Triggered by the arrival of the BMW 2-series GT and the ensuing debate over whether you can push a brand too far, you might wonder whether the badge on the bonnet (hood) has, for many people, become the most important criterion influencing the purchasing decision.

While those of us who think we know about cars may indulge in arguments over whether an MPV can ever be true to BMW brand values, or an SUV to Bentley values, it seems that the rest of the world just gets on with buying them, once they are available. Each new MINI derivative seems to grow physically and spiritually farther from its roots, as does the FIAT 500, yet both sell in big numbers.

Are these buyers really so gullible, swayed by branding and hype? Or is there some other mechanism at work? I suggest that, in most cases, they are getting exactly what they wanted: a car of the type they needed with the badge they wanted.

Allegedly, BMW’s own survey of 1-series owners revealed that 80% did not know whether their cars were front or rear wheel drive: so much for brand values. I suspect that, for many car buyers, brand values are more about projecting their preferred image outwardly to others, than enjoying the precision of brand A’s steering or the comfort of brand B’s ride.

I also believe that the manufacturers know this. Gone are the days when certain companies would say things like: “we couldn’t possibly make a four cylinder” or “we will always adhere to rear wheel drive”. They have realised that, in today’s world, the true differences between cars competing in a given sector are quite small. In such a market, they expand into every niche in a quest for increased sales, regardless of their marque history.

For every knowledgeable driving enthusiast who is influenced by the last 500rpm on the rev counter or the ability to tailor the suspension damping to suit his or her individual preference, there are dozens of other buyers with a simpler agenda. Having identified the size of car they need, the styling and brand become the main drivers towards their final selection; not so much a case of the brand promising ‘what my car will do, and how’ as ‘what my car says about me’.

Even industry insiders are not immune from this. I once worked with a chap who chose a very basic Audi A4 from the company car list, in preference to a high-spec VW Passat at the same price. When challenged, he was honest enough to say, “I couldn’t resist having the four rings on the driveway.”

Here lies the real importance of branding, supported by marketing, sponsorship, motorsport and other related activities: perceived desirability. It drives the opinions of many car buyers and the people around them, and ultimately determines the car’s long term residual value.

For most buyers, their final selection comes down to influences based more on perception than fact, whether trawled from the internet or canvassed opinion from friends in the pub. Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether the perception falls short of reality; as long as people believe that brand ‘A’ is sporty or brand ‘B’ is luxurious, they will buy it if it matches the image they want to convey. Just don’t try telling them afterwards that brand ‘C’ is cheaper, more economical and quicker from 0-60.