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Do You Have Fans or Customers

One of the phrases that’s often bandied about in the auto industry is that the business of cars and trucks is different.

One of the phrases that’s often bandied about in the auto industry is that the business of cars and trucks is different. No other consumer product compares because “people are passionate about their vehicles.” I wonder how much of that is legitimate and how much of that is whistling past the graveyard. For example, how many cars or trucks have the same loyal—or in some cases, fanatical—fan base that Harley-Davidson does? Now, while the immediate answer to that might be to roll out with the niche products that have a following—Corvettes, Mustangs, Vipers, etc.—realize that what we’re talking about here is “Harley-Davidson,” not a particular bike within the brand. Consequently, I’d suggest that the answer to that question is approximately none.*

What got me thinking about this is a recently published book, Brands That Rock: What the Music Industry Can Teach Marketers About Customer Loyalty by Roger Blackwell and Tina Stephan (John Wiley & Sons; $27.95). Lest you think: “Hah! I’m in a [OEM/Supplier] company. The music industry can’t teach us anything!,” recognize that that may be one of the problems: The notion that Auto Is Different. It isn’t. People buy what you have to offer—cars or trucks, CDs or concert tickets—or they don’t. As the authors explain, “Customer implies that a person walks into a store wanting to buy a CD and decides, after scanning the thousands of albums available, which one to snatch up. A fan walks into the store with the intent of buying the latest Alanis Morissette CD. . . .” Fans are focused. The person who wants the Morissette disc is not going to be persuaded to substitute another artist’s disc, even if there’s a rebate.

The authors note that customers are typically: price-driven, opportunistic shoppers who are fundamentally indifferent to your company. They want a deal. And if you don’t offer them one, then so far as they’re concerned, it’s no deal. They’ll go look for an alternative with a better price. Its may not be precisely what they’re interested in, but good enough is often good enough. Fans aren’t as interested in a deal. It’s not what’s important to them. In fact, they’ll pay more in some cases—or at least more than someone who isn’t a fan would find to be reasonable. While they are not complete zombies in terms of acceptance of what’s being offered, they are more willing to give the benefit of the doubt until next time. Customers are less forgiving.

How many automotive companies proudly proclaim that they are “customer-driven”? Plenty. How many companies insist that they are “fan-obsessed”? Near as I can tell, that number is pretty small. Perhaps the only one that I can think of right now would be Toyota’s Scion brand, which is emphasizing the potential buyer’s (fan’s) interests at the expense of promoting the sheet metal. Realize that creating product fans has little if anything to do with using hit songs in commercials, as many car companies are wont to do. Rather, it is all about connecting with people in a more meaningful way by offering them something special—even if that “something” is perceived to be special by plenty of people: we’re not talking about markets of one here, but rather markets of millions. Fans are passionate. Customers just buy stuff.

* The closest to the Harley experience was probably what Saturn once had. Back in the days of the SL, you were a “Saturn owner” or you weren’t. It wasn’t necessarily a differentiation between the models. If you bought a Saturn, you were de facto part of the club. To be sure, not every Saturn owner made the pilgrimage to Spring Hill for the “Homecoming.” But there was something about owning a Saturn—then—which is no longer the case.

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