Away With the Fairies

Where now for PSA’s flat-lining DS experiment?

Image: Car magazine

Oddly, it all really started going wrong once PSA decided to separate brand-DS from its Citroën parent. Since then, the descent has been rapid, bruising and ignominious. Despite all three existing DS models receiving expensive facelifts incorporating a new corporate nose, sales appear to have have fallen off a cliff. Over the period from January to May of 2017 alone, sales of the entry level (and top-selling) DS3 fell 35.3% to 12,136. Those of the C-segment DS4 contracted 33.4% to 5675 cars, while those of the current range topping DS5 plummeted 42.8% to 2730 units.

This is a long way from when PSA’s Frederic Banzet told Automotive News in 2011, “the DS line is a huge success”. With total European sales peaking at 117,374 in 2012 – (plus whatever they achieved in China), it certainly looked a lot healthier back then. Last year, DS sold 65,456 cars across Europe (plus a vastly shrunken Chinese tally). This year, they will do well to achieve 50,000 units. DS chief, Yves Bonnefort knows he has an Izoard to climb to reverse this and with no new product to sell until 2018 at the earliest, the best he can do is get his house in order in the hope of better times.

One of his recent wheezes has been to organise boot camps for DS sales teams, which have involved visits to luxury brand Van Cleef & Arpels to see how things are done at the high end. Creating a sales environment which doesn’t involve rubbing shoulders with prospective e-Mehari customers also appears part of Bonnefort’s strategy, as are plans to launch a new DS model every year for the next six years.

We’ve already been shown next year’s DS7 which is said to be followed by another crossover, replacing the DS3. Other formats are promised, but given the direction the market is taking, we cannot be certain of this – or of anything really.

One has to have some sympathy for Bonnefort. He’s paid to place a positive slant on what is clearly a pretty dire situation. Defending PSA strategy as best he could, he told Automotive News, “I could have said, ‘I’m going to do some half-baked second-generation DS, and have something on the market faster. I didn’t want to do that because we are building a brand for the next 20 years.” Now, there are so many holes in this statement, one really doesn’t quite know where to begin, although I would recommend counting very slowly to twenty before doing so.

Van Cleef & Arpels ‘Fairy’ timepiece. Image: NYtimes

Whether of course PSA will actually be making DS-branded automobiles in twenty years time is another matter entirely. Realistically, even with a following wind, they’re going to need at least another decade – more likely two and even then, there’s no guarantee of success.

It would save a tremendous amount of time, money to say nothing of corporate embarrassment to take the whole DS experiment outside, place its tinselled remains in a sack and quietly put it out of its misery. Prolonging it will only make the scale of failure more ruinous.

PSA’s Carlos Tavares has taken on a fearsome task by attempting to integrate GM’s European car business into the troubled and ill-defined PSA hierarchy. There simply isn’t time and there certainly isn’t money for this nonsense.

2017 sales figures source: Car Sales Base.
How to make Citroen relevant again? We make a modest proposal here:

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

23 thoughts on “Away With the Fairies”

  1. Wow! I had not appreciated that DS’s sales figures had sagged so dramatically this year – probably because I had lost all interest in the venture. The facelifts were a waste of money as they managed to make the DS range look uglier and more aged than before. The problem is/ was that the underlying cars were based on very ordinary and aging platforms in the first place. These cars drive without any sort of sophistication and the main aspects of styling and fittings inside and out are little changed from the donor Citroens (DS5 excepted). Indeed, of them all, only the DS5 tickled any aspect of my fancy when first launched, but it was quickly evident that the chassis was terrible and the whole car under-developed, including that diesel-hybrid drivetrain on the £30k+ top model. I very much doubt they will bin the marque now as the forthcoming models will all be in quite advanced stages of development, so I expect these newcomers will be given an airing via a half-heartedly differentiated dealer network in some parts of the world, and then … doom!

    1. It’s pretty shocking isn’t it. Clearly the hope within PSA is that they can hide the scale of reversal behind DS’ lack of visibility and a compliant automotive press who won’t ask too many awkward questions.

