The average car made in North America in the first three months of this year carried nearly $550 worth of items from Lear Corp. A few had more than $2,000 worth of Lear products.
Not that the drivers would ever know.
They're buying a Ford or a Chevrolet or a Chrysler.
But Lear and a handful of other major automotive suppliers would like to change consumers' impressions, and are looking for opportunities to get their names in and on vehicles.
If their plans ever come through, a buyer might select a car knowing it carries a headrest designed to help reduce the potential of whiplash in a crash, and carrying Lear's Pro-tec symbol.
They'd select seats because they recognize it passed Johnson Controls Inc.'s Comfort Center Lab qualifications.
After all, the suppliers reason, if consumers are selecting the type of stereo system they want in the car, shouldn't they also know something about the company making the major components?
"Our final goal is to bring customer recognition to what we do," said Bob Ellis, vice president of brand management and development for Johnson Controls, in an April 19 telephone interview.
It's an effort similar to the "Intel Inside" sticker from computer chip maker Intel Corp. that appears on more than three quarters of the personal computers in the marketplace, letting buyers know what is powering the system.
"If the consumer understands the added value in our products, we can connect with them," said James H. Vandenberghe, vice chairman of Lear.
And as automakers push more of the production down to suppliers — and in turn prodding them to come up with new innovations and do further testing on their parts — it only makes sense for those companies to get their name out on their specialty items, Ellis said.
"We brand things with particular names when the product will bring value to the [original equipment manufacturers] and likewise with the consumer," he said.
A few pieces in cars already carry brand names, such as radios and navigation systems.
Johnson Controls' name appears in 2000 Chevrolet Venture Warner Bros. Edition minivans, on the Lego PlaySeat center the company makes.
It also has its HomeLink brand transceiver available in more than 100 different production vehicles, linking radio signals for garage door openers, gates and security systems.
Lear launched its branding attempt in March during the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress 2000 in Detroit, as it stressed its Pro-tec, Sono-tec and Enviro-tec programs, each with their own specific logo.
Pro-tec features the company's occupant protection systems, Sono-tec its acoustic absorption and noise reduction program and Enviro-tec notes use of recycled content and environmental safety concerns.
"We want to identify with the direct customers and to have them identify with us," said Ash Galbreath, vice president advanced engineering and validation for the Southfield, Mich., business.
SAE also featured a Lear demonstration showing customers selecting the interior for their car through their home computer.
That potential takes branding to a whole new level — allowing the consumers a direct influence on the vehicle's design.
The Internet and e-commerce may bring that possibility closer, Vandenberghe said.
An automaker can supply far more information through a Web site, while allowing consumer comments to filter directly back to the specific supplier. If the auto industry ever is able to create a system where it can make "custom" cars on demand, it has to have that link, he said.
"We need the OEMs to include us in their literature, but it's a slow process," Vandenberghe said.
But what suppliers want and what car companies allow do not necessarily meet, said Michael Flynn, associate director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.
Intel Corp. was able to get its name out, because there are so few chip makers compared to the variety of computer brands — giving it more power in the marketplace.
By comparison, there are dozens of suppliers for each segment of the auto industry.
"Even if you take it down to seat suppliers, there are a lot of them," Flynn said. "[Consumers] don't know about who supplies the seats. What they do know is who sells the car."
Automakers already spend millions of dollars annually in advertising just to get consumers to recognize their own brands. It makes no sense for them to start offering up their cars as a billboard to their suppliers, Flynn said.
"We don't want to confuse people about what's in the car," said Glenn Ray, vehicle programs manager for Ford Motor Co.'s product development public affairs.
Just in time for last month's Earth Day, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford launched a national advertising blitz for its Th!nk City car, the electric car with a rotomolded plastic body now in production in Norway.
That vehicle will not even appear in U.S. markets until late 2001 or early 2002, but Ford is working now to build brand recognition.
"We wanted to get it before the public," Ray said. "The plan, more or less, is to get it out there."
Suppliers walk a fine line with their branding proposals, Ellis admitted — trying to reach consumers, yet not upset their primary customer, the automaker.
Toyota Motor Corp. openly credits ASC Inc. for its work on the new Toyota Camry Solara convertible, crediting the vehicle as a "joint venture between Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Canada and ASC" in its press releases introducing the vehicle.
Southgate, Mich.-based ASC built a facility near the Toyota manufacturing site in Cambridge, Ontario, where it produces trim and does the convertible conversion on the Solara.
But ASC's primary goal is to satisfy the automaker, not get its name before the public, according to marketing manager Mark Pauze.
"We do a lot of work on that vehicle, but first and foremost, our customer is Toyota," he said. "We enjoy getting some brand recognition, but we're very careful about it."
Branding isn't new.
General Motors Corp. vehicles once carried the "Body By Fisher" logo, indicating the company that produced its body, a division of Detroit-based GM.
Budd Co. was making 500 all-steel bodies per day for the Dodge Bros. in 1914 — cars sold as the "Budd Body" cars, said Tom McDonald, vice president of public affairs for Budd, based in Troy, Mich.
But despite Budd's history, McDonald doesn't expect the new movement has a long life expectancy.
While it's easy to get some name recognition for specific products such as radios or children's seats, it is not likely the bulk of a car's working parts will ever have identity beyond the automaker.
"That's every supplier's dream, to have the `Intel Inside' sticker or label on the product, but I don't think it's a reality, except for a very, very few products," he said. "Any OEM is going to say, "Why should I advertise someone else's seat?" '
Budd does try to get its name out before the public, he said, but the focus is on the product consumers understand, not the individual components. One ad features a Ford sports car and the phrase "Mustang by Ford, SMC by Budd."
"We want to show our customers products," McDonald said. "We are very proud that we are on that product."
Budd is turning out the composite pickup box on Ford's new Explorer Sport Trac.
It might be tempting to try to place the company name somewhere on that surface, but that simply isn't the prime concern, he said.
"That's not our shtick," he said. "It's up to Ford as to what to put on them. We'd love to have our name out there in lights, but what we want and what the customer wants don't necessarily meet."
That's why backers of branding are pushing for recognition of specific items, rather than components.
It makes no sense to put a name on each fender, bumper or axle, Ellis said.
"This isn't a NASCAR race where every square inch is covered with a sticker," he said. "Unless there is a feature or an attribute that sets it apart, there's no reason for the branding."
But he believes that if a supplier can get consumers to recognize the "added value" of their products, they can lure their buying dollars to a specific car, he said.
People exposed to a specific brand of seat who are in the market for a midsize sedan, for instance, might choose one model over another just because they equate the interior with comfort or safety.
Johnson Controls wants to aim its "Comfort Lab" designation for interior parts as an automotive equivalent to the "Good Housekeeping" label on other consumer products, Ellis said. If buyers can equate Comfort Lab with a quality product that must pass muster, they may be more willing to opt for a vehicle that carries that symbol.
"It's not that improbable," he said. "The whole bottom line is it has to bring value to the end product. If it's just an annoyance, then it's defeated its whole purpose."