A charismatic brand is one that delivers self-expressive benefits to a committed, involved customer base that is enthusiastic about the brand experience. Think Apple, Harley-Davidson, REI or Tiffany & Co. It’s not an easy goal for a brand to achieve. But I see two brands making that leap: Zipcar and Tesla. Neither has been shy about their goal to change the world and define a new user experience.
Zipcar became the market leader, exemplar and spokesperson for the shared car concept. Any time of day or night, members can simply reserve cars online or by phone, choosing the model that will match their mood and task. When they arrive at the car pick up destination, the microchips in their Zipcard membership cards will signal the cars to unlock. They then drive and pay for the cars for hours or days. All this is aided by the Zipcar iPhone application. Parking, fuel and comprehensive insurance are part of the deal.
The Zipcar brand is cool on several levels. First, it provides a path to express a passion for conservation plus revulsion of wasteful “badge cars.” For each Zipcar, it is estimated that 15 to 20 personally owned vehicles are eliminated, and these tend to be older cars. Plus, members drive a lot less on average. Second, you have the satisfaction of being smart by not owning and maintaining a car, or at least a second car, thereby saving a significant amount of money. Third, the operation is beyond cool. You go to a lot with your card and drive away. You are in an exclusive urban club. Finally, Zipcar is a lifestyle statement. Rather than being about renting cars, Zipcar is about coping with urban living in a fun, upbeat and environmentally sensitive way that is liberated by not having a car to park and maintain.
Tesla is a premium, electric-powered car that offers self-expressive benefits based on a host of vehicle characteristics and the experience of buying and driving one. First, the design is exceptional both inside and out. It’s very distinctive and easy to like. Second, driving an all-electric car is an environmental lifestyle statement, and because the design is distinctive, there is no ambiguity about the fact that it is a Tesla and thus is all-electric. Third, the drive is silent like other electric cars but, unlike them, it goes 300 miles between charges and accelerates from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds. Fourth, there are a host of unique features, such as the 17-inch touch-screen that never loses the navigation and reminds you to unplug, the keyless system that will automatically lock the door when you are 25 feet away, and the ability to set the suspension for comfort, normal or sport. Fifth, there are no dealers but, rather, stores modeled after the Apple stores, where you can learn about the car and place an order. And finally, there is a limited supply and waiting list, the ultimate driver of charisma.
It is interesting that the two brands both explicitly want to change the world. That is big innovation. We will see if the two brands can retain their charisma and survive. Tesla may have resource issues. Another charismatic brand, Saturn, was starved by GM and ultimately failed. And Zipcar will be challenged to retain its edginess now that it has been purchased by Avis. So the future is not certain for either brand, but they without question have the basis for long-term success.
All they need is good management and a bit of luck.