Illustration of a black hole

Consider poor Oldsmobile. During its last years General Motors changed its positioning so many times that the only place it could end up was in a black hole.

A positioning map has three characteristics: evaluative dimensions, brand perceptions and consumer preferences. We can show a black hole with just evaluative dimensions and perceptions. This map also assumes that price and performance are evaluative dimensions that brands can position on, which may not be the case (see Buyer Behavior Flow Chart). This map also shows only suggested quadrants for global brand names, not particular brands, such as Honda Civic. Nevertheless it can illustrate Oldsmobile's descent into a black hole.

What this shows is that in the late 1990's consumers had fairly clear perceptions of BMW, Honda, Neon and Cadillac: BMW as a high-performing luxury car; Honda as a high-performing economy car; Neon as a low-performing economy car; and Cadillac as a low-performing luxury car. Neon's rap was a poor one since the initial "Hi" advertising campaign and other promotion did little to broaden its appeal beyond women. And, unfairly it turns out, it got the reputation of a low-performing car. Cadillac also had a poor reputation for high performance and it took GM years to partially change that.

In Oldsmobile's last years GM brought out "luxury" models to compete with Japanese competitors, but then economy models to grab entry-level buyers. It developed high-performance engines and new steering and braking systems to appeal to younger buyers who preferred foreign brands and then, when its older core customers complained about the tight steering and premium fuel, GM detuned the engines, which consequently confused the younger buyers. Oldsmobile as a brand was in every quadrant on this perceptual map and so its average perception was in the middle.

Consumers couldn't figure what Oldsmobile stood for and so they stopped considering it and thus stopped buying it. When brands lose their meaning they don't appear in consumers' consideration sets. Sales go down and brands can go out of existence.

Note that this illustration may explain Oldsmobile's failure as a brand since it was constantly changing its positioning, but that a brand that was consistently positioned as mid-priced and mid-performance may succeed if there are enough preferences for such a brand. On the other hand, a discount department store that tried to position itself as mid-priced and mid-fashionable against the "low-price always" Wal-Mart and the fashionable "Targét" might not be understood by the consumer: call it Kmart.

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