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How Long Can A Strong Brand Carry A Less-Than-Strong Product? Jim Huebner

Jeep®. The brand name alone creates so many powerful images in the minds of consumers. For some, it's of patriotism with its connection to WWII. For others, it's of exploration, ruggedness, durability and just plain fun.

Few auto manufacturers and their dealer networks enjoy the same brand power that Jeep experiences. That's why it was fascinating to hearCNBC's auto industry reporter Phil Lebeau cover Consumer Reports' auto guide a couple of years ago. It's an annual ranking of the best and worst of automobile manufacturing brands, based on the predicted reliability and safety of road-tested models. Of the 30 brands tested, Jeep ended up #29 on the list that year, ending up with a dismal rating of 43 on a scale of 100.

"This is the most interesting story that I've covered over the last couple of years," Lebeau stated. "This brand (Jeep) gets blasted on a regular basis for reliability, but sales continue to go up."

He pointed out that while not one Jeep product has been recommended by Consumer Reports since 2013, sales continue to "soar". I recently checked, and last year alone Jeep sales were up a whopping 29%.

So if the product is really that bad, why in the world would people continue to buy it? Lebeau attributed it to the brand and marketing alone.

"When it comes to marketing and branding, no auto manufacturer does it better than Jeep,"

Lebeau said. And I completely understand that. After all, I have spent a good chunk of my life helping clients tell their stories and have seen first hand that good marketing and brand-building really do matter. The question is, how long can it matter, and how long does a dealer network put up with complaining customers and constant recalls? I mean, if a product is bad and bad for a long period of time at some point it has to outweigh and truly diminish the strength of the brand, right? Well...it depends on the disparity between how bad the product is and how strong the brand is. Strong brands can actually endure problems for years as long as they continue to pursue the one thing that arguably matters most in building a product brand...relevance.

If you look at some of the brands that have died over the years, it was their loss of relevance that often caused their problems. From Blockbuster to Nokia, and from Oldsmobile to Woolworth's, it seems the problems for each brand were created by either an unwillingness or an inability to address the relevancy of their offerings as their market demands changed. In short, poor products weren't the problem. Irrelevant products and offerings were.

Back to Jeep. Are the products poor? According to Consumer Reports, they are without a doubt sub-par. Next question: Are Jeep products relevant? Well, do they offer nostalgia, the ability to explore, and a "cool factor" others don't? The answer is yes. Jeep products are in-fact relevant to the needs of their customers, and that's exactly why their sales continue climb and dealers continue to keep inventory on their lots in spite of their product quality issues. Would their sales be even better if they didn't have the quality issues? Most certainly. But you have to give them credit. In a less than perfect world, at least they've gotten the most important thing right keeping the product relevant (built to explore, focusing on the nostalgia, etc.) for their core customers.

So what's your plan for staying relevant? How will you gauge your relevancy? Are there ways your products or services could be even more germane to your customers? Ask yourself these questions more often, and you'll find yourself worrying about inevitable problems less often.