Brand Loyalty

Tim Marrs

I recently received a hand-written note that began, "Mr. Ezra Dyer: As an automobile columnist and critique writer, you are the WORST!" My typical reaction, when I get letters like that, is to respond in a restrained and mature way, demonstrating that I value and accept all points of view, even when they might differ from my own. So I have a form letter that goes, "Dear butt-head: Why don't you make the world a better place and go stick some scissors in a light socket? Your family tree looks like a telephone pole. Sincerely, your worst nightmare."

Before I sent my devastating response, though, I read a bit further in hopes that there would be some explication of why I am, in fact, the worst. I was surprised to learn that this combative writer, a spry ninety-year-old by the name of Jack, was up in arms because I deigned to imply that the Chrysler Sebring convertible is perhaps lacking in a few areas. He writes, "I am a successful retired Chrysler dealer of yesteryear (1971-2007) and drove every Chrysler made, including Lee Iacocca's

K-car rejuvenation of the convertible, after WWII. You, sir, are an idiot!" That's pretty much it. He never qualifies why I might've been unfair to the poor Sebring, why it deserved better than my withering slights. It's possible that he just ran out of paper and decided that his main points - he likes Chrysler and I'm a jerk - had been sufficiently communicated.

And you know what? By the end of his letter, I had a certain respect for Jack, because this man is so loyal to his favorite car company that he takes it personally when someone criticizes a Chrysler. That's commitment.

When you write about cars, you work from the premise that people will support the best cars, with "best" meaning whatever ways in which we quantify desirability. And I think that for the majority of people, that's the way it works.

But there's definitely a healthy subset out there who will always buy a particular make, no matter what. Whereas my enthusiasm for any given brand rises and falls on the strength of its products, for people like Jack, car companies are more like a sports team. You support your squad year in and year out, whether it's a dog or a champion, because to do otherwise somehow would be traitorous. If you can't be with the one you love, love the wood-paneled Chrysler LeBaron you're with.

You see this tendency most fiercely demonstrated with domestic full-size pickups. In Maine, where I grew up, people's predilections for full-size trucks go far deeper than mere quantitative attributes such as horsepower or towing ability. Chevy people always buy Chevys, Ford people always buy Fords, and neither group can imagine switching sides. Ford could introduce an F-150 with bodywork of pressed horse manure and powered by sail, and loyal fans would still buy it and immediately slap on a sticker depicting a mischievous Calvin urinating on the Chevy logo. Likewise, Dodge could roll out a Ram with a perpetual-motion Hemi and the ability to teleport, and Silverado loyalists would shun it because they know that Dale Senior is watching from heaven.

In a way, I envy the brand loyalist, whether it's Jack with his Chryslers or Jerry Seinfeld with his Porsches (more so Seinfeld). Brand loyalty represents stability and contentment. Staunch brand loyalists revel in what they've got, whereas I'm doomed to perpetual automotive wander-eye, a nomadic existence plagued by the certainty that there's always something better just around the corner. If I bought a BMW M3, I'd be tormented when Cadillac launches the next CTS-V. And if I bought a CTS-V, then I'd worry that Audi would strap turbos to the RS4 or Mercedes-Benz would fit afterburners to the C63 AMG.

On the other hand, I'm not at the mercy of a single company. I don't have to drive a wretched bag of bolts just because that's what my chosen corporate monolith decides to produce. Perhaps most important, I'm not rewarding mediocrity, because the only way the U.S. car industry can bounce back is through better products. If everyone clapped politely and pretended that the last Chevy Malibu was totally sweet, GM wouldn't have introduced the drastically improved new Malibu, a car that can genuinely compete with the best sedans from Japan. The market abides by Darwinism, and if you buy the best car you can get, you do your little bit to improve the breed.

Loyalty can be a virtue, Jack, but if the next-generation Sebring turns out to be much improved, it won't be thanks to the Mopar guys. It'll be because of the idiots.

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