Trucking services: Burgeoning demand hastens fundamental changes in the industry.

The trucking services industry is a fascinating field right now. On the one hand, demand for trucking services has never been higher – thanks to fundamental shifts in the way consumers shop for and purchase merchandise.

On the other hand, we may be on the cusp of fundamental changes in the way trucking services are handled as a result.

Thanks to data compiled by the Thomas Index Report, we can see that sourcing activity for trucking services is growing at a substantially faster rate than its historical average – to the tune of ~10% higher demand above the norm.

There’s no question that a key reason for this demand growth is because of changes in how consumers shop – with much less reliance on brick-and-mortar retail and more emphasis on online purchasing.

According to freight exchange services provider DAT Solutions (aka Dial-a-Truck), for every 12 loads needed to be moved, just one truck was available during 2018.

That ratio is unsustainable over time. And it doesn’t help that there’s been a persistent shortage of long-haul truck drivers.  That’s actually a 25-year trend, but it’s been becoming more acute with every passing year.

When Walmart finds that it needs to hire long-haul drivers whose all-in compensation approaches $85,000 annually, that’s when you know the fundamentals need to change.

And fundamental change is happening – even if you may not have seen it “up close and personal” yet. A group of manufacturers are working on developing self-driving (autonomous) semi-trailer trucks. Among the companies committed to this initiative are GM, Volvo, Daimler and Tesla.

Driverless trucks are already on the road, including ones developed by Waymo that began delivering freight for Google’s data centers last year. Amazon is hauling cargo via autonomous trucks produced by Embark, another self-driving truck developer.

The rapid pace of development means that it’s quite likely self-driving trucks will become mainstreamed during the 2020s. If that happens, we could then be looking at another set of issues – how to channel sidelined truckers into jobs in other fields.

Perhaps some of those people can find employment in several ancillary industry segments that are benefiting equally well because of shifts in how consumers shop and buy. Naturally, demand is robust and growing in the freight-related categories of crates, pallets and containers.

… On the other hand, it’s probably best if the displaced workers don’t try to get new jobs working at a shopping center …

Work/family gender roles are changing … even if the media portrayals of them aren’t.

Work and family nexusIt may be the year 2014, but many people continue to wander gracelessly through the gender minefield when it comes to the workplace.

We saw this in spades two weeks ago, when the Today Show’s Matt Lauer asked General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra how she successfully balanced her role as CEO of a large corporation with that of being a Mom.

Mr. Lauer was excoriated for asking the question, with criticism coming from all quarters (left and right).  He was accused of sexist questioning.  Several commentators pointed out that he had never asked such a question of the male top executives he had interviewed earlier at GM and Chrysler.

Mr. Lauer correctly noted that Ms. Barra had addressed this very issue proactively in a magazine article, and hence he thought the line of questioning was fair game.

Still, the fact that a flurry of controversy was stirred up at all reminds us how emotionally charged questions about gender roles continue to be, several generations after the birth of the feminist movement.

In point of fact, gender roles have been evolving pretty rapidly in the past two or three decades.  Sparked by economic and employment forces as well as changes in social norms, more men than ever are choosing to stay home with family, even as the participation of women in the workforce has reached all-time highs.

And field research conducted in May 2014 by consulting firm Insights in Marketing suggests that it’s men more than women who now feel that they’re facing struggles and stigmas associated with achieving a good work/family balance.  To wit:

Among men surveyed who have children under the age of 18, ~35% report that they are “feeling more torn between work and family” … whereas with women with children under the age of 18, only ~26% report the same feelings.

Here’s another result from the same survey:  By a 57% to 41% margin, men are more likely than women to agree with the following statement:  “A man’s primary duty is to financially provide for his family.”

Those figures may not come as a surprise.

By contrast, nearly the same percentages of men (78%) and women (74%) disagree with the statement that “A woman’s primary duty is to be a full-time caretaker for her family.”

According to the research summary issued by Insights in Marketing, these findings suggest that certain gender stereotypes are no longer accurate:  Society truly accepts (and even expects) women to be a part of the workforce, while expecting men to care only about their careers.

Instead, the survey reveals much more similarities than differences in how women and men see their family and work roles:

  • ~81% of women surveyed feel that their first obligation is to their home and family … and ~75% of the men surveyed feel the same way.
  •   ~48% of men surveyed feel that their career gives their lives purpose … but ~40% of the women surveyed also reported the same feeling.

