Brand Affinity, Culture, and a Pickup Truck

Brand affinity is the most enduring and valuable level of customer relationship and is based on the mutual belief that the customer and the company share common values. It breeds unshakable trust in the relationship the brand and the consumer share. It is at its strongest level when a customer believes that your brand champions the values they both share. Consumers who demonstrate affinity for a brand buy more, buy more often, and complain less than all other types of consumers. And the surest way to build brand affinity is to tap into the deep, culture truths your consumers hold. As an example, let’s talk about that most iconic of American driving, the pickup truck.

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The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture. Trucks are the symbolic embodiment of the hard-working American spirit. Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, many, if not most, truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston or Denver and it becomes abundantly clear that the truck is as much a cultural statement as it is a tool. According to a study conducted by Hedges & Company, truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000 making alterations and refinements. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

Seems like a pretty straightforward discussion so far, but pause for a moment and try to picture the typical pickup owner. Visions of a guy in his 20s or 30s immediately come to mind. And while that’s clearly the target audience, it also represents a marketing plateau – there’s simply a cap on how many of these people exist. So where might other opportunities lie? What potential market is being overlooked. Well, let’s try women. When I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of the 30 participants owned a truck as a function of her occupation. Several used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Still more used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway. Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives. The point is that the truck became an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV. And interestingly, the brands they chose most often were Toyota and Ford. They were seen as either more accepting of diversity because they weren’t part of the traditional American pickup market (Toyota) or because they harkened back to a simpler time (Ford). Dodge, on the other hand, was seen as embodying masculinity to the point of misogyny and Chevy, as one consumer put it, was “a truck for boys”. Toyota and Ford pickups fit easily into their cultural identity, Dodge and Chevy did not. The result is that the women who own Toyota and Ford pickups express extreme loyalty to the brands and say they are significantly more inclined to advocate for them. Considering the economic power of women, that’s a great place to be in.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers. The truck is a fashion piece. It’s a toy. It is a way of stating you’re part of a tribe. And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc. Regardless of your product or service, understanding the cultural elements of a brand gives build stronger connection to your consumers.

 

 

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Trucks, Women and Unexpected Markets

The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture.  Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, decorative additions are often made to trucks and these additions don’t always follow utilitarian functions.  Indeed, many truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston and it become quickly clear that the truck is as much a fashion statement as it is a tool.  Perhaps more so.  Rather, pickups help negotiate and present group membership, notions of masculinity and femininity, and associations with class structure.  However, trucks don’t always present a seamless image, nor are the images always interpreted monolithically by those who own and decorate pickup trucks. There are a range of meanings associated with trucks and subcultures within the larger cultural framework.  But what is most important to this discussion is that trucks are far more than they seem.

Truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

As an example, when I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of them owned a truck as a function of her occupation.  Some used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Some used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway.  Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives.  The point is that the truck became a symbol, an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers and designers. The truck is a fashion piece. It is a mobile living room.  It is a toy.  It is many things, and those things become apparent from doing deep fieldwork, not through surveys and interviews.  And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc.  Regardless of your product or service, understanding people on a deeper level gives you a significant advantage over your competitors. That means getting out there and doing the kind of rich, immersive research that uncovers real insights, not just the low-hanging fruit.