March 17, 2010
“Truth” vs. “Joy.” A tale of two car companies.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 3/16, 2:00PM) Detroit. Automotive advertising themes run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, and everything in between. Some car companies not only get it – understanding who they are and where they want to go – while conducting themselves accordingly, but they also deliver what they’re promising and do so consistently over time. Others not only lose focus, but they lose sight of who they are and wander around in the desert searching for a way back. And others simply go through the motions, flailing about while trying to discover their raison d’etre, and failing miserably at it.
Let’s look at BMW. Here was a car company that ingrained into American consumers’ minds over time that they were on to the double-secret formula, one that led BMW to go about designing and engineering cars in a very specific way so that they oozed energy and purpose, delivering an unrivaled driving experience. And the moniker attached to these motorized creations - “The Ultimate Driving Machine” - summed it all up remarkably well. A perfect marriage of machine and ad theme that worked its magic with tremendous success.
And the consumer driving public ate it up, whether they were carving up mountain roads in West Virginia or were stuck crawling in 15 mph traffic on the 405 in L.A., they were True Believers in the BMW mission, and they spread the gospel of BMW throughout the land.
But then things got weird.
BMW executives became seriously afflicted with the “let’s be all things to all people” disease and actually thought that they could put a BMW in every garage in America – or at least in the America that mattered, in their estimation – if they just blanketed the market, leaving no niche unturned. Soon a series of bloated people movers that bore no resemblance to BMW’s original mission started showing up in BMW dealerships. Heavy, awkward designs, combined with almost shocking curb weight figures, totally warped the BMW lineup here in America. “Ultimate Driving Machines?” No, these were unrecognizable as such, and people began to notice that something was very, very wrong in BMW-Ville.
It backfired on them, big time, and they soon found themselves playing the incentive game with a vengeance, while trying to hang on to market share and volume.
So what does BMW do? At this point in the story I would like to say that a group of executives rose up to challenge the direction of the company and that a revolt ensued, with the result being that BMW was back on track, refocused and rededicated to its mission, with the offensive executives who led the company astray banished to obscurity.
But no, instead BMW unleashes a pathetic mishmash of an advertising campaign revolving around the word - “Joy” – complete with the obligatory shiny happy people with grins plastered on their faces experiencing the pleasures of BMWs in a series of shots that leave the viewer numb with… nothing. Because this is not only a campaign that could have been done by any other car company in the world, it smacks of a car company that’s simply going through the motions, smugly suggesting that they can get away with this abject advertising mediocrity because after all, they’re BMW.
The mistake BMW is making here is that they’ve talked themselves into believing that their reputation is such that they can walk away from one of the most memorable ad themes in automotive history - even though BMW insists that it’s only a temporary deviation - in the course of chasing wider appeal and a broader spectrum of buyers.
But BMW is forgetting one very pivotal thing here: People can attach “joy” to anything in life, even the simple, most mundane things. And that’s fine, man, as The Dude would say.
But at one point lusting after a BMW was something special. It was all about desire - a craving for the “ultimate” in mechanical art, at least as practiced by the zealots in Bavaria - and there was only one place you could quench that thirst.
Unfortunately for BMW that’s no longer true. Because they’ve lost their way trying to please everybody and because there’s a stronger, tougher competitor out there that’s capturing the hearts and minds of enthusiasts across the country. The same enthusiasts, as a matter of fact, who once lusted after BMW.
Audi is now making the most desirable German cars – and some of the most desirable machines, period – in the business. But it hasn’t always been that way. In fact Audi has had a long and difficult road here in the U.S. to get where they are today.
Initially praised as a coming brand that bristled with innovation and forward thinking – its Audi 5000 influenced the Detroit Three to completely rethink their idea of what a contemporary sedan should be when it made its debut - Audi was off to a tremendous start in this country. That is until the “unintended acceleration” fiasco began – which proved to be a completely false witch hunt blatantly orchestrated by CBS’ “60 Minutes” for ratings – and the brand suffered a dramatic drop in sale because of it, going from an annual rate of around 75-80,000 units to under 20,000 in less than 15 months, leaving its very existence in this market in question.
But Audi didn’t waver - instead they toughed it out through some very grim years, slowly but surely establishing their reputation as an engineering-oriented car company but one that marched to a different drummer – its insistence on “quattro” all-wheel-drive technology being the cornerstone of its car-building mantra - defying convention and going their own way at every turn. And by the late 90s things were starting to percolate for the brand.
Then, when Audi could have gone off the rails and eased back on the throttle, it instead decided to establish its engineering and technical chops in the one place that tallies winners and losers in the most unforgiving environment possible: Major League Motorsport.
Audi chose the most competitive arena available, one that pits the world’s most dominant automakers against each other in the harshest of environments – the historic and grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans – and they put it all on the line and went for it.
The result? Eight overall wins - including five consecutively – over a ten-year period, simply one of the most dominant performances in motorsports history.
And Audi used its unwavering commitment to its Le Mans-winning racing program as a beacon for its entire organization, urging designers and engineers to dig deeper and to leave no detail to chance and to execute with a clarity and a focused consistency in their pursuit of automotive greatness.
The result? Machines that speak with their bold designs, notable innovations, flawless detailing and a mechanical goodness that’s compelling to both enthusiasts with demanding standards and consumers who can just appreciate a job well done.
And there’s one more thing about Audi’s success that’s undeniable, too, and that is that the machines brim with passion and a distinct point of view (read Peter’s review of the sensational R8 in this week’s “On the Table” – Ed.).
No, they’re not for everyone and that’s exactly the point here. Despite its burgeoning success Audi still marches to a different drummer, and they’re not the least bit interested in being “all things to all people,” and I find that to be refreshing, especially given where BMW has landed with its “Joy” campaign.
As a matter of fact, in juxtaposition these two German car companies are shocking in their divergent paths.
On the one hand we have BMW. Repeatedly succumbing to the siren song of volume while chasing every niche imaginable, this company has not only lost its way, it has lost touch with its soul. Instead of reinvesting heavily in the idea behind and the belief in the machine – which is, after all, what made BMW great in the first place – BMW is smugly wrapping the word “Joy” around its image, because it lacks the fortitude and sheer force of will to say “enough” and firmly and decisively return to its roots.
And on the other we have Audi. Relentlessly focused and confident in its mission, it is building great cars – beautiful machines that bristle with passion and engineering ingenuity – finished off with precision and executed flawlessly down to the last detail.
Through its fundamental belief in how and why it’s done – its “Truth in Engineering” – Audi is now creating some of the most desirable automobiles in the world. The kinds of machines that people desire and crave, and the kinds of machines that set the pace for the entire industry.
It’s funny how it all works, isn’t it? Car companies that understand who they are and know exactly where they want to go – while staying true to their mission and never allowing themselves to lose focus – are the ones who are on an upward trajectory, attracting new customers by the day.
While the ones who are chasing rainbows - and niches they don’t belong in - are destined for a long, hot walk in the desert, lost in a swirling maelstrom of mediocrity.
That’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" hosted by Autoline Detroit's John McElroy, with Peter De Lorenzo and friends this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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