Yesterday I posted a few points in response to James Surowiecki’s New Yorker piece on the role of brand’s in a world of better information. I made a specific distinction between research-heavy products like cars and a product like soap or toothpaste, which people generally choose on brand alone. On Twitter someone asked whether that meant car brands are actually less valuable in this new world and I thought it was worth answering here as well as on Twitter.
First, the answer is no, they’re not less valuable even though research does even the playing field to some extent. But there are two important points about how people buy cars that need to be addressed. First, people generally choose out of a subset. If you want a “luxury” car you’re choosing between a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes. You don’t get to that point without brand. If you’re Kia right now, you’re advertising the hell out of your new car because you want to be in that decision set. While your ultimate decision may be purely on product merits (though it’s likely not), you have eliminated 99% of the other car options off brand alone.
Second, just want to reshare something I wrote a few months ago. This argument about brands is part of a larger anti-brand argument that’s best categorized by the quote “advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.” Back in August I explained all the reasons this isn’t true and they still apply here.
I find stories of how new products and technology get adopted quite fascinating. While propaganda is much more associated with politics than brands, there’s a long history of companies using some of the same tactics to sway public opinion in favor of their product. The two examples that come to mind for me are stories like the diamond myth and Listerine’s introduction of halitosis.
Anyway, a podcast I’ve been listening to recently, 99% Invisible, recently covered one of these public relations campaigns that ultimately lead to the acceptance of cars (and invention of “jaywalking”). At the time, in the early 20s, cars were killing lots of people who weren’t used to sharing the streets with them. The car industry had to do something so they pushed a campaign that has now become familiar to us by way of the NRA: Cars don’t kill people, bad drivers kill people. But more interesting, to me at least, was where jaywalking came from:
In the early 20th Century, “jay” was a derogatory term for someone from the countryside. Therefore, a “jaywalker” is someone who walks around the city like a jay, gawking at all the big buildings, and who is oblivious to traffic around him. The term was originally used to disparage those who got in the way of other pedestrians, but Motordom rebranded it as a legal term to mean someone who crossed the street at the wrong place or time.
Ars Technica has a great piece about how the Chevy Volt came to have an open API and what it means for the future of the car. Here’s a snippet:
Schwinke said OnStar was already working with a number of other partners to leverage ATOMS’ cloud interface—among them electric companies who were looking to extend their “smart grid” services to Volt vehicles. “We’ve been doing some demonstrations and prototyping with public utility companies for smart grid command and response,” he said. “The utility companies can send instructions to the car to control when it charges and when it doesn’t. It can save the car owner money, and flatten electrical demand curves.”
I always thought the most compelling part of driving a Prius was the little screen that showed you when you were using gas versus electric. Sounds like Chevy has taken that idea a step further with their Volt interface:
Its designed to give you real-time feedback on your driving style. When the car is happy i.e. being driven efficiently, the ball is green and in the center of the gauge. Stomp on the accelerator, and it rises to the top, changing color to yellow. Brake too hard so youre bypassing the kinetic energy recovery and it dives to the bottom, again changing color to yellow. The more time you spend in yellow, the fewer miles youll go before you have to start burning hydrocarbons.
For all the stupid talk about gamification, this seems like the real thing: A feedback loop that naturally helps you get better at something.