by George Dyke…..
On October 1, 2019 Vincent Cobée replaced Linda Jackson as CEO of Citroën. It was a low-key announcement, with Jackson assigned a new role in the company leading a study ‘to clarify and support brand differentiation within the brand portfolio’ of Groupe PSA. (Now to be known as Stellantis* but for the purpose of this article discussing brands, I’ll keep it simple and refer to the parent company as PSA).
It was evident to me during the Centenary celebration at La Ferté-Vidame in July 2019, that the event was most likely Jackson’s swan song as CEO of Citroën. As much as Citroën had attempted to capitalize on brand loyalty and innovation, the reality was that sales of the brand had been soft under Jackson’s tenure. And with the creation of DS as a ‘new’ brand within PSA, Citroën’s ability to perceived as a prestige marque had been further compromised. The deletion of hydropnematic suspension on its premium models didn’t help matters either.
During the Citroën Centenary celebration at La Ferté-Vidame Jackson stated there would be new flagship Citroën coming in 2022 – 2023. Whether that happens or not, in the past year Citroën as a brand has been targeted towards an ‘economy car’ role in France and developing markets like India.
The Ami One Concept, introduced in 2019 and put into production in the spring of 2020 as the Ami – 100% Electric, showed a new direction for Citroën — one that would require new expertise at the helm as the brand transitioned towards an inexpensive mobility role in France as well as becoming the brand that PSA would promote to re-enter the developing market of India.
Removing Jackson as CEO of Citroën was no doubt a delicate task for Tavares, as an outright firing of Jackson for a new male CEO wouldn’t be seen as a politically correct move in an era of female executive empowerment. Instead, Jackson was relegated into a role that remains to be seen just how obscure within PSA she will become as she works on analyzing and preparing a report on brand differentiation – a role made even more complex not just by PSA’s takeover of Opel and Vauxhall in 2017, but with the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that is slated to occur in early 2021.
My feeling is that Carlos Tavares, and PSA’s Board of Directors will most likely be more inclined to react to financials reported by its CFO, Philippe de Rovira, as opposed to what Jackson might suggest in brand direction.
In light of Jackson’s new role in PSA defining brand differentiation, Julian Marsh at Citroënet has sent a letter to her with suggestions as to how PSA should position Citroën in the conglomerate going forward, and what technology should be incorporated to make it uniquely appealing. You can read Julian’s letter here:
August 4, 2020
A letter to Linda Jackson
Dear Ms Jackson
I am writing to you as a more than lifelong Citroën enthusiast. More than lifelong because my Father before me was also an enthusiast and drove Citroëns from shortly after the end of World War Two until his death in 1999.
This sort of brand loyalty was not uncommon among Citroën owners with the enthusiasm being passed down through the generations but none of my three sons is at all interested in the marque. As far as they are concerned, cars are just another consumer product like a fridge or a TV. They have no more interest in automotive technology than they do in how a fridge or a TV works. And in this they are not alone. None of their peers is in the slightest bit interested either. They are mildly interested in cars as a fashion statement or as a visible demonstration of success and in their books, one of the Teutonic Triumvirate (Audi, BMW or Mercedes) is far more prestigious than a Citroën. Any Citroën. Or any car in the DS range for that matter.
Two of my sons drive Seat Ibizas and one drives a Vauxhall Astra. These are all secondhand cars and were available at the right price. Would they have bought a Citroën had one been on offer at a similar price? Yes (but there were none available locally – the local official dealers were charging inflated prices). Price was the sole determining factor for these three twenty-somethings.
And this creates a problem for Citroën. Pitch your prices too low and you acquire a reputation for ‘cheap and cheerful’ (or ‘cheap and nasty’ if one is being unkind) which is fine of you want to shift a lot of not very profitable product but not so good if you want to sell much more profitable prestigious vehicles – which is where I guess DS Automobiles comes in. Except that as far as the public is concerned, these are little more than overpriced Citroëns. You are selling them into a very conservative marketplace where high tech counts for nothing. I am deliberately ignoring electronic high tech since all cars nowadays use this.
And Stellantis’* business model seems to be based on the stupendously unsuccessful British Leyland model. Badge engineered products with little to enable the punter to differentiate between them. Perhaps you like to imagine that your business model is based on that of VAG.
I have no doubt that these strategic issues have been (and continue to be) discussed at length by Stellantis’ Board of Directors. Historically, Citroën seemed to have no strategy. It built cars on a take-it or leave-it basis. It built ‘Marmite cars’ – one either loved them or loathed them. And of course, this is not a recipe for financial success, which is why the company had to be bailed out by Peugeot.
Forty six years after the bail out, the company still suffers from the ‘Marmite’ reputation which I imagine is why it has tried to distance itself from its past. And I imagine that this is why the company has tried to re-write its history and pretend that the D Series and SM were somehow part of DS Automobiles’ heritage. Last year’s 100th Anniversary celebrations must have created a major conundrum for the company. Whether you wanted to or not, the Marmite lovers were going to mark this anniversary so it made sense to join in and hope that you would shift some extra product as a result of the publicity.
But it seems illogical that while seeming to embrace your rich and unique heritage, you threw away one of your major USPs – hydropneumatic suspension. Progressive Hydraulic Cushions are no substitute – although they do represent an improvement over conventional suspension systems.
So, some unsolicited advice. If I were in your shoes, I would change tack and build utterly conventional, bargain basement cars and LCVs and sell them as Opels and Vauxhalls. I would use the Peugeot marque to build more expensive (and therefore more profitable) conventional cars and I would ditch the DS marque and build technologically advanced Citroëns. The cheaper models would be equipped with Progressive Hydraulic Cushions and the more expensive ones with hydropneumatic suspension. And although it is anecdotal, I think that as far as most people are concerned, Citroën’s reputation for building weird and wonderful (or ‘quirky’ to employ that over-used adjective) and unreliable cars has been lost in the mists of time. Tesla has demonstrated the feasibility of building – and more to the point selling – technologically advanced cars. The analogy I use is that of Apple versus Microsoft. Apple is a prestige brand whose products tend to appeal to ‘professionals’ and ‘intellectuals’ in the way that Citroën used to do. And they are able to charge a premium for their products even though there are fewer applications available.
© 2020 Julian Marsh
* Stellantis is the name of the new group resulting from the merger of Groupe PSA and FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) thereby further burying the Citroën brand in the quagmire of companies that have been assimilated in the group.