Storytelling And The King Of Car Wash Parts

Car WashI was invited to a Fourth of July party at the home of a friend’s girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend a few years ago. (Following me so far?) It turned out to be a magnificent beach house that had been featured in Architectural Digest. Quite an amazing place with a big second story porch directly over the sand. People walking along the beach and the bike path that wound its way through the sand would stop and gawk, wondering who those privileged people sitting up there sipping drinks might be.

The friend’s girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend had done very well. Projecting my own values and expectations on to him, I guessed that he might be a Hollywood producer, an agent for elite athletes, a brain surgeon or a lawyer to the stars. But he was none of the above. He manufactured parts for car washes.

There’s a good chance that he dreamed of living in a beautiful house on the beach when he was growing up, but I wonder if he dreamed of making car wash parts. That’s not a profession that you hear of people pursuing out of some great passion. Lucrative? Apparently. Satisfying? Who knows?

I can’t speak for the Car Wash Parts King, but my own vision of fortune always involved some great intellectual breakthrough; a world-changing idea that brought with it recognition and fame.

Outside of some very limited circles, I would think that there’s not so much of that in the car wash business. Not that there couldn’t be a mesmerizing made-for-TV movie about how a young man, haunted by the taunts and bullying he received for his parent’s dirty car growing up, dedicated his life to apparatus that would provide clean cars for all.

It’s not likely we’ll ever see that movie. Think of “Breaking Bad.” When Walter White and his wife want to keep a low profile while laundering piles and piles of cash from the drug trade, they choose to get into the car wash business precisely for the reason that no one will notice them.

Money is a great motivator, but as they saying goes, money isn’t everything. Like many of my Boomer generation, I grew up motivated more by meaning than money. Yes, it would be nice to strike it rich, but I didn’t want to do it in any conventional way. A life of making car wash parts or doing anything just for the money was not a consideration. No, I would write my own, exciting story.

Before I settled into the unpredictable world of advertising in my early 20’s the only other career choices I’d seriously considered were musician and actor. Talk about an irresistible pull toward risky business. I’m not sure it was a conscious choice to opt for crazy, but what I did know for certain, as I still know now, was that I was inspired by the world of ideas and creativity, not some mundane or mercenary pursuit. Success would flow from one or more of my big, world changing ideas.

Perhaps when you ultimately retire from a lucrative career, as you’re shuttling between your beach house in L.A., your ski house in Aspen and your pied-a-terre in New York City, loving life, free from financial worry, donating generously to charity, providing for your children and grandchildren, it doesn’t matter a bit how you got there. Maybe you wrote more top ten hits than anyone in the history of music, irrevocably changed the nature of the advertising business or pioneered Internet dating. Or maybe you made a fortune manufacturing parts for car washes. Does it really matter at that point?

I suppose that depends on who you ask, but to me, the answer would be an unqualified “yes.”

Without a doubt, the Car Wash Parts King and others who have made their fortunes creating widgets, flipping houses, selling cars or whatever I would (inaccurately, unjustifiably and snobbily) deem “uncreative,” have bigger stories to tell. It could have been just about the money for them, but I doubt it. In all likelihood there was something else driving them, something much bigger and more meaningful.

We in marketing understand this. Every great brand ladders up to an ideal or emotional benefit that is bigger than the actual product or service itself. We seldom make rational decisions to buy the very best tasting vodka or the refrigerator with the most features at the best price. Rather, we have an aspirational storyline for our lives and choose brands that best fit our idealized narrative. Whether it’s choosing Peet’s over Starbucks or finally being able to buy a car for luxury and/or status rather than utility, brand choices frequently reflect how obsessed we are with our own stories.

The notion that “money isn’t the only thing” was reinforced by a recent NPR report, For Sports Bettors, The Thrill Isn’t All In The Money. While you would think that gambling is all about making money – easy money, at that – it seems that bettors have more in mind. NPR reports that people bet far more on games that are televised. The odds might be better on other games, which would make them the rational choice if making money were the sole concern. But watching on TV allows gamblers to derive more enjoyment “knowing that they have a bet on the outcome.”

The piece goes on to say that “this is actually a factor in much bigger settings, not just the NCAA. If you look at the stock market for example, economists have long observed that investors don’t just focus primarily on returns. (Again, aren’t returns to entire point of investing?) They certainly want their stocks to do well, but they also want stocks that make them feel better emotionally.”

Apple was cited as an example. The NPR host, Steve Inskeep, summed it up nicely: “I want to buy Apple stock, not because I think that it’s going to be a profitable investment for me. But I want to buy Apple stock because I have an iPhone. And I get more satisfaction from using my iPhone knowing that I have a bet down, an investment, in Apple stock.”

Inskeep goes on to put the entire story in perspective: “I’ve put my money down on a story. And it’s a story in which I participate by using the iPhone or watching a basketball game.”

“Storytelling” is the new “USP” of marketing. Where it used to be enough to find that single point of (rational) difference to set your brand apart – “Mountain Grown,” “It’s Toasted,” “Good To The Last Drop” or “Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hand,” for example – we are now compelled to create textured narratives for brands.

What’s also changed is the depth of understanding we must have into our target audience. In the classic age of packaged goods marketing – where products were more commodity-like and few or none of featured today’s level of customization (line extensions ad nauseum and more product choices overall) – we didn’t need to know much more than everyone drinks coffee and they want it to “taste good.” I’m sure there were some psychological differences between drinkers of Maxwell House and Folgers, but I doubt they would be as dramatic as those between current day Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee drinkers.

Consumers are far more complex now. We’ve made them that way, slicing and dicing product categories, searching for the “white space” wherever we can find it and creating what seems like an infinite array of product choices.

We have created a world of narcissists who demand that very special, personalized reason why your brand is right for them. Yes, your brand story matters. But only if it fits into the personal narratives of our customers. Outside of that context, no one cares.

The implications are clear. Know your customer, and not just the facts. Big data helps. But low-tech, high-touch conversations are far better.

  • Freya
    Posted at 15:21h, 29 March Reply

    Very interesting and thoughtful…

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