Sun, Apr 23, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Great Wall’s Wei now ‘Jack Wey’ in branding push

By Tian Ying  /  Bloomberg

Most auto executives have reasons to feel at ease after hitting the 1 million annual sales mark in China, an exclusive club that includes General Motors Co (GM) and Volkswagen AG.

For Great Wall Motor Co (長城汽車) chairman Wei Jianjun (魏建軍), the feat stoked fears that the sport utility vehicle (SUV) maker might be doomed.

That is because history is littered with companies that grew big, but eventually failed because their products became a commodity and lacked the star power to create clamor among customers, according to the chairman of the manufacturer that has kept a 14-year streak as China’s top SUV seller.

“Moving up is testimony of a company’s strength; if you can’t, you’ll disappear the way Nokia did after Apple muscled in on their turf,” Wei said during an interview in Hong Kong, as he recalled how the iPhone maker upended the mobile phone industry and eventually toppled the erstwhile Finnish leader.

Wei’s paranoia signals the maturing of the world’s largest auto market, where an increasingly sophisticated middle class is no longer satisfied with cheap, me-too products.

China’s more successful homegrown automakers, including Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co (浙江吉利) — the owner of Volvo Cars Corp — and BYD Co (比亞迪), have embarked on efforts to burnish their nameplates in the belief that with more than 100 brands competing for buyers, the fight will be won by those who look beyond price competition to create income streams from products with higher profit margins.

For Wei, it turns out, the effort also involves adopting the English name “Jack Wey” and creating the premium nameplate “Wey.”

Sales of the brand’s first model that has features such as a warning system for lane changes began at the Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition this week, and another three models will be added this year, Wei said.

Wei, a native of Baoding born in 1964, has built Great Wall into China’s top seller of SUVs without leaning on any foreign partners and by offering consumers spacious models at cheaper prices than sedans such as Volkswagen’s Passat and GM’s Buick.

That strategy helped boost deliveries to a record 1.07 million units last year, outpacing industrywide growth.

The idea for going upscale came just more than four years ago when branding guru Al Ries, chairman of the Atlanta-based market-strategy firm Ries & Ries that counts Microsoft Corp and Ford Motor Co among its clients, advised Wei to create a separate brand.

“Jack Wey” would help foreigners get around the difficulty of pronouncing Wei’s name in Chinese, Wei was told.

As Chinese consumers shift their tastes away from sedans, demand for roomier SUVs is surging, with such vehicles accounting for 37 percent of the total sales last year, up from 5.7 percent a decade ago.

Still, the introduction of Wey comes at a time when new models are flooding the market.

PSA Group to Hyundai Motor Co are boosting their line-up in the segment.

Geely, owned by billionaire Li Shufu (李書福), is to start selling the first SUV model under its new upscale Lynk & Co from the fourth quarter, using the same platform adopted by affiliate Volvo Cars.

“We added Wey brand to prepare for the SUV market to enter the price competition era,” said Wei, who has a net worth of US$5.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. “Sales of Wey brand cars will bring us higher profit margins and with the rising sales volume, it will make bigger contribution to Great Wall’s bottom line.”

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