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Exclusive: Brand Loyalty Survey Shows Erosion

American automakers (with the notable exception of Ford) have some work to do in rebuilding their brand images, according to an as-yet unreleased survey from LeaseTrader.com. The data also shows that loyalty is on the decline for almost all models--a probable result of the recession (and people going for the best deal they can find).

"American companies need to get back to building the cars people want, plain and simple," said John Sternal, a LeaseTrader.com vice president.

The website, which pairs people needing to get out of leases (the state of the economy has meant a big jump in that business) with customers wanting to finish them off, surveyed 150 customers of each brand in reaching its brand loyalty conclusions.

Who has the best brand loyalty? Mercedes-Benz, with 53.2 percent retention (down from 55.5 percent in 2008, the survey's first year). Following close behind are Honda (51.7 percent, down from 54.2), BMW (50.6, down from 56.2), Lexus (46.1, 49.8), Ford (34.8, 31.9), Toyota (33.5, 36.2) and Cadillac (32.7, 28.4).

The survey information doesn't necessarily track with automaker July sales figures released yesterday, but Ford was one of the few automakers to show a sales increase (2.4 percent) compared to July of 2008. Also showing a positive jump in sales were Hyundai (a mid-pack loyalty performer, at 17.6). Hyundai's sales results are likely due to its very strong incentives, including Cash for Clunkers deals before the program actually went into effect. Kia was also up in sales (4.7 percent) but it was also mid-pack in loyalty (12.8 percent). The biggest sales gains were made by Subaru (34.2 percent), which has average loyalty (16.5 percent).

At the very bottom of the list were four brands whose future is either dim or in flux. Bringing up the bottom was GM's doomed Pontiac division (just 7.9 percent brand loyalty, down from 13.8). Second lowest was another brand whose future has been questioned: Mercury (8.4, down from 12.1). GM's Saturn, which will have a new life under the savvy Roger Penske, is at 9.2, down from 13.6. And Jaguar, reflecting its sale to India-based Tata, is at 9.3 percent, down from 14.8 in 2008. Other brands with low numbers are Volvo, Hummer (of course!), Porsche (surprising, that one), Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Saab.

Sternal says brand retention is "based on all kinds of things, and price is definitely a factor. People go back to the dealer they've bought from before and say, 'I'm giving you a chance to take care of me again.' If that doesn't happen, they might lose loyalty."

Mercedes' stellar showing reflects the perception that "quality comes first" at the company. The company's actual quality performance may differ (Consumer Reports says the C-Class has had just "good" reliability, for example) but, as they say, perception is reality.