ďHOLDENíS LEGACY IS KILLING ITS CHANCES OF REINVENTING ITSELF IN AUSTRALIA. THE CLEAREST WAY FORWARD IS TO RETIRE THE BRANDĒ
FOR YEARS NOW the Holden Commodore has been on borrowed time, though that didnít stop a ripple of shock spreading through the Wheels office when the news finally came. ďRetiredĒ was the word Holden chose; ďDeadĒ is what we were all thinking.
By now youíve had some time to digest it. Itís possible youíll still feel angry, though Iíd wager thatís now given way to disappointment, or more tellingly, to acceptance. After all, the ZB wasnít a real Commodore, was it?
Now ask yourself this: how would you feel if Holden itself pulled up stumps? If the entire brand decided to bow out with dignity and then, months later, reinvent itself as Chevrolet or simply as GM?
Angry? Disappointed? Accepting? Yeah, I reckon thatís about right. For an issue so drowned in emotion - Holden holds a special place in my heart and in the history of this magazine - itís difficult to look at rationally. But the facts are telling.
Just over two years into its brave new world and the Lion Brand isnít wounded, itís drifting, seemingly unconscious, towards an inevitable demise. Things arenít so much dire as they are disastrous.
Dave Buttner, the well-respected car company exec lured out of retirement to transform Holdenís fortunes as its fearless leader, has left his post after 16 months due to personal reasons.
Then there are the sales. Everyone expected Holden to take a hit when manufacturing ended in late 2017, but no one predicted the hit to be so savage, or so prolonged. After a drop of 33 percent in 2018, Holden is on track to record another year-to-date slump of around 30 percent when the final numbers are tallied for 2019.
Once Australiaís most successful brand for almost three decades, last monthís sales werenít only the latest in a string of worst in the companyís history, but they saw Holdenís entire model range outsold by each of the top three (Ranger, Hilux and Triton). As for the Commodore? In the glory days, Holden could move close to 10,000 units a month. In November this year, it only sold 309.
Clearly, the current strategy isnít working. Holden hasnít only failed to attract new buyers, itís eradicated any goodwill it had left with its rusted-on fans.
And as for brand values? Once such a strength, Iíd now argue Holdenís rose-tinted legacy is actually a hindrance. Or, to put it another way, Holdenís history is killing its chances of reinventing itself in Australia.
So as much as it pains me to say it, the clearest way forward is to retire the brand. Naturally this isnít a clear-cut course of action. Rebranding wonít be easy. The dealer network will need to be culled, and the task of establishing a new brand is notoriously difficult down under. Though for me, the potential positives outweigh the risks.
As a well-known international brand, Chevrolet already has some equity with Aussie buyers, and crucially, taking on a new name would give Holden a chance to start afresh, sans the emotional baggage currently slung around its neck like a millstone. Itíll also bring a welcome sense of coherence to the showroom floor. The Trax, Equinox and Colorado already wear Chevy badges in other markets, and Holden could campaign hard to bring the good-looking Chevrolet Blazer to our shores, too. Plus, when the C8 looking Corvette arrives, it wonít be an expensive outlier but will fulfil its role as a flagship for the entire range. Thereís also room to establish Cadillac as a premium offering above the regular Chevrolet range.
It neednít mean the loss of jobs, either. Holdenís design studio and proving ground have already pivoted to work on global product, the talented crew at Lang Lang can still tune cars for Aussie conditions, and the marketing team wonít be short of work...
The big issue, of course, is the future of right-hand-drive models in GMís product strategy. Given GM has now left Europe and South Africa, Australia is a peripheral outpost unlikely to secure top-rung product. One unlikely Hail Mary solution to retain the Holden name could be for GM to sell the Lion Brand to PSA. Established right-hand-drive models already exist (Astra, Corsa etc) and popular small SUVs like the Grandland X could be brought in. Plus, itíd give the French company an established dealer network.
Whatever Holden decides - and it must decide soon - one thing is clear: Holden as we knew it is gone.