Automobile brands: past experience is your undoing

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

5 January 2011

Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity

I’ll get to automobile brands in a moment. But first a story: I remember many years ago I was on a dive boat in the Red Sea. The captain of the boat was the Jeddah Chief of Police and, along with six friends and colleagues, we set out to dive a new wreck near an area that divers called “the Pinnacles.” It was right off the coast of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Because of Saudi laws, maps of the reefs and coastline were not allowed in the Kingdom. In fact, no geological survey of the area had been created since the British Mandate preceding WWI.

Our navigation was simple. A small Pakistani boy stood on the bow of the boat and, through some simple hand signals, he guided the captain as close as we could get to the reef that caused the wreck we were about to dive. The ship itself, we were told, was directly below us in about 50 feet of crystal clear water.

Only later did I learn that the “new wreck” we were about to dive to, which sank a few weeks earlier, was owned and captained by the very same captain who piloted our boat that day. With all earnestness, he attempted to get us a close as possible to the very treacherous rock cropping that caused the disaster a few weeks before.

“They believe understanding their category is more important than understanding human beings. As a result, everything looks the same, smells the same and probably tastes the same.”

I was struck yesterday, while watching what seemed like an endless stream of automobile commercials, that this same insanity of repeated mistakes marks and defines the automobile brands and their delivery of a message. All of the campaigns look alike, all have the same tempo and feel, and all leave me completely lost as to which brand sponsored which spots.

automobile brandsThe reason for this is because the automobile brands insist on hiring agencies with prior experience or brand companies with a list of automobile brands as long as their arms. They think there is no substitute for experience. They believe understanding their category is more important than understanding human beings. As a result, everything looks the same, smells the same and probably tastes the same.

There is another corollary to my dive experience as well — you must be careful when you try to get as close to a past disaster as possible. If you look for a company with category experience, it will have a conflict of interests if it still works for a competitor and will be forbidden to take on your business. Or, they had a competitor in its roster and got fired from the account when expectations did not materialize.

When we only talk to ourselves, we end myopically convinced that we know more than we do. Had the world adopted that attitude when the auto was introduced an age ago, we would all still be riding horse to work.

What will we be driving to work next year? Well, based on my experience, we will drive a multitude of automobile brands that all look like Hondas and Volkswagens because car manufacturers think we all pick cars because they are fast, have shiny paint jobs and drive them on a salt flat or the Pacific coast highway.

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