Getting from here to there…

I saw a bumper sticker that I really liked. It said, “Is it transportation or a lifestyle?” Of course, you never see a bumper sticker like that on a Mercedes. It was on a beater of a Subaru, naturally.

Then I noticed that the Wall Street Journal is now running a regular feature on which celebrities and industry luminaries are buying which cars… and in which cities.

It’s a little odd, if you think about it. Here’s one of the biggest purchases the average person makes, and we’re interested in what famous people are endorsing our decision.

But then the real question hit me. The car dominates our culture. It has a huge impact on our cities, on our balance of trade, on the environment and world politics. If everyone gave up SUVs and drove a hybrid, we’d essentially be independent of foreign oil and the threat to the atmosphere would virtually disappear (as would asthma, smog, etc.). But almost no one is suggesting this as a potential solution.

Why? Because somehow, we’ve marketed ourselves this formula: cars=self-esteem.

I mean, I love my Miata. I drive it with a smile on my face, and I like to believe that I really drive it the way it was designed to be driven. Of course, SUV users like to justify their purchase in exactly the same way I do. Why do we care so much about what we drive? I certainly don’t give the same thought to my shoes or kind of pen I use. What would happen if there were no choice in car (except the paint job)?

Imagine for a second that all the time and money and competitive drive we put into buying, cleaning, improving, tuning and tweaking our cars needed to be spent in other ways.

What if you could get a big car (a slow van) or a little car (a slightly less slow sedan) and that was it? In our post-industrial age, would this radical government intervention grind capitalism to a halt?

In the name of national security, world peace and environmental longevity, it’s an interesting thought exercise, isn’t it?

From a marketing point of view, the discussion is even more interesting. When you take away an expensive option of expressing self-esteem (cars, say), human beings quickly find substitutes. It might be Timberland boots downtown, or Prada bags uptown. Both are ridiculously overpriced for the utility they deliver, but it’s the brand that matters, the label, the image, the peace of mind.

How do some marketers create this while others fail?

I think when traditional marketers talk about “brand”, this is what they mean. A true brand is something where the self-esteem value far exceeds the utlity. It might be Heinz ketchup or a Rolex watch or a Marlboro cigarette, but in each case there’s a truly emotional connection between the brand and the user.

Alas, almost all marketers fail utterly in creating a brand. The allure of a powerful brand (Disney) appears to keep the non-winners (Six Flags) plugging away.

I’m way off the topic of cars here, but I’m really not. What I’m worried about now are side effects–the unintended consequences of excellent branding. I’m not in favor of the government getting in the middle of this, but I sure wish I could figure out how to market our way out of this problem. It’s one of the great tragedies of our profession, imho.