A recent news according to which an old Romanian iconic bicycle brand (famous in the communist regime) has been revived by a couple of investors, reminded me of how important it is for brands to acquire cultural iconicity and how iconic products can be reinvented to generate long term profits for a company. For illustration, I shall refer to several highly iconic (cultural) models in the automotive industry.
The VW Beetle – The Defiant ”Ugly” Little Car
Designed by Ferdinand Porsche in the 1930s with the aim of becoming a genuine Volkswagen (People’s car), the VW Beetle (Kafer) is probably the longest-lived car model in history. Strangely enough, the car acquired its true iconic status in America. And it owes everything to the hippie culture of the late 60s and early 70s which dreaded and rejected American models epitomising the power and world leadership of the US. The VW Beetle had all the qualities American cars lacked: small size, low price, convenience and reliability. And it possessed a rather awkward feature: it was ugly… This ugliness, however, represented a defiance towards traditional American values, something that hippies cherished. The original model is a very powerful symbol in the car industry. There are numerous Beetle owner fan clubs which organize various events and gatherings throughout the world and proudly drive their jewels on public roads.
In the late 90s Volkswagen decided to revive the legend and developed the new Beetle (with a retro design, based on the original model), this time setting a rather high price as compared to other cars within its category. The iconicity of the original model enabled the German company to apply a premium price to the new Beetle, a price that many pay just to own a funky little car.
MINI – The English City Car
Another undeniable legend in car history is the Mini. This nifty little car was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis as a response to the fuel shortage during the Suez crisis. The aim was to create a smaller car with better fuel consumption. What the creators of Mini hadn’t realized, however, was that they invented the modern city car concept. Mini has quickly grown popular thanks to its practicality in crowded cities and excellent space configuration (the revolutionary front-wheel drive system allowed for a remarkable passenger and luggage space). And there was one more aspect which contributed to the success of the model: it was intriguingly small! But it was intriguingly good! Not only did it become a legend on public roads, but also it won the Monte Carlo rally four times.
Following the pattern set out by Volkswagen, the MINI brand has been revamped following its acquisition by BMW and the new models sell very well. Again, due to the iconic status acquired by the original model, buyers have to pay a premium price if they want to purchase a MINI.
Trabant – the East-German Miraculous Car
You will probably say that calling the Trabant a miraculous car is an exaggeration (and judging by the objective quality of the car you are damn right!). But if you consider the original context and decade in which it was designed and the purpose it was meant to serve you might reconsider your position. The challenge in 1950s communist East-Germany was how to create a car affordable to (the rather poor) masses in an environment where manufacturing materials where scarce. The answer was a front wheel drive car with a 2-stroke engine and a body made of cardboard! For its time, the car was pretty revolutionary. And due to its very rudimentary concept, it was highly reliable. You didn’t have parts that could fail, for the simple reason that there were not many parts making up the car. Everybody with a screw-driver and a hammer could repair a Trabant.
The problem with the Trabant, however, was that innovation stopped once with the launch of the initial model. Throughout 40 years, the carmaker produced the same model unaltered… And this clearly is not the way to achieve success. Nonetheless, the Trabant proved to be very appealing to many people in the communist bloc. For some, this intriguing model was their only chance to own a car, and they were not disappointed by it. There are today many owners’ clubs and you can still see ”Trabis” running on the roads of ex-communist countries. Many of them are tuned and adapted to contemporary conditions, others are unaltered and still functional.
It is a pity no-one has revived the brand yet. I’m sure a new model could have preserved the iconic value of the original. There are plans to design an electric Trabant, but nothing is certain yet.
Dacia – The Symbol of a Love-Hate Relationship
Following Ceaușescu’s anti-Sovietic policy, Romania was granted several economic benefits from the democratic Western world during the 1960s and 1970s. Countries such as the US and France initiated trades and economic partnerships with Romania. One of these partnerships was between Renault and the newly-established Romanian brand Dacia. The object of the partnership was the manufacturing under licence of a car. The two companies agreed on the Renault 12 model, which in Romania would be known as the Dacia 1300. The model would be produced with small improvements until the late 1990s. Although the original model was a robust reliable car, the version produced in Romania had a rather poor quality and it quickly became outdated. It was not at all unusual for a Dacia to break down for various reasons. The good news, however, was that practically all drivers of Dacias knew how to fix them. And it represented the only option for Romanians to own a new car. Those who visited Romania in the 1980s and early 1990s surely remember that more than 90% of cars on Romanian roads were Dacias. I remember that even after the fall of communism when one had the choice of buying a ”foreign” car, people would still prefer Dacias because ”they were the most suitable for our bad roads”.
In the late 1990s, Renault decided to purchase the company with the aim of turning Dacia into its low-end, economy brand targeted at Eastern European countries. This move later proved to be an excellent idea, especially in the context of the Global economic crisis. More and more people (even in Western Europe) opt for new Dacia models because they have an excellent value-for-money and because they represent interesting alternatives to traditional brands in different classes. For instance, Dacia’s compact SUV can be purchased for under €15000, which is an excellent deal.
What all these brands have in common is a legacy of cultural iconicity. People cherished them not because of rational features such as high perceived quality or excellent build quality, but because they appealed to them on another level. They represented values people stood for within a certain cultural context and they became an integral part of that particular culture. Each of these models had a distinctive intriguing characteristic which made them especially appealing to consumers: the VW Beetle – defiantly ”ugly”, but reliable, the Mini – defiantly small, but highly practical, the Trabant – defiantly rudimentary, but innovative and the Dacia 1300 – defiantly unreliable, but easy to maintain.
Companies should consider creating cultural iconic brands, because the relationship between iconic products and consumers is much stronger than the relationship based on rational values (in the form of feature – rational advantage). When people love a certain product or brand (regardless whether their reason is rational or purely emotional), they will be more committed to purchase it. Furthermore, once such an iconic product is created, a company will be able to capitalise on it for many years to come by reshaping it, adapting it and reinventing it for modern times.
For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend a book that I discovered some time ago: How Brands Become Icons. The Principles of Cultural Branding by Douglas B. Holt.