How could I ever forget my first car? My father hated it because it was un-American: a 1966 black Volkswagen Fastback. In fact, it was about as un-American as you could get in my dad’s mind.
The year was 1976, I had moved to Long Island to continue my graduate studies. I needed an inexpensive, reliable, gas efficient vehicle that could get me where I needed to go.
At the time, the VW-Volkswagen Fastback communicated a kind of every man quality. To my way of thinking, it was the perfect car for a practical student. The status, and my rebellious personal statement, was in the practicality I guess. For my father, it was a step backward because it wasn’t General Motors.
You see, my first lesson in brand loyalty didn’t come from a textbook, it came from observing how my dad felt about his cars –always GM— and how GM felt about my dad.
Like many of his generation, my dad started with a Chevy, progressed to the Pontiac, moved up to the Oldsmobile and finally arrived at the Buick. He never made it to the Caddy – but, make no mistake, that was his goal.
Back in the day, GM had this idea that they would build a car for each period of your family life cycle. My father bought into that idea and he thought his son would too.
That’s why my decision to switch to the other side didn’t go down very well.
Dad just didn’t understand what my automobile needs were – how practicality and the gas crisis had combined to make a foreign car the best choice. And neither did GM.
My dad did what a lot of people do, they project what they think someone else needs instead of listening to truly understand what these needs are.
That’s where GM –and all the American carmakers at that time— went wrong too. GM didn’t understand that their life-cycle model to car selling just wasn’t going to work anymore. It was the beginning of their decline and the beginning of the rise of their competitors from overseas who were quick to adapt with cars that met the appetite for practical transportation and gas savings.
The lesson here is that marketing cars or anything else is not about selling people what you want to sell them, it’s about selling people what they need. If my father only understood that, perhaps we could have spent more time talking about baseball and less time arguing why I had bought a VW Fastback.
Luckily for this country, though, GM and Ford have gotten the message. They’re selling people the cars they need. Right now, there might just be a graduate student out there buying American.
John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert who markets his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He writes frequently for Fox News Opinion and is author of the book "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."