      In effect, PSA has achieved in seven years what it took Fiat decades to do with Alfa Romeo, namely run the brand into the ground before slowly and painfully beginning again at vast expense. As gambits go, it’s certainly a daring one, but not really anything they’d teach you in business school.

      Speaking of Alfa, you only have to look at what’s facing them to realise what PSA is up against, because for all the criticism of FCA, they have at least gone about Alfa’s reinvention by (seemingly) investing heavily in a bespoke platform and avoiding the obvious use of off-the-shelf componentry. Yet despite this (and admittedly for a whole host of other reasons) they struggle to gain traction – ditto JLR with their vastly better developed Jaguar-branded products.

      Scratch below the surface of the forthcoming DS7, and there is little to distinguish it from something a good deal cheaper and at this end of the market, such distinctions matter. Less Van Cleef & Arpels, more Elizabeth Duke at Argos*

      While it’s obvious that not only would the costs inherent in doing so be huge, to say nothing of the reputational fallout, I still believe pulling the rug now makes far more sense than burning squillions on an impossible dream. It would be cheaper to refocus and repurpose Citroen than this kind of brand building. The double chevron remains one of the most recognisable automotive trademarks in the known World and retains a degree of loyalty amongst the converted rivalled only perhaps by Alfa Romeo.

      The marketing genius who came up with the whole DS wheeze should be named, shamed and banned from working within a nautical mile of that discipline for life. (Or promoted, as is more likely…)

      *Note to non-UK readers: Argos is a popular high street catalogue-shopping outlet which sells on price.

  2. We can use the Ypsilon sales figures as a kind of basic unit. The entire DS line-up sells less than one Y a year. With Opel now in the PSA portfolio the DS line is even more of a waste of time and money. There is no good way out of this; the least bad is to close DS as soon as production runs allow it. I’d even recommend canning contracts even if there are penalty clauses. I reckon the DS marque can be added to a gallery of marketing disasters: Edsel, Merkur, Saturn, Talbot and maybe new MG. Mazda’s Xedos deserves honourable ommission because the cars themselves were rather good.
    I don’t imagine in the light of the DS mess that Opel has a good future. If I was a 26 year old engineer or designer at Opel I’d be planning to work somewhere else soon. The impending strong and stable, £350 m red, white and blue Brexit handily will remove 10,000s of British contractors from the EU market.
    If PSA wants to carry on as they are why not relaunch Panhard and Talbot or even Humber?

  3. The entire logic of DS as a separate brand escapes me really, and always has – all the more so because the link to Citroen is so evident and undeniable. BMW can sell an MPV alongside the i8; Audi can shift supercars next to superminis. I would never deny that brand power is important to a greater or lesser extent, and yet at the same time, it is never everything – which is something the mere existence of DS indicates the head bods at PSA intrinsically deny. The examples above demonstrate that product quality is the key arbiter, not fatuous notions of where a brand ‘plays’ in the marketplace.

    I personally think it is possible to make a case for the existence of DS as a sub-brand of Citroen, similar to the Xedos example. It is not a case I would myself venture – I think it is not a particularly smart play and that the logic of ‘greater individuality’ and an overtly-styled sensibility could easily be applied to, well, Citroens, which would get around the differentiation-from-Peugeot (and now Opel) conundrum. But there is some sort of rhyme and reason to the sub-brand idea. However, to have DS as a brand of its own standing is genuinely nuts, the sort of logic that drove Fiat to establish Abarth as a stand-alone ‘brand’. There’s no chance it will work in the long-run. There is, however, a reasonable chance that having invested a good deal of money in it, those responsible will forget the sunk-cost fallacy and focus rather more on the detrimental effect DS’ axing would have on their career trajectories. So I don’t necessarily expect it to go anywhere for a while yet. One of the fundamental rules of the automotive business (especially in Europe) is that just because something makes no commercial sense, there is in no way an imperative to do anything about altering said practice.

