The reasons why someone connects with a certain truck brand are complex — more complex, even, than the emotional bond we develop for automobile brands over time. Many factors come into play– vehicle performance, durability, dealer relations, dealer response and effectiveness when there is a problem, all the way down to more intangible traits such as heritage, image and styling. But certainly the desire to stand out, to be noticed, to be an individual plays strongly into the buying decision for many fleets and owner-operators.
It’s something that Michael Jackson, general manager for Western Star Trucks thinks about a lot. At a Western Star press conference and dealer meeting in Las Vegas earlier this week, I was talking to Jackson about the things that make Western Star trucks stand out on the highway and the pressure he’s under to protect and grow the brand while remaining true to its reputation.
In some ways, that reputation is contradictory: Luxurious conventionals with dramatic styling that work and play well in some of the toughest jobs imaginable. Or, as Jackson explains, a diverse lineup of premium, customizable and rugged trucks.
Western Star has always been — by design — a niche player in the North America. Canadian by birth, Western Star commands about 7 percent of the market up there and a slightly lower share here in the States. And while Jackson’s job is to grow those numbers, he knows that Western Star’s role within the Daimler Trucks family isn’t to be the sales leader. That’s Freightliner’s job. Western Star is special and it’s owners want to stand out from the pack.
As a result, Jackson and his staff have an interesting set of challenges to contend with. On one hand, as a part of the Daimler — as in Mercedes-Benz — global family, Jackson enjoys access to engineering, design and production resources that some of his competitors can only dream of. But, it means his team must also guard against allowing their trucks to become “cookie cutter” products and lose the very distinctiveness their owners love so much.
The answer, Jackson says, was a corporate restructuring that affirmed Daimler’s absolute commitment to Western Star’s standing and tradition. “Before, in my last job, I wore many different hats. I was responsible for Freightliner, Sterling — to a certain amount, Detroit Diesel — and Western Star. Now, when I wake up in the morning, all I think about is Western Star. That one brand commands 100 percent of my focus all day long. And that holds true for our engineers, designers, marketing folks all the way down to the workers in our Portland plant — which is 100 percent dedicated to Western Star production. The power of Daimler works to our advantage. We can pick and choose from a vast palette of world-class components. But we can use those components to create the unique and special trucks are customers demand.”
Judging from the chromed-out new Model 4700, it’s a plan that’s working. The truck is a head-turner on the highway with highly stylized interiors. Nothing about this truck says “cookie cutter.” It’s proof positive that Daimler is serious about Western Star and about keeping the brand distinct. And that’s good news for those Old School truckers who still want to stand out in a crowd.