In an economic climate where SUV has become a 4-letter word, what does an auto maker do with a brand solely comprised of utility vehicles?

If you are General Motors Corp., you put Hummer up for sale. And if you are Tata Motors Ltd.’s Land Rover, you thumb your nose at volatile pump prices by repositioning the marque as an elite luxury brand.

As for Jeep, analysts recommend little or no change. “Jeep is secure just because it’s Jeep,” says Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision Inc.

Regular-grade gasoline prices peaked in July at $4.11 per gallon, nearly 50% above year-ago levels, according the American Automobile Assn., and sucked the life from the once-thriving SUV segment.

Through August, year-over-year sales plunged 34%. That’s more than three times the total market’s 11.2% slide, according to Ward’s data.

Jeep deliveries fell also, but at a lesser rate, 24%, than SUV sales. The brand recorded 247,717 sales through the year’s first eight months, compared with 326,209 in like-2007.

Observers credit Jeep’s strong brand image for its resilience. And while Chrysler LLC executives are eager to highlight Jeep’s substance, they concede the brand benefits from a unique style.

“It’s a really tribal brand,” says Deborah Meyer, vice president and chief marketing officer. “People become part of a club. You drive your Wrangler and (other Jeep drivers) wave at you. You wave at other Jeeps. You have that whole sense of community.”

This affinity even has spawned a $500 million cottage industry around branded consumer products, from T-shirts to toys. In the fourth quarter, marketers expect to sell their 2-millionth Jeep-emblazoned baby stroller.

“Think about where branding’s going today,” Meyer tells Ward’s in a recent interview. “People, when they choose brands, a lot of times, bring it into their lives, because it’s part of who they are. We see it as a big trend, and we think it’s going to continue.”

Says Edwards, whose California-based consultancy studies consumer buying patterns and brand loyalty: “Jeep is not your soccer-mom SUV, even though it’s used as a soccer-mom SUV.”

He contends Jeep’s bold message, derived from its military heritage as a battlefield workhorse, is best defined by a special-edition Wrangler released in 2003. Featuring an appearance package that suggested toughness, the limited-run model celebrated video-game heroine Lara Croft, who was portrayed that year in an action film starring Angelina Jolie.

“(The movie) really captured the spirit of what owners and non-owners thought of the product: That Jeep (was) something that (could) go wherever it wanted to go, take on the bad guys, get the job done and then clean up and look like Angelina Jolie.”

But, Edwards notes, there are no free rides in this increasingly competitive climate. Chrysler needs to “make sure that they keep true to the (Jeep) brand.”

That could mean getting rid of a product like the Compass cross/utility vehicle, says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., a California-based automotive consulting firm that conducts consumer research and industry analysis.

The entry-level Compass has been derided for its soft look and because it is a unibody vehicle based on a front-wheel-drive platform.

At the other end of the spectrum, the fullsize Commander is “threatened,” Peterson adds.

Sales bear this out. Commander deliveries fell 66% through August.

“But the rest of the Jeep lineup are pretty reasonable products,” he says.

Former Jeep marketing boss John Plecha admits the brand “took a lot of heat” when it introduced the Compass and its platform-mate, the Patriot, in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

“But thank God we have them because they’re giving people who want to be part of the brand a place to go,” says Plecha, who recently was named director of Chrysler’s southeast business center.

Compass sales in 2008 lag last year’s levels by 24.7%, according to Ward’s. However, Patriot deliveries, which totaled 44,154 through August, are more than double the Compass tally and represent an 89% jump compared with the first eight months of its launch year.

“The hard-core Jeepers will probably never accept those products,” Plecha says in a recent interview. “But that’s OK as long as we give them great products like (the) Wrangler.”

Through August, sales of the body-on-frame Wrangler, Jeep’s flagship, midsize SUV, were running 30% behind like-2007, when the nameplate established a new record by eclipsing the 125,000-unit plateau.

Still, the Wrangler remains the brand’s volume leader, racking up 59,005 deliveries to stay ahead of the second-place Grand Cherokee by nearly 7,000 units through August. Plecha suggests the Wrangler, which was redesigned for ‘07, occupies a unique space in the market because 80% of the model’s buyers do not even consider another vehicle.

Plecha also believes Jeeps sidestep much of the backlash aimed at SUVs because they are more compact. Even the Commander, disparaged by critics as bulky and bloated, is just 0.5 ins. (1.3 cm) longer than the midsize Grand Cherokee, he notes.

“We’re more right-sized, which has really been a product edict. (Jeeps) were never really seen as being tremendously thirsty, or inefficient.”

Highway fuel-economy ratings range from 12 mpg (19.6 L/100 km) for a 4-wheel-drive Commander to 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) for the Compass and Patriot.

The Patriot represents a significant opportunity to leverage Jeep’s brand equity against the consumer flight from SUVs, Edwards says. But he has a concern.

“Don’t de-content the Patriot,” Edwards warns. “If you’re going to put that out there, you’ve got to make sure that it is a Jeep.”

Detroit auto makers have a history of de-contenting vehicles “and it’s hurt them,” he adds.

Jeep answers with redesigned instrument panels, center consoles and door-trim panels in the Patriot and Compass.

Also notable is Chrysler’s redesigned Hemi V-8 engine, which benefits the ‘09 Grand Cherokee and Commander. Upgrades include variable valve timing for improved efficiency and an 8.2% bump in horsepower to 357.

While low consumer confidence exacerbates the chilling effect of volatile gas prices, Edwards and Peterson say Jeep maintains an advantage over premium-priced, niche competitors such as Hummer and Land Rover.

Jeep isn’t resting on its laurels, either. Chrysler Vice Chairman and President Tom LaSorda said last month the Grand Cherokee will migrate to a new unibody platform and feature advanced axle designs and a powertrain from the auto maker’s next-generation 6-cyl. engine family, dubbed Phoenix.

In addition, Ralph Gilles, who became vice president-design Sept. 1 following the retirement of Trevor Creed, tells Ward’s he envisions a Jeep-brand pickup inspired by the JT concept truck Chrysler unveiled last year.

“Jeep will be all right in the end,” Peterson says, partly because of the brand’s cache.

Says Meyer: “Consumers are at a much higher level of brand sophistication or brand savvy than they were when I started in marketing 20 years ago. So, when they choose a brand, it is something that they take on as part of their lifestyle.”

The phenomenon can be explained, in part, through the theory of “conspicuous consumption” put forward by 19th century sociologist and economist Thorsten Veblen, according to Canadian academic Vicky Paraschak.

Conspicuous consumption is the act of acquiring over-the-top possessions, and being seen to acquire them. Combine this with the fundamental human need for socialization and you have a snapshot of the Jeep experience, suggests Parashak, a sociology instructor at Ontario-based University of Windsor.

“You crave belonging, a sense of self-esteem through being valued by the group,” she says. “(Jeep owners) find a community they can belong to that lines up with the values that they ascribe to themselves.”

emayne@wardsauto.com