Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bavarians at the gate.

It was the first week of August, branding’s dog days. I was lollygagging in front of the computer, putting off my commute to the office by reading the internet (It’s really quite huge, and some of it is interesting). Suddenly, I gasped audibly, only the second time the internet has made me do this (the first being that Diet Coke/Mentos thing): The unimpeachable Advertising Age revealed that BMW was about to change its slogan. What was for more than three decades “The Ultimate Driving Machine” was poised to become “A company of ideas.” The article was penned by no less a personage than the redoubtable Al Ries, the Martin Luther of positioning. And he didn’t approve.

Well, neither did anyone else out there in cyber-self-styled-brand-expert land. The folly of a change like this is painfully obvious, I hope. The world’s 15th most valuable brand according to Business Week, the company that generally produces the fattest margins in the business, got there by a) Knowing who it was and what it stood for with resolute arrogance, and b) Rooting that in the bedrock of the product experience. Blah blah blah. Plenty of experts like me have weighed in on that already. This isn’t about that.

This right here is what we like to call a cautionary tale.

You see, what interested me most about the whole eruption wasn’t the bleating of brand experts, but the hue and cry from regular folks (Here's an example, along with the text of the original article. Here's another. And another. ). Practically the day the article ran in Ad Age, internet forums were frothing with indignation. “Since when did BMW become Hudsucker Industries?,” spat one jilted Bimmerphile. “It’s like watching an accident in slow motion,” sulked another. Cruising the message boards, it was fascinating to see how personally people took the news. How betrayed they were. And how suddenly trivial they felt at stoplights.

I hope that some of the world’s other ├╝berbrands were paying attention to all this. It proved that even in success there is danger, and in this case the danger lay in the fact that when you make a brand culturally powerful, it’s not yours any more. Brands like that live celebrity existences. They’re owned by their fans. They’ll forever more be dodging paparazzi, never to enjoy another moment of real autonomy, and it will only end in oblivion. Go ahead and change your hair colour if you dare, Britney, but don’t for a minute think it’s just about you anymore.

Very soon after the firestorm over Ries’ piece, BMW rushed to correct the story/reverse its position. Ad Age and Al Ries got it wrong. “The Ultimate Driving Machine” would stay. But by then, the damage was done. The faithful were confronted with the truth that they were being marketed to. BMW wasn’t a religion, it was just a brand.

And I’d already been to the Porsche dealer.

They haven’t had an idea since 1964. There’s no substitute for that.