Even though real change is happening on the ground, it’ll probably take more time before we start seeing the change being reflected in popular culture — and so that Matt Lauer can ask a question without incurring the wrath of a thousand baying wolves.

Remember that, too, the next time you see a TV commercial for laundry detergent.  You know — the one where Dad is some doofus who puts way too much soap in the washing machine and then can’t figure out when to add the fabric softener …

More findings from the Insights in Marketing report are available here.

What are America’s “Most Influential” Brands?

Most influential brandsIn my most recent blog post, I reported on equity analysis firm 24/7 Wall Street and its take on the “most damaged” brands in the United States.

While there was pretty universal agreement among readers on most of the nine brands that had the dubious honor to make it on the list, there were several cases where some readers disagreed — Apple and J.P. Morgan Chase in particular.

Now, as an interesting comparative exercise looking at the other end of the scale, New York-based research company Ipsos MarketQuest polled Americans earlier this year on which brands they view as the “most influential” ones.

Of the 100 major brands included in the Ipsos survey and rated by respondents, here are the ten brands cited as most influential in the 2013 survey (in descending order of score):

  1. Google
  2. Amazon
  3. Apple
  4. Microsoft
  5. Facebook
  6. VISA
  7. Wal-Mart
  8. Yahoo!
  9. Proctor & Gamble
  10. eBay

Google leads the pack – and it’s hardly a surprise. But an important (and perhaps surprising) thing we notice is how pervasive technology, media and web-based brands are on the list.

Clearly, these are the types of companies that are increasingly influential in the lives of everyday Americans.

In fact, just three brands in the “Top 10 Most Influential” predate the personal computer era: VISA, Wal-Mart and Proctor & Gamble. And they rank relatively low on the list at #6, #7 and #9.

Moreover, let’s not forget that all three of these more “legacy-type” brands have actually been quite active in online and social media activities. Clearly, their senior management personnel realize that a good measure of future brand health lies in the same space where the other leading brands are active.

Apple: Brand Damage?Another interesting point that jumps out is when we compare the Ipsos “most influential” with the 24/7 Wall Street “most damaged” rankings. One brand stands out on both lists: Apple.

How can this be?

But on second thought, is it reall all so surprising? The 24/7 Wall Street inclusion was based on stock analysts’ reading of the company’s recent missteps and related share price declines … whereas the Ipsos list is based on the findings from a survey of “ordinary Americans.”

Applying the same comparative measures, I’m pretty sure the public’s view of General Motors stayed right up there long after the financial analysts had fled the stock and  relegated GM’s brand reputation to the basement.

But in the end, public opinion eventually followed the analysts, in part because GM’s efforts to turn around company performance proved spectacularly ineffective. It just took more time for that knowledge to seep into the collective consciousness.

For Apple, the big question is: Will its future actions mean that it stabilizes its brand reputation? Or, will its effort fall short, leading to a loss of consumer confidence?

Let’s check in again after 18-24 months and find out.

Car Company Conundrum: Auto Companies Try to Preserve Brand Loyalty

Big Three Automotive Manufacturers
The "Big Three" auto makers: Exactly how loyal are their customers?
Those of us “of a certain age” can remember the days of the Big Three U.S. auto makers. Each of them had a full brand lineup of vehicles designed to accompany a car owner’s pursuit of the American dream. For each step up the corporate or status ladder, there was a car perfectly suited for the event.

General Motors had its five “ascending” brands: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac. Rival Chrysler Corporation had its five auto brands that tracked neatly with GMs: Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial.

Ford Motor was a bit different in that it had only three flagship brands – Ford, Mercury and Lincoln – but the idea was the same. Capture the consumer at the very beginning … and stay with him or her for years thereafter. When I was growing up, I can recall friends who came from a GM family, a Ford family or a Chrysler family – such was affinity and loyalty people felt for “their” car companies.

Fast-forward to today, and the picture is completely scrambled. Not only has the prestige – and market share – of the U.S. car companies plummeted in the face of strong competition from foreign-based car rivals, but the brand offerings of the Big Three [sic] have been telescoped severely.

