Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Authenticity in branding and where the car industry has got it all wrong


During the interminable wait to get on a rescheduled flight to Tasmania I started idly flicking through my blog feeds.

More often than not I hit “mark all as read” rather than actually doing any reading.

But my eye was caught by a post by Steve Jones on the Fast Company blog titled Authenticity Vs. Perfection: How To Brand Like A Rock Star.

A lengthy excerpt from a book, my sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled brain skimmed most of it.

But the central thesis is one that has resonated with me since I started my journey into brand strategy in 2005.

Here’s my riff on it: humans are imperfect but imperfection lends individuals their character. It’s character, our unique mix of our perfect and imperfect qualities, that acts as our emotional magnet, attracting or repelling fellow humans. It could be said that the more honest we are about our mix of perfect and imperfect, the more authentic we’re being. And, in my experience at least, authentic people have deeper, more engaged and longer-lasting relationships.

And so it could be (should be?) with brands.

Because we want brands to be our best friends after all.

Cars being my pet subject, my thoughts turned to Cяazy People, the 1990 film staring Dudley Moore as a deranged ad exec. In one scene he crafts a campaign for Volvo with the strapline They’re boxy but they’re good. To which my brain responds emphatically yes and yes when recalling Volvos of the 90s and earlier.

If I think about the last Volvo campaign I can recall, it went something like Naughty Volvos are coming. To which I though What!?

Volvos aren’t naughty. Never have been. Never could be. Not when you have Lamborghini and Ferrari and Fiat so thoroughly owning the naughty step.

Even Seat is more naughty than Volvo.

To suggest that Volvos are naughty denies their real character, which to my mind is made up of equal parts restraint, warmth, practicality, effortlessness and unselfconscious cool.

And it’s this character that most powerfully differentiates them from their desired competition.

Competing on naughty is competing on the same tawdry terms as so many others.

What could be cooler in a world of wannabe naughty brands (Audi and Mercedes want to own this territory too, if not explicitly in advertising copy then implicitly in their design) than honest-to-goodness Scandinavian chic?

No great fan of current Audi and Mercedes product (also inauthentic in the extreme) I got to thinking that they could perhaps try duff drive but interior quality to make a grown man weep and bruising but with more bling than a Compton hooker respectively.

More seriously though, wouldn’t it be refreshing if more car brands acknowledged their true, defining characters? How marvellous if vorsprung durch technik had the same authenticity to it today as it did when the A2 was rolling off the lines. How lovely it would be to know that a best or nothing Mercedes really was the best, as it used to be.

Then we might have a chance to fall in love with new cars just as much as my auto industry mates and I fall in love with old ones, all along citing their wealth of character as their most appealing characteristic.

Knuckled on an iPad. Forgive the typos.

Category: Branding

Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. FT says:

    I like and agree with a lot of this article. Only problem is, what happens if a brand finds that its authentic characteristics are now outdated and no longer are perceived as valuable by enough buyers to lead them to pay for it. That’s when the personality change has to happen. Handling that transition in a way that is plausible to the consumer is the challenge.

Leave a Reply


© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.