with superior product and customer service.
Unfortunately you can't blame incentive pushes by the Asian brands for their sales boost, though the domestics all cut their spend. Based on TrueCar predictions from activity through most of the month, the industry incentive average was actually down 2.9% versus February, 2014. The firm said Chrysler cut incentive spend by 3.2% to $3,145; Ford cut it by 9.3% to $2,888 and GM by 7.6% to category topping incentive spend of $3,247. But Honda incentives dropped by 2.7% to $1,871 on average per vehicle; Nissan cut spend by 8.4% to $2,554; and Toyota increased it by only 0.5% to a comparatively low $1,811.
Still, with all things pretty much equal in the quality and features department brand versus brand, there are a lot of variables at play when it comes to one brand's cars selling and another's not. One thing is clear, and it is certainly clear to the marketers in Detroit: the domestics should refocus on cars in coming months, and think hard about how to talk about the concrete aspects of their products, maybe less about sentimental intangibles. Do what the phone people do: talk more about what it does, less about what it means.