Thursday, October 15, 2009


Throughout the twitchy world of modern marketing, social media is, of course, the new black. And by black, I mean overcrowded lifeboat. Marketers are falling all over themselves firing up Facebook fan pages, pimping themselves out to build Twitter followings, and uploading those bacterial video thingies to YouTube. It’s an orgy of ingratiation that smacks a bit of somebody’s tax auditor dad rocking a Hollister hoodie.

And then someone comes along to show us the way. Someone German, arrogantly elitist, and resolutely stuck in the past. Someone named Porsche.

Let me set this up for you:

Porsche, iconic maker of iconic sports cars, believes it must launch a luxury sedan to stay alive. This sedan will be called the Panamera, and it’s meant to compete with the likes of Mercedes Benz. It’s tried this sort of thing once before, when it introduced an SUV, the Cayenne. From this experience, it learned some things. On one hand, it learned that there are people out there who are willing to pay for this brand, but don’t want a sports car. That’s good. But on the other hand, it learned that great marketing is not always great branding. The Cayenne was seen by the Faithful as a sign of spiritual rot for Porsche. Opportunism. Proof that passion was being displaced by greed as the company’s primary motivation. And Porsche needs the Faithful, maybe more than any other car company. The Faithful are guardians of the mythology, and without the mythology, it’s hard to get away with charging a hundred grand plus for what is, objectively, a strangely engineered, Spartan little freak of a sports car like the 911. Without the myth, there is no brand. And without the Faithful, there is no myth.

This fall, if you don’t care about cars, you might see some ads on television and in print for this Porsche Panamera contraption, and that’s all. The news will fly right past you. But if you’re a car nut, and in this particular snack bracket, these ads are just the tip of a very large iceberg. You’re going to sense buzz around the Panamera. You’re going to feel like this car is ‘important’. You’re going to want to see one, get one, and brag about it to your neighbours. And why? Because, unbeknownst to you, Porsche has for months now been turning the Faithful into an army of endorsers at least, and evangelists at best. When you ask around about the Panamera, you are going to hear good things. And that was by design.

Consider, for example, a web site they built called ’The Family Tree’, and then previewed to members of the Porsche Club of America (an enormously powerful lobby group in the Porsche world). Members were invited by its President to contribute their own personal stories about the cars they drive (“I dreamed of having one of these ever since I was a kid…”). The stories, presented graphically as a chronological tree, did three things things: They recast Porsche’s narrative as bigger than the 911, they flushed out the emotional relationship people have with their Porsches rather than the rational product experience, and they aggregated themselves into a very nice narrative context for the next chapter, the Panamera. In which the new sedan suddenly doesn’t seem like such a betrayal.

Or consider the simple little YouTube video they produced called ‘Family Gathering’ in which a bunch of famous old Porsches welcome the Panamera to ‘The Family’, released, again, just ahead of the public launch. To an ordinary person, those old cars are just a bunch of noisy, irrelevant antiques. To the Faithful, they are the Arc of the Covenant, raising the hairs on the backs of their necks and reminding them of the story they’re part of. To an ordinary person, the video is pure cornball. To the Faithful, it’s porn. ‘Family Gathering’ got fantastic pass-around on Porsche message boards. (And before you snort at the 13,000 view count, remember the size of the family: Porsche sells less than 200,000 cars a year, worldwide. As with all social media, it’s about the quality, not the quantity, of a community).

Or the audacious production of a 30 minute documentary called “Welcome to the Family”, which airs tonight. Or the dealers across North America who hosted cocktail parties to introduce Porsche owners to the new machine in the flesh, before it was available for sale. And so on, and so on. The campaign is still unfolding, and I hope they yet have some tricks up their sleeves. But, to me, the genius part is already done. The Faithful, if not all bought into the Panamera, have at least forgiven Porsche because the brand has proven it still knows who it is.

And the fact that all this got done while the company was getting bought by Volkswagen in the wake of a spectacularly hubristic effort to do the opposite is nothing short of miraculous. As for those of us who can’t afford Panameras, I think these snooty Swabians still have something to offer in the form of a pretty good example for social branding in the twitchy future.

They started inside the community they already had. Instead of advertising the car as if their current tribe of owners didn’t read or watch television, they tried to mobilize them to help out, with a message only they would really get. It was respectful, and it was smart.

They saw their brand as a narrative rather than as a fact. A brand that’s an unfolding story, an unending campaign for election, is engaging and magnetic. A brand that’s merely a proposition? Well, that’s what Google is for, isn’t it.

And they turned the campaign itself into a story informed by a single idea, patiently rolling out each chapter in sequence, giving it time to sink in, building on it, and not treating ‘online’ and ‘offline’ as discrete universes. This, instead of the customary multi-media blitzkrieg that was the ‘launch’ paradigm in the previous century.

Yeah, I know, this is a long post. And it’s less entertaining to admire a brand than it is to be snarky about it. But this one deserved shouting out. It reminded me of what a brand can do, if you have a good one and you let it off the leash. For that, there really is no substitute.


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Trosso said...

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BrandCowboy said...

I debated whether to leave this pearl posted, and in the end decided to do so for now. This young fellow, 17 according to his profile, is in a media studies class in the UK. His teacher's name is Jen Woolley. I contacted her to suggest making an object lesson out of this, given that this kid was so easy to track down. Alas, she simply removed my message from her blog. Which I think underscores a couple of concerning truths about the age of new media: A lot of kids aren't yet past seeing the internet as a sandbox, despite the fact that so much of their working lives will depend on it. And some of the people teaching them are, themselves, so disconnected from the contemporary reality of it that they just make the problem worse.

The joke used to be, "On the internet, nobody knows your a dog." It's not true anymore, Thomas. On the internet, everybody knows exactly what you are. The sooner you can grasp that, the more successful you'll be in life. Best wishes to you both for that success.

Artty said...

Like the way you think.

Steve Mitchell said...

Interesting piece. As you point out, Porsche handled this smartly. I wonder if this new sedan will help them with Gen X and Y. In my mind, they are even more of a boomer brand (no mean feat) than BMW or Mercedes. Partly that's price tag but I think it's also who you always see behind the wheel of that 911. That said, Buick, if they survive, has shown they can move past the fedora set and get that upper-middle class soccer mom with Enclave. Product makes brand in no small measure. PS - My boyhood dream Porsche was the 928. (And the typeface used in its ads.)