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The revivals of the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wagoneer are actually about American anxiety

How two major launches are looking to the past to sell their car companies’ future.

The revivals of the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wagoneer are actually about American anxiety
[Photos: Ford; Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]

Back in July, Ford teamed with Disney to introduce the company’s most anticipated vehicle launch in years, an all-new lineup of Broncos. One of the original off-road classics, it ceased production in 1996, but it’s a name steeped in automotive history, and it still boasts an army of enthusiasts who collect, restore, and show off their old Broncos.

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The marketing blitz tapped directly into the Bronco’s heritage as the first real SUV (before anyone had even thought about stringing those letters together), and it included three short films directed by Oscar winner Jimmy Chin that highlighted how the new incarnation of the Bronco tied back to that outdoorsy past.

Meanwhile, over at Fiat Chrysler, the Jeep brand has been readying its own heritage-based reboot with the Wagoneer. While not set for launch until sometime next year, the company rolled out a concept version to whet the appetites of its own fans and persuade a new generation of car buyers that the name still means something.

There’s just one problem.

This new Grand Wagoneer is a $100,000 luxury vehicle that looks like it’d be much more at home on an Instagram grid than off the grid.

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The original Wagoneer was pitched as a four-wheel-drive station wagon for the family. Something to take on picnics and fishing trips. Take a look at that concept car and now imagine someone paying $100K for it, then driving it through a freakin’ river. The closest that thing is going to get to a river is New York City’s West Side Highway.

Brian Sheehan, an advertising professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, says that while Jeep may be aiming to utilize the Wagoneer name’s pedigree as a selling point, it appears to be ignoring what that pedigree actually is. “To hark back to the beloved family station wagon, which is basically what it was, doesn’t really make much sense to me if you want people to fork over high five, low six figures for a car,” says Sheehan. “I think it’s a completely muddled message.”

Sheehan continues, “If you want Jeep to have a flagship, call it the Constellation or the Enterprise. It’s a beautiful car that actually looks like it’s probably worth $100,000, so why the hell are you slapping Wagoneer on it? That doesn’t make any sense to me. I’d walk away from the heritage, because the imagery of the heritage is not the imagery of this new car.”

Obviously it’s early days here, as the new Grand Wagoneer isn’t anywhere near a dealership yet. With the right angle, perhaps Jeep could use this opportunity to pitch the car as a 21st-century evolution of the Wagoneer name, the way an Apple Watch is completely different but still a descendent of the Mac 128K (at least in spirit). That’s an incredibly fine line to balance, and a hell of a marketing challenge.

As a culture, we are awash in heritage. Especially in times of uncertainty. Who could forget the Great Urban Lumberjack boom after the 2008 financial crash? As the Great Recession hung in the air, age-old brands such as Red Wing, Pendleton, Hunter, and Filson, among others, saw their popularity soar as people looked for some semblance of dependability—of a time where Americans made things built to last and a plurality of people shared in the economic benefits. Even if was just in their wardrobe. The longevity of these brands didn’t just offer us comfort; it gave marketers a treasure trove of potential stories to use in selling that very image.

If marketing is about story, brands of all shapes and sizes are desperate to find one that will get your attention. History will tell you that history is something that works. It’s everything from Levi’s to Chuck Taylors, Budweiser to Tiffany. It’s even on TV, with prequels based on beloved characters such as HBO’s Perry Mason or Young Wallander on Netflix. At a time where so much feels ephemeral, the dependability of a product or brand that’s lasted generations is used as a differentiator.

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However, it can also be easily misplaced.

Do it right and you’ve reignited a long-dormant cult brand.

Miss the mark, however, and you might as well be selling Sports Illustrated protein powder.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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