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The brawn of brand

Of course, with such a proliferation, it was inevitable that advertising would become such a force in our culture. There is a constant struggle to steer our decision-making on everything from the brush we use to clean the toilet, to the cars we buy.

Aside from free health care and poutine, one of the best things about residing here in the Great White North is freedom of choice. Want fries with that? No problem. Mac instead of PC? Obviously. Blonde or brunette? Okay, I’m getting carried away, but it’s easy to see the array of choices our “decadent” western lifestyle affords.

Of course, with such a proliferation, it was inevitable that advertising would become such a force in our culture. There is a constant struggle to steer our decision-making on everything from the brush we use to clean the toilet, to the cars we buy.

The latter, say financial aficionados, is the second largest purchase you’ll make in your life (excluding that tritium-fueled espresso machine you’ve been eyeing in the Neiman Marcus catalogue). So, little wonder automakers spend so much coin trying to convince you to buy their vehicles — General Motors alone drops over US$2 billion in advertising every year.

Chalk it up to the power of a brand. People aspire to own Nike shoes and carry Louis Vuitton purses. Do they fundamentally change the way you walk or carry your lipstick? No, it’s what the brand represents. The same can be said for the auto industry. You can commute to work in a Kia Rio just as well as you can in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, but the latter is far more exclusive, expensive and most importantly, enviable.

I recently spoke with Ignacio Oreamuno, founder and director of ihaveanidea.org, a Canadian-based website focused on the massive global advertising industry. On the topic of brand importance, Oreamuno recounts what advertising legend, David Ogilvy, once said: “Give people a taste of Old Crow, and tell them it’s Old Crow. Then give them another taste of Old Crow, but tell them it’s Jack Daniel’s. Then ask which they prefer. They’ll think the two drinks are quite different. They are tasting images.”

Oreamuno says “this applies very well to automobiles today. They have become so alike in terms of reliability, power and technical gadgets, that the only thing separating them in the hearts and minds of consumers is brand image.” And, he says, whenever the heart is involved, there is the potential for an irrational decision.

“A Porsche is not a rational decision, it’s an aspirational one. Buying one means you made it in your career and life. Same thing with an SUV. You buy one to ‘feel’ you can go anywhere…over mountains, across rivers. Yet 99 percent never leave a paved road. What brands mean to consumers will always be more important than horsepower, seating capacity, torque, navigation systems, and yes, even price.”

The intriguing thing is, many brands are in more flux than Oprah’s waistline. Witness component swapping, platform sharing, badge engineering and headlong dives into new segments. Suddenly, a Porsche can be an SUV (Cayenne), a Volkswagen can cost $100,000 (Phaeton), and a Mercedes-Benz can be affordable (the new B-Class). So are we still “tasting image” as Ogilvy describes?

Absolutely. I’m tired of the naysayers, who contend that an automaker cannot venture into a different territory without damaging its brand. Just look at the examples above, which were expertly developed to fit their respective brands. Can a company not broaden its horizons, while maintaining its roots?

In a perfect world, I’d have to agree with Oreamuno that sometimes brand image can cause “irrational decisions.” Take that B-Class for example. I’d never buy one just to be “flossin’ the three-pointed star,” as Pimp my Ride host, Xhibit, might say. But I might chose it over a Toyota Matrix or Saab 9-2X, because I prefer the styling, think the size is just right, and appreciate that wonderful Teutonic engineering. Buying a vehicle just because of the badge on the hood is logically unjustifiable. I don’t care if Lamborghini builds a sub-compact, if the Suzuki Swift+ is a better car, then that’s the one I would buy.

However, this world ain’t perfect, and brand gets as much consideration as practicality and price. As I type this column, I’m sipping a Coke-made Dasani water, wearing Dockers Khakis and a Tommy Hilfiger shirt, while concealing the keys to the hottest car in the office to attend a weekend wedding. Sure tap water, Wal-Mart clothes and the bus would work just as well, but I have freedom to choose (or the advertiser’s tell me I do), and I choose something else.

I say, if you’ve got the bucks to buy a half-million dollar Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR, even though something far less expensive will do, it’s your prerogative and no one should be permitted to talk you out of it. Just remember, that star on the hood will still shine just as bright when I whip by in my $30,000 B-Class.

As a friend of mine in the advertising industry says, “cars used to define their brands, now brands define their cars.”

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