Small is the New Big

smallisthenewbig.jpgIf you are trying to figure out what you can do to build a greener, better world and make a living at it, there are two books published this year that you have to read- Chris Anderson's The Long Tail and Seth Godin's latest, Small is the New Big. It is an alphabetically arranged collection of his blog posts, Fast Company articles and other writings, and we didn't expect much- we have all his books, read his blog and even interviewed him here. We were wrong; good stuff stands up to a second reading. It is a wonderful, inspiring and very funny collection of insights and opinions. His major point- small, clever, honest and real businesses and ideas will succeed; big is slow, boring and broken. ::Small is the New Big With the author's permission we print his riff on cars and self-esteem, below the fold. And he no longer drives a Miata, now it is a Prius.I saw a bumper sticker that I really liked. It said, IS IT TRANSPORTATION OR A LIFESTYLE? Of course, you never see a bumper sticker like that on a Mercedes. It was on a beater of a Subaru, naturally.

Then I noticed that the Wall Street Journal has started running a regular feature on which
celebrities and industry luminaries are buying which car in which city.

It's a little odd, if you think about it. Here's one of the biggest purchases the average person makes, and we're interested in which famous people are endorsing our choices.

But then the real question hit me. The car dominates our culture. It has a huge impact on our cities, on our balance of trade, on the environment, and on world politics. If everyone gave up SUVs and drove hybrids, we'd essentially be independent of foreign oil and a major threat to the atmosphere would virtually disappear (as would asthma, smog, etc.). But almost no one suggests this as a potential solution to some of our country's problems.

Why? Because somehow we've marketed this formula to ourselves: car = self-esteem.
I mean, I love my Miata. I drive it with a smile on my face, and I like to believe that I really drive it the way it was designed to be driven. Of course, SUV users like to justify their purchase in exactly the same way I do. Why do we care so much about what we drive? I certainly don't give the same thought to my shoes or the kind of pen I use. What would happen if there were no car choices (except maybe the paint job)?

Imagine for a second that all the time and money and competitive drive we put into buying, cleaning, improving, tuning, and tweaking our cars needed to be spent in other ways. What if there were only two choices? You could either get a big car (a slow, ugly van) or a little car (a slightly less slow sedan) and that was it? In our postindustrial age, would this radical change grind capitalism to a halt?

In the name of national security, world peace, and environmental longevity, it's an interesting thought exercise, isn't it?

From a marketing point of view, the discussion is even more interesting. When you take away an expensive option for expressing one's self-esteem (cars, for example), human beings quickly find substitutes. It might be Timberland boots downtown, or Prada bags uptown. Both are ridiculously overpriced for the utility they deliver, but it's the story we tell ourselves that matters, the label, the image, the peace of mind.

How do some marketers create this aura of self-esteem while others fail?

I think when traditional marketers talk about "brand," self-esteem value is what they mean. A true brand is something where the self-esteem value far exceeds the utility. It might be Heinz ketchup or a Rolex watch or a Marlboro cigarette, but in each case there's a truly emotional connection between the brand and the user.

Alas, almost all marketers fail in creating a brand. Fortunately, the allure of a powerful brand (like Disney) appears to keep the nonwinners (like Six Flags) trying.

I'm way off the topic of cars here, but I'm really not. What I'm worried about now are side effects—the unintended consequences of excellent branding. I'm not in favor of the government's getting in the middle of this, but I sure wish I could figure out how to market our way out of this problem. It's one of the great tragedies of our profession, imho.