You Need To Stop Defending Car Brands
Brand loyalty is a plague on car culture. On every forum, Facebook group, and Twitter thread, thousands of online fans flock to defend the sanctity of their precious friend, the brand. Like so many of us, they lose sight of a fundamental truth of consumer capitalism. You and the company you identify with aren’t on the same team.
These companies have exactly one goal: Make money. Cultivating loyalty is a useful way to achieve that, so every brand spends a considerable amount of time and energy promoting its own story. Large, well-staffed PR departments call out key advantages, put the most compelling story in front of journalists, and happily arrange tests that’ll showcase their supremacy. What they spend on PR pales in comparison to their direct marketing, with almost every full-line automaker earning a spot on “Top 50 Ad Spenders” lists nationwide.
Point is: They have plenty of people to defend them.
Those highly paid, highly competent people often find advantageous ways to present arguments. Ram, for instance, ran ads for years about having the highest V-8 towing capacity of any half-ton pickup. The ad didn’t mention that Ford’s turbocharged V-6 carried a higher max tow rating than the Ram’s V-8, because Ram isn’t in the business of selling Fords.
The government stops brands from lying outright—ideally, if not always in practice—but these companies know how valuable perception is. Convincing you that their product is superior is worth millions. Imagine how much they’d spend to win over superfans, who will spread their Gospel even wider, and without any repercussions if the information is false or misleading.
I know, I know, your brand is different. Surely everyone else would bend the truth, but not the brand you identify with. Your brand has values, a heart, a salesperson that was nice to your grandma, and those commercials with the actor you like. But brands are full of shit not out of malice, but for lack of other options.
Products, of course, can be marketed accurately. Good marketing can educate customers and encourage them to make better use of their vehicles. In fact, it can even help give some power to consumers. A company that shows ads of its cars on race tracks, for instance, may have a harder time denying a warranty claim for damage allegedly caused by on-track activities.
But brands themselves are different. It's not just that defending them is akin to volunteering for a multi-billion-dollar corporation. It's that a brand name isn't a particularly useful tool for consumers. The term “BMW” doesn’t stand for any one set of principles, and it’s near-to-useless for evaluating a product in any one specific segment. Brand names are just marketing terms.
“I like BMWs” is a phrase so detached from specifics as to be meaningless. The 2-series Active Tourer and the M2 are not representing the same thing, no matter how much BMW tries to say they are. You may have always liked the BMWs you've purchased, or always perceived them as superior, but each product is so different relative to its stablemates and its competitive set that evaluating on brand alone will often lead you to a worse vehicle. It’s a useless lens to use.
Lean on it when you go shopping for sports sedans and BMW will be at the top of that list. Cadillac, meanwhile, is effectively an anti-brand. Most enthusiasts rule it out on name alone. Pity, as those BMW buyers are missing out on the best sports sedan in the world, one that emulates the spirit of the E39 M5 better than any modern car with a roundel.
While Cadillac is turning out the best BMW sports sedans on the market, the Bavarians are making some of the best Range Rovers ever. The X7 and X5 are functionally perfect, have world-class suspension tuning, and have technology that actually works. Anyone who remembers early iDrive will note what an about-face that last point is for the company. But by being early on in-car infotainment and focusing on the direction of the market, BMW has gone from the premier sports sedan shop to the best luxury SUV maker in the game.
These reversals are everywhere. The chief proponents of the under-stressed pushrod V-8 performance car just launched a naturally aspirated, 8600-rpm flat-plane-crank monster that’d scare the hoofs off a prancing horse. A front-wheel-drive Hyundai is the best performance bargain on the market. Our favorite rally car is a three-cylinder Toyota. The dampers on some Chevy trucks are more sophisticated than what you’ll find on the average supercar.
The inconsistency of brands is an absolute truth, regardless of what you’re optimizing for. Designing a new vehicle takes over five years. Replacing a whole lineup often takes a decade or more, during which time the market changes, consumers demand new changes, and regulations shift. The Lexus GX that last got redesigned 13 years ago ago isn't just a different product than the redesigned RX; it was created by an entirely different company, staffed by different people, in a different world. It may be better to see a brand as a statement of general values and vague goals, that shape but don’t always define the product.
No multinational corporation lives up to these proclaimed values all of the time. Dig back in their histories and you’ll also find that almost every brand has done something heinous in service of its own products. Think VW's Dieselgate, or Stellantis’ own emissions cheating scandal, or when GM tried to cover up fatalities related to its ignition switch recall. Think deeply, now. If a company is willing to cover up deaths or design products that spew 40 times the legal limit for toxic nitrogen oxides, does it sound like they’re looking out for your interests?
Why, then, are you looking out for theirs? The point here is not that any of these companies are unsalvageable, or that they make bad products. The vast majority of workers I’ve met at any automaker are delightful people who actually want to make the car market better. Like everyone else, though, companies are error-prone, self-serving, and hesitant to admit mistakes. When things do go wrong, they will go to every length to avoid making it right, including decimating the consumer in court using an army of white-shoe lawyers. Those lawyers, and the PR people, and the marketing people, and the dealers, and the governments of the nations they are from, they’ll look out for the brands. You need to look out for yourself.
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