GM is now down to three flagship car brands (Chevy, Buick and Cadillac), while Ford and Chrysler are down to two each (Ford and Lincoln … Chrysler and Dodge).

The rationale for the recent decisions to jettison brands was to gain better control over operating expenses. Moreover, the amount of true difference between some of the brands was modest at best. So the goal of the auto makers has been to retain the loyalty of buyers and shift them to the remaining brands, thereby controlling operating costs while keeping customers in the fold

How’s that working out for everyone?

Well … not exactly as planned. General Motors dropped Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer in the latest round of brand downsizing in 2009, but had hoped to keep most of the buyers of those vehicles in the GM family. Reportedly, there are ~3 million of these vehicles on the roads today. However, the Detroit News is reporting that a majority of these owners are opting for non-GM products when they’re in the market for a new vehicle – brands such as Honda, Nissan and Toyota.

In fact, statistics from auto research company J.D. Power & Associates show these sorry retention rates for GM during 2010:

 Hummer owners staying with GM: ~39%
 Pontiac owners staying with GM: ~36%
 Saturn owners staying with GM: ~26%

These figures compare to an industry-wide brand retention rate of ~48%.

The statistics on Saturn are probably the least surprising. After all, Saturn was promoted as “a new kind of car company” – presumably in stark contrast to other GM car brands as much as any rivals. It stands to reason that Saturn owners would probably find almost any other company preferable than staying with GM.

GM has certainly tried to keep its customers from straying – including offering special deals such as one-year free maintenance programs, discounts on new GM auto purchases, offers to test-drive GM cars, and special invitations and events to introduce customers to new GM dealers.

Some industry observers feel that GM miscalculated to a degree, in that the three brands dropped by the company had a measure of distinctness that is difficult to replicate in the remaining GM brands. J.D. Power’s Executive Director of U.S. Automotive Research, Steve Witten has noted, “The truth of the matter is they didn’t have many options for people to stay in the GM family. Now, there are holes.”

[It didn’t help either that some Saturn dealerships jumped the GM ship when the brand went away – taking many of their customers with them.]

What about Ford Motor’s experience in dropping the Mercury brand from its lineup? It turns out the news for them has been better. In fact, Ford has managed to hold on to ~46% of Mercury customers.

Ironically, the company has benefited from what might normally be considered a brand weakness: the Ford and Mercury lines had very little differentiation between them. Thus, it has proven easier to shift Mercury owners to Ford vehicles as an alternative.

Chrysler went through its auto brand downsizing a bit earlier … the Imperial nameplate disappeared back in the 1980s (I know: I owned one of the last models manufactured) … while the Plymouth brand bit the dust seven years prior to the 2009 economic near-meltdown.

Instead, the big news at Chrysler has been its shift from one foreign parent company (Germany’s Daimler-Benz) to another (Italy’s Fiat). For many, the jury may still be out on the long-term viability of Chrysler – the next two or three years will be the acid test.

A surprise? Corporate reputations on the rise.

Corporate reputations on the riseWhat’s happening with the reputations of the leading U.S. corporations? Are we talking “bad rep” or “bum rap”?

Actually, it turns out that corporate reputations are on the rise; that’s according to findings from the 2011 Reputation Quotient® Survey conducted by market research firm Harris Interactive.

Each year since 1999, Harris has measured the reputations of the 60 “most visible” corporations in the United States. The 2011 survey, fielded in January and February, included ~30,000 Americans who are part of Harris’ online panel database. Respondents rated the companies on 20 attributes that comprise what Harris deems the overall “reputation quotient” (RQ).

The 2011 survey contained 54 “most visible” companies that were also part of the 2010 survey. Of those, 18 of the firms showed significant RQ increases compared to only two with declines.

The 20 attributes in the Harris survey are then grouped into six larger categories that are known to influence reputation and consumer behavior:

 Products and services
 Financial performance
 Emotional appeal
 Vision and leadership
 Workplace environment
 Social responsibility

Each of the ten top-rated companies in the 2011 survey achieved between an 81 and 84 RQ score in corporate reputation. (Any RQ score over 80 is considered “excellent” in the Harris study). In cescending order of score, these top-ranked corporations were:

 Google
 Johnson & Johnson
 3M Company
 Berkshire Hathaway
 Apple
 Intel Corporation
 Kraft Foods
 Amazon.com
 Disney Company
 General Mills

At the other end of the scale, the ten companies with the lowest ratings among the 60 included on the survey were:

 Delta Airlines (61 RQ score)
 JPMorgan Chase (61)
 ExxonMobil (61)
 General Motors (60)
 Bank of America (59)
 Chrysler (58)
 Citigroup (57)
 Goldman Sachs (54)
 BP (50)
 AIG (48)

Clearly, BP and AIG haven’t escaped their bottom-of-the-barrel ratings – and probably won’t anytime soon.