  4. I agree with the sentiments – I would pull DS tomorrow – I just don’t think that PSA will go that way. The DS7 is very obviously the same car as the 3008, which is a decent effort but very much vin ordinaire in the engineering department.

    I enjoyed Richard’s honourable omission of Xedos from his list of marketing disasters … I always liked the 6 and – slightly less so – the 9.

  5. The whole idea of the brand is totally pointless, as they want to capitalize on the idea of a Citroen DS experience without offering a Citroen DS-like car to experience. And the buyers aren’t stupid, they see it for what it is, a cheap sell out of an idea PSA don’t even have the resources to back up in reality. It’s the ludicrous thought that brand extensions somehow could function without a proper product to capitalize. And perhaps they could’ve gotten away with flinging out mass market products in fancier suits, if they really had a halo product on top of it. What the DS brand really stands for and needs on top of its line up is a Citroen DS like experience, as seen in its later iterations of the CX, XM, and C6. Without something like that in the brand loses its entire raison d’être, the whole point of it all is a moot.

    1. The DS3 was a disastrous success, misleading PSA into the belief that a moderately funky-looking car could be the basis of a whole range.

    2. The DS3 was a cheap attempt at out-mining the New Mini. The saw an opportunity for a cash grab, and the went all in to steal those customers away. With the funky looks of the Mini but without the driving dynamics that made the Mini a desirable pseudo sports car. They didn’t even try to capitalize on their own success with that one, but someone elses entirely. And that’s what they wanted to build the DS brand cachet on?

    3. The DS3 is the better Audi A1 or the much better Alfa Mito. And it is an alternative for Mini-Drivers, those who want a more practical car with a nicer price-tag and a fresh non-retro-design. And – the leather has a quality, you would expect in a Mini or a BMW….

  6. I am reminded of the old investment advertising caveat: “Past Performance Is Not Indicative Of Future Results”. Citroen enjoyed some success with the DS2 supermini and thought they could spin out the same formula in a variety of sizes. Except in doing so, they seemingly forgot what made the DS2 interesting, then reverse applied the lessons they had not learned back on to the the DS2, ruining that car too.

    The “Past Performance” caveat equally applies to the very interesting thought experiment with Steve Randall about a top of the line Citroen model. The reputation of the company may have been forged by a core group of great cars, but it has been comprehensively trashed by a larger and more recent number of at best deeply mediocre and at worst woeful cars. The awful truth is that were Citroen somehow to martial latent forces within their engineering department to design, productionise and produce a worthy successor to the DS et al, contemporary car buyers would not care one whit.

    1. They do care: Tesla sell a game-changing car. The C6 belonged to the old paradigm in every way. Nice as they are they had 50 year old suspension concept and an ICE. The C7 needs to be electrically powered and suspended using some entirely new system.

  7. For sure it was wrong to install a new brand by offering old wine in new bottles. And by stopping the C6 nearly at the same time (this should have been the first car named DS).

    But I am not that pessimistic – and i don´t want to be that pessimistic.
    Is Ford with the Vignale line doing better? I don´t think so. Of course, the Vignale experiment is a much more cheaper one than DS. But with nearly no results.

    I think Tavarez has detected the mistakes of the past and learned ftom them. And
    – He knows how a premium car should drive.
    – He knows that premium cars should be built with a lot of love for details
    – He knows which sort of cars are necessary for a premium brand

    So the DS7 has a great interior (i love the watch), a new suspension and a hybrid Powertrain, the next DS3 will be the first car built on the new small PSA-platform. Not so bad conditions for the first really new DS-Cars.
    The intended sales numbers (40000 DS7 and 80000 DS3 II) are high, but not impossible. Good luck !

    The main point i don´t agree is the lauch of exclusive DS-stores – this makes no sense to me. Ok for Paris, Lyon. Munich, London and Barcelona, but not for Recklinghausen etc.
    It would be much better to install PSA-salepoints with Opel, Citroen, DS and Peugeot together instead of separating DS and selling Citroen together with Isuzu and Kia as in my hometown.

