I want to open with a few things. First, let me say, I love you all. Seriously. I have spoken with many of you on the phone, met some of you in person, and emailed with all of the rest of you. On a personal level I find all of you to be great, kind, and entertaining people. You have all taught me wonderful things, and my knowledge level of these vehicles, tuning, and their potential would simply not exist without your help. I would still be a neophyte lost in the woods without all of you. The goal of this is not to call anyone out (there isn’t a need), complain about the state of the industry (can’t complain about something that I think is very strong), or ruffle feathers, but rather to reintroduce you to your customer and to speak for them, as one. Though the below are targeted at the VAG world tuners, the issues I call out are universal to all automotive tuning cultures. None of it is unique to us.
I have frequently had the opportunity to “peak behind the curtain” and see what is typically hidden from customers. Of note, the interaction between tuners, as of late, seems to be getting uglier. Obviously there are some things going on in the industry that would cause this tumult, but I see it spreading to parties not involved. Its concerning. Its a cancer. To stop it, a few initial steps must be taken. First, you have to admit you have a problem (you almost certainly do) and, second, you have to treat the problem. One way to do this is to change how you talk about your competitors and how you relate to them. For this, I propose suggestion number one:
1 Thou shalt not trash talk a competitor in public. One can ignore their existence or speak about them positively, but should not insult or belittle them, in public. Bench-marking performance is not trash talking.
I say “in public,” twice, intentionally. In your internal marketing/product meetings, of course this type of talk will come up. I encourage you to frame those internal conversations around bench-marking, superior attributes of competitors that you wish to surpass, or keep your competitors in a general positive light. Though obviously no one will know if you don’t, creating this internal culture of respect will flow to your customers and between each other. I know of one tuning house that has this policy (or at least practices it, if not a policy) and its very impressive to see in action.
On this topic and transitioning to my next is one of my favorite business stories, the Coke/Pepsi rivalry in the 1980s. In the 1980s Pepsi started to make headway against Coke’s monolithic presence. They had found with their internal testing that Pepsi would, almost universally, win a one sip taste test due to the initial sweetness. Pepsi took these findings and launched the blind taste tests that became a staple of shopping malls and amusement parks across suburbia. They parlayed these tests into a series of television commercials that are still parodied to this day, over 25 years later. At the same time, Coke identified that its market share was slipping, substantially. A result of these ads? Unlikely, but it was clear that Pepsi was gaining ground (and was outselling Coke in supermarkets). Coke panicked. Not “we need to look into these numbers for a solution” panic but “OMFG burn this place down for the insurance money!” panic. And thats what they did… they burnt the place down and launched New Coke. The rest is history. Coke beat Pepsi at taste tests, but it also beat itself.
So why do I tell this story now? Because it is wonderfully illustrative in terms of brand management. New Coke, factually, was better liked in taste tests (almost universally) than what would become known as Coca-Cola Classic. But New Coke was not true to the brand. The Coca-Cola brand was more important than the Coca-Cola flavor. Coca-Cola regained its market share, Pepsi established alternatives to compete in different arenas and both companies still thrive to this day. Again, why do I tell this story? Because players in this market are woefully unaware of their own brands. Which brings me to suggestion two:
2 Thou shalt define, understand, communicate, and manage their brand.
I can feel the smugness to this one radiating back to me. You think you have a brand. You think it is well communicated. You don’t. Only two of the large tuners actively and adequately manage their brands. Remember, your brand is not a slogan, its an identity. If you don’t define it, the market will for you… and several of you have brands that have already been defined by the market (or your competitors).
The Coke/New Coke/Pepsi story also illustrates suggestion three:
3 Thou shalt creatively innovate to the market’s wishes.
Just like Pepsi, sometimes you take on Coke as a company by not taking on Coke, the product. Think about how many Mountain Dew competitors Coke has launched over the years. All have failed. Just like Pepsi, you should be reading the market and positioning yourself to exploit it. Yes, there is a demand for K04 kits or stage 3 kits, or sway bars, but there are also loads of unmet/unaddressed customer needs. Spend twenty minutes on the forums and you will identify enough needs to keep you busy for years. Some of you will choose to ignore these needs because they are outside of your core brand. This make sense. Some of you, however, that are inadequately defined, have loads of areas to go define yourself.
One of the things I said right up front was that I was not out to ruffle any feathers… that said… this one might ruffle some feathers. Simply stating it implies that there are some operating outside of the guideline I am about to set. There are. Its a tiny number that are, but they exist. I won’t state who, even if asked. That isn’t the point and it isn’t useful. This is there for you to consider only for yourselves. If you are following this suggestion, you will know off the bat. If you are not, you will know…
4 Thou shalt be honest and operate with integrity, always, and shall hold your charges to do the same.
The “always” is an important qualifier. If you have taken the time to read to this point, you almost certainly conduct business with your customers in this fashion, but this is not the be all and end all. You must operate this way internally, in your marketing, with your customers, on message boards/social media, and with each other. That’s right, with each other. This means no misinformation, no insinuation, no rumors about competitors, and keeping control of your fan boys. This does not mean stopping the enthusiastic, in fact, the enthusiastic should be encouraged. This does mean, stopping their ugly behavior that they think they are doing on your behalf. Like it or not they represent your brand as much as the employed staff and it is your duty to manage that brand AND your relationships.
Additionally, along with suggestion 1, this does not mean you can’t compare products. If you feel you have a better product then discuss the merits, but have some evidence (engineering is great) to back it up.
The final suggestion is:
5 Thou shalt put the community first.
Right off the bat, I know you are a business. I know your goal is to make money. BUT, I promise you if you put the community first, you will increase your top line (and likely bottom line) revenue. That said, this is already done really really well. The tuners in the VAG universe support the community in a way that many other enthusiast communities can only hope for.
As I stated early in this post, I am wrote this because of some ugly things that I have seen recently. In reality, those are side shows. The main event is what you folks do every day. And its executed almost flawlessly. The examples of violations to the above are few and far between. So why publish this? Because it is important.
It is important that we ALL operate from the same platform. This means customers, tuners, dopey bloggers, all of us. We need to be open and honest with one another, and we will all benefit.
Though I know you won’t, I encourage you to share this internally, to print it and put it next to the coffee maker, to call me out on it so we can have open discussions. I very well may be off base on all of this, or I might be right on the mark. Its up to you to tell me.