What about certain industries in general? The Harris research reveals that the technology segment is perceived most positively, with ~75% of respondents giving that sector a positive rating.

The next most popular segment – retail – had ~57% of respondents giving it a positive rating.

For the auto industry, the big news is not that it’s held in high regard (it’s not) … but that its ratings jumped 15 percentage points between 2010 and 2011. That’s the largest one-year jump recorded for any industry in any year since the Harris RQ Survey began.

What industries are bouncing along the bottom? Predictably, it’s financial services firms and oil companies.

But the news from this survey is, on balance, quite positive. In fact, Harris found that there were actually more individual companies rated “excellent” than has ever been recorded in the history of the survey. Considering the sorry state of the economy and how badly many brands have been battered, that result is nothing short of amazing

The Automotive Comeback Story of the Year?

2010 Chrysler Town & Country Minivan
Chrysler's Town & Country minivan: On top of the charts again.
Not surprisingly, the ongoing saga of the GM bailout and subsequent re-listing of General Motors on the New York Stock Exchange was the biggest automotive news story of 2010.

But in what may be the more surprising comeback story, the Chrysler Town & County minivan is poised to regain the top spot in a segment that Chrysler once dominated, going all the way back to when the first minivan rolled off the assembly line in the early 1980s.

But in recent years, beset by organization troubles along with spirited competition from other domestic and imported automakers, Chrysler had lost its first-rank position to the Honda Odyssey while its overall share of the minivan market declined.

For December, the Town & Country’s unit sales were over 102,000, compared to the Odyssey’s ~98,000. Chrysler’s sister brand, Dodge, racked up minivan unit sales of ~89,000, the same as the Toyota Sienna. That puts Chrysler on pace to lead the minivan pack for all of 2010 and reclaim the sales crown.

It’s no secret that Chrysler considers the minivan to be one of the keys to its brand identity – and a key component of its comeback strategy. “Our goal is regaining leadership. We consider we own it and we need to regain what once belonged to us,” the Detroit News quotes Olivier Francois, head of the Chrysler brand, as saying.

[Another reason Chrysler might have lost its edge over the years in the “minivan derby” was a perception of quality issues and the way its vehicles handled. But speaking as someone whose family has driven Chrysler minivans since 1990 – and currently owns four Dodge Caravans spanning ten years’ worth of model years – we’ve never encountered any major quality issues beyond the expected maintenance requirements for vehicles we routinely run for close to 200,000 miles each.]

If a car maker is making a major push for product sales, it makes sense to place more inventory in the showrooms for consumers to buy. Significant “upgrades” to Dodge and Chrysler minivans are being introduced for 2011, and greater numbers of vehicles will be delivered to dealerships, it’s being reported.

Of course, no one believes that Chrysler’s goal to maintain the sales crown for minivans will be slam-dunk easy. Japanese automakers are introducing their own all-new minivan models in 2011.

And why not? They’re seeing an increase in consumer interest in the minivan segment just like everyone else. While no one expects sales of minivans to return to the stratospheric levels of the late 1990s, stories about the “death” of the minivan that were being published in more recent years have now completely disappeared from the newswires.

One of the interesting questions Chrysler will be facing in the coming years is whether to continue to cultivate two separate minivan nameplates or to consolidate them into one. Chrysler has tended to lavish more “design” attention on the Town & Country and more “performance” focus on the Dodge Caravan. As a result, the Town & Country is now more popular with female consumers and the Caravan more popular with men.

This “gender-focused” targeting finds its penultimate manifestation this year with the introduction of Dodge Caravan’s so-called “man-van” – a high-performance version of the Grand Caravan featuring a “macho” all-black interior with red stitching. Can’t wait for one of these show up in the auto showroom!