What’s In a Name? Success.

January 24, 2008 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

I’m always mystified when companies that should know better miss major marketing opportunities. Worse, I’m amazed when the titans of industry with all their resources make an obvious blunder. Such is the case with Chevrolet and its 2008 Malibu. If you’re even passively interested in things automotive you are no doubt aware that the Malibu nameplate has not been a badge of honor for, say, the last decade or more. The car’s design has been banal at best and the performance and quality has been simply awful. Quality reviews by publications such as Consumer Reportshave been brutal, and the automotive press hasn’t been kind to the poor old Malibu, either. And a quick scan of the Internet will turn up no shortage of scathing reviews by disgruntled owners. In fact, it would have seemed that, like many tarnished auto badges of yesteryear, the Malibu was on its way to the junk yard.

Not so fast.

The Malibu is back and it truly is better than ever. The engineers and designers in the Motor City hit an out-of-the-park home run with the new-from-the-wheels-up 2008 Malibu. The ugly duckling literally has blossomed into a swan with the debut of this year’s new edition. The Malibu was named one of Car & Driver’s 10 Best Cars for 2008, putting it in the esteemed company of models like the BMW 3-series, Honda’s Accord, the Porsche Boxter and Cadillac’s CTS. What’s more, the Malibu just won the coveted title of North American Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show. Heady stuff to be sure for the little old Malibu.

So it’s flying out of dealerships, right? Yes and no. Yes, because dealers don’t have enough of the cars. But that’s not due to robust sales. Sure, Chevrolet sold 7,000 re-engineered Malibus in November and another 12,172 in December. But that was an increase of just 6.7% over last December when Chevy was selling the tired old ’07 model. Now compare that performance with sales of Toyota’s Camry – last updated in 2005 – at just under 39,000 units for December. Honda sold 31,255 redesigned Accords, and Nissan moved out 25,171 Altimas.

So why is the North American Car of the Year so far behind its competition despite its well-earned accolades and attendant industry hype? Poor production planning and a major marketing gaffe in my opinion. Chevy changed everything about the car except the name. The Malibu. An outdated brand badge with a trunk full of negative equity. The Malibu is your father’s car. The one you were embarrassed to drive to school. The one that wouldn’t start on cold mornings. The old beater in your neighbor’s driveway. The one with scores of bad reviews all over the web and in print. No doubt GM did its research and it told them to keep the nameplate. But sometimes good sense and simple marketing intuition should rule the day. How much more appealing would a vehicle of this quality be to the younger, upwardly mobile customers Chevy’s courting with an all-new name, making it an all-new model? We’ll never know because they missed their chance with this one. But my guess is they could have boosted production capacity with confidence and maybe even closed the gap on Toyota, Honda and Nissan. I just hope Chevy lets the Caprice rest in peace.

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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