Martin Winterkorn, boss of Volkswagen Group, admitted this month that the business “urgently” needs better profits, and today’s half-year results announcement confirmed falls in both profits and sales. This is the company, remember, which has targeted global number one status by 2018, and since Winterkorn became CEO in 2007 CEO has increased production by 4m units and doubled its revenues.
One of the reasons for VW’s poor profitability is that it isn’t global in terms of geographical spread. It’s in the key growth market, China, but is actually over-dependent on it, whereas it has little traction in south and south-east Asia. And market share is relatively low in the USA, with the VW brand on the slide. Another factor is that VW is light on compact SUVs, the biggest growth segment globally. A further reason and perhaps the most significant is its sheer size – a company this big simply can’t avoid inefficiencies.
But here’s the elephant in the boardroom: VW’s problem is also down to brands. VW group isn’t merely huge; it has a huge brand portfolio, with 12 brands in total – stretching to trucks and motorbikes – and over 310 models. Paradoxically, rather than providing economies of scale, in the accumulation of brands the collective mass has outweighed the ability to exploit the efficiencies.
By 2007 it already had the considerable challenge of consolidating and managing a passenger car portfolio of SEAT, Skoda, VW, Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti. Each was struggling for both individual relevance and group synergy. Skoda had already begun to produce cars in the VW brand’s space. VW in turn was encroaching on Audi, which was moving onto mainstream segments previously the preserve of these brands while simultaneously launching de-facto Lamborghinis. Bentley was doing a fine job. Bugatti was, well, Bugatti, and SEAT was struggling not to be a Spain-only brand and was being jumped by Skoda. The group was competing with itself, and the mainstream brands were sharing the same market space but without sharing the economic benefits. And meanwhile the world was plunging into an economic downturn.
So what did VW do? Since Martin Winterkorn’s 2007 accession it’s added four more brands: Porsche, Ducati, MAN and Scania. It has also become the largest stakeholder in Suzuki and even consumed the design house Italdesign Giugiaro. And Skoda has stated that it wants to sell on quality and style, while Lamborghini and Bentley have announced SUVs.
VW’s strategy goes directly against the new automotive industry paradigm. Toyota has continued to excel in financial performance. It has not acquired other makes but concentrated on its core brand, which has maintains clear values, and its own premium-luxury brand, Lexus. Hyundai, which led even Toyota on profitability in 2013, was forced into a merger of unequals with Kia when the South Korean business bubble burst in the late 1990s. They produce cars for the same market segments, yet with only two brands they’ve not only managed the situation by differentiating the brands but have grown stratospherically since 2007. Meanwhile Ford has divested itself of Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover, and is emerging strongly under the ‘One Ford’ mantra. GM is now doing the same in Europe, discarding Chevrolet to concentrate on Opel/Vauxhall. And VW’s German rival BMW has limited its acquisition trail to the very distinct Rolls-Royce and Mini brands and retained the BMW group values across its portfolio.
They’ve all benefitted from a focus on a single brand or a primary and secondary brands. It’s very hard for Volkswagen group to do the same. The VW range’s own brand is still strong in spite of becoming part of the uncomfortable brand portfolio dynamic. But the group’s brand is infinitely less than the sum of its parts. It’s impossible to say what it stands for in the way that you can about its volume peers Toyota and Ford.
That VW’s profits are suffering is not surprising. That’s what happens when a goal defined by volumes is set. If the goal were instead to define and differentiate the brands more clearly, with each given the objective of becoming the most desired among consumers, then the volumes would follow. They would do so more slowly but they would do it sustainably.