Point of View


A Tale of Two Brands:
A short story about embracing the advocate

Brand management demands complete control, right? Own the brand. Carefully control brand images and logo placement. Rule with an iron fist.

Really? Let me share a story about two fans of different brands.

An art director I worked with had just bought a Subaru. He loved the car and wouldn’t stop talking about it. At roughly the same time, our lead Java developer bought a Porsche. As you might expect, he, too, was rather enamored with his ride.

The Subaru guy had such strong ties with his car, he created an online fan site. On his site were photos, news, relevant links for other Subaru owners and, of course, lots of pictures of his car and a prominent Subaru logo.

The other guy participated regularly in a similarly unofficial, yet heavily branded, online bulletin board for Porsche fans.

I remember both of them talking about what would happen if the sites got a “cease and desist” letter from the car companies, asking them to stop using the logos on their sites. Their consensus: They were not going to fight it. Who has the time?

Sure enough, Porsche contacted Porsche Pete’s Boxster Board, demanding that the site remove the Porsche crest from its pages. Board participants were not impressed but begrudgingly conceded that Porsche had every right to control its intellectual property. The offending details were removed.

Then the Subaru guy got a letter in the mail. He, too, thought the game was up. But he was wrong. The letter read:

Dear Subaru Enthusiast,
I am with the eBusiness group @ Subaru of America. We are developing a panel of Subaru performance enthusiasts and would like to extend an invitation to you. We are exploring the opportunities of developing a relationship with those who, like yourself, have created web sites that promote the excitement of Subaru performance automobiles. We appreciate this enthusiasm and we would very much like to learn from you how we can contribute information that you would find valuable. Subaru of America’s intention is not to direct or limit the content of your site.

This invitation is being extended to a limited number of site owners that we chose according to search results. We believe that we can both learn and benefit a great deal from one another.

The Subaru guy wasn’t sure what this letter really meant other than he was allowed to keep the site he’d labored to build. He soon found out.

Over the next couple of years, Subaru America flew him to the Detroit Auto Show, gave him and a group of other advocates better-than-dealer pricing on Subaru vehicles, and even let him take one of their unreleased sports cars for a spin on a closed track.

The Subaru guy said this about his involvement:

Subaru was banking on this car reaching a market that was untapped and used [advocates like me] as a way to help support it. Due to the success of the WRX, that market has since been flooded by other manufacturers with other…cars under US$30,000.

It can certainly be said that Porsche and Subaru both build great cars. Subaru, however, embraced the idea of reaching out to online influencers early on. While I have no data on the results, I would guess that it has been an asset to have avid online influencers as avid customers. While this wasn’t by any means free advertising for Subaru, it certainly was more beneficial than the attention Porsche garnered from a site full of disappointed advocates.

Between the Porsche guy and the Subaru guy, only one still drives the same brand.

The moral of the story: You can’t embrace customers with an iron fist.