Thursday, October 21, 2010

Simply red.

One of my deepest, darkest secrets is that I’ve been a closeted motorhead since I was five years old. These days, I don’t get to indulge this weakness much, the times and the burdens of adulthood being what they are. But I do still have a well-used little sports car I’m rather fond of, and twice a year I gather up my chequebook and my trepidation and take the aging hussy to its mechanic for some attention. That’s where I was yesterday morning and, waiting in the showroom, that intemperate red beast in the cell phone pic above is pretty much the only thing I could see. I stared at it, sat in it (don’t tell anybody), and generally wallowed in gauzy nostalgia until my bill came. Oh, man.

It’s called a Ferrari F40, and I had a model of one of these things in my office for many years. Not just because it’s cool, either, which it patently is, but because it was a symbol of something sacred about a marketer’s duty to a brand, and about what a brand is really for. Here’s why.

At the end of the 1980s, Ferrari was not the motorsport powerhouse it is today. It was struggling in Formula 1, tough medicine for a company that seemed to sell cars so it could race rather than the other way around. And its road cars were no longer necessarily the uncontested ultimate in performance or prestige. Most galling had been Porsche’s recent introduction of the 959, an all-wheel-drive technological tour de force that was so sophisticated even an ordinary driver could make it fly. The Germans had thrown down a gauntlet they probably didn’t really believe Ferrari would pick up. In a sense, it wouldn’t. Enzo Ferrari, the man behind the company and its cars, was by then 90 years old, but he was not about to stand down from this one last fight, nor delegate it to a marketing department, nor let the competition make the rules. The F40 was to be his final statement.

At this point in the story, if we were talking about minivans or shampoo or e-commerce web sites, the word “better” would probably rear its sanctimonious head. Teams of clever and determined professional marketers would deconstruct the fearsome Porsche, and figure out how to exceed it in every objective way. A little like the tablet computer dustup we’re seeing today, ego and technocracy would guide the competitive response. Enzo’s F40 was no such thing. In stark contrast to the cool, competent, innovative 959, the F40 was simply an animal. It was ferociously powerful and light, and yet didn’t even have traction control. It was astonishingly expensive, and yet you had to pull the doors closed with plastic covered ropes. The interior had no grand touring pretensions like the Porsche’s, and made no effort to conceal the brutal plumbing that made it go. In the hands of truly talented drivers, it was the fastest production car in the world from 1987 to 1989. In the hands of anything less, it was merely lethal.

It was, in no sense and by no comparison, “better”. And in Enzo’s parting statement to the world, the marque ended up reborn.

That’s why it was such an inspiration to the young brandcowboy. Ferrari’s way of coping with being on the defensive was to remain stubbornly true to itself, to not let the enemy dictate the terms of battle, and to be willing to exclude customers if doing so meant preserving the integrity of its brand. In the end, this is the only way any marketer can earn passionate loyalty, the only way it can be irreplaceable to its customers. And it’s pretty hard to succeed at growing any business if those two conditions aren’t in place first, no matter what you ‘re selling.

What a lesson, still.

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