    1. The Vignale line didn’t amount to any more than a trim variant. Credit where it’s due, DS cars are at least visually different. Much as I like the Vignale cars they are not distinctive enough to be a separate brand: the requirement was unique metal and exclusive powertrains (electric only? hybrid?). The Vignale project is a half-measure.

  8. There was no problem in the past for Citroen to offer cars as disparate but ingenious as the 2CV and the DS at the same time. What I’d like to see is a 2CV for the modern times, why not an extremely cheap but ultra chic four seater electric city car? Toyota has been into that for some time with their Camette concepts, a modular architecture kit ready and able to be clothed in different suits, they even have a sports car with a body made out of wood. With a limit on speed it doesn’t have to be more substantial than being able to do highway commuting, therefore it could be made from smaller and cheaper materials. Give it a look of an industrial appliance, and I would buy it tomorrow.

  9. I wonder if PSA were inspired by the ability of VAG to shovel truly mediocre products with premium pricing through their Audi brand, but lost focus of the years and years of work that it took to give Audi the brand cachet that it was today. It’s easy to forget that behind the truly poor (and rusty) Audis of the last 15 years there is a lineage of interesting, subtle, classy, and incredibly well made predecessors that solid in very small numbers.

    TL:DR building a premium brand is hard work and takes ages. PSA never had what it takes and it’s a joke that they ever thought they did.

  10. Sometimes i am surprised about the long-term-strategical philosophy of PSA. Last week, an electrical DS Virgin race-car won in the streets of New York. A brilliant publicity. If you are selling electric cars in the States…
    Or is Tavarez already planning this?

    Electric and hybrid-cars are more expensive, so it would be an advantage to offer this technology in a premium-car with a less price-sensitive clientele….

    1. Well, even if they don’t sell one electric car in the US of Stateside, the publicity helps elsewhere.
      And yes, DS might be a plausible channel for e-cars except really everyone will be doing them soon.

  11. “A new DS model every year for the next six years”… I wonder how credible that is. I remember reading a French motor magazine that stated about the same thing. That was more than three years ago.

    1. DS is convinced of their future:
      “Bonnefont said DS has had little trouble in signing new dealers after showing them the brand’s future models”

      As an entrepreneur, taking the risk of installling a DS-store in a non-gallic region requires really very very extremely attractive new DS-models coming soon. This is – in my opinion – the only possible explanation that DS was finding such a lot of brave businessmen.

    2. Markus: DS has to make some effort to only make promises it can keep. Thus they can’t presenting fantasy cars. That said, a priori it does still seem unlikely they can design, market and engineer their way out of the corner they are painted in: three brands with little natural distinction to be made. Remember my patented three-way brand position triangle? The apeces are prestige, performance and price. PSA’s brands are all clustered on price; design is supposed to be a selling differentiator but it still needs one of the other three to back it up. I really ought to work that up into a paper for a marketing conference.

  12. Ironically, the one thing spinning off the DS brand achieved was allowing Citroen proper to take their foot off the styling brake. The Cactus and C3 may be larded with graphics, but they are at least highly visible and the reception has been positive.

  13. “This year, they will do well to achieve 50,000 units.”. Well, half a year later I can confirm that the fake DS brand sold only 45,800 cars in 2017.
    I’m one of those that initially considered a Citroen DS3 when it was first launched and it gave Citroen’s a much better image and appeal. I have no interest in a fake DS make of car however. The question is, has SEAT just made the same stupid mistake with Cupra? I think they unbelievably have.

    1. Thanks for the comment Andy. I’m seeing TV ads for the DS7 on telly now. They appear about as convincing as the car, which quite frankly resembles one of those knock-off jobs some of the more shameless Chinese car makers go in for. It’s very big on telling us what DS wants us to associate it with – you know, city of lights, large erections etc, but very thin on what in loving hell DS actually is – or heaven help us – means.

      The whole thing reeks of desperation, but you know, I’m sure it’ll be fine…

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