We all misread the obvious sometimes. Our world is frequently confusing, as are the brands and symbols that surround us. The car badge or emblem embodies a narrative – an entire marque history distilled into a small piece of moulded plastic.
In truth we don’t really see badges on cars – our eyes note them before storing them away as extraneous information. It is only when they are conspicuous by their absence that we become consciously aware of them at all. Yet the badge on the front (or rear) of your car is a more powerful signifier than anything a body stylist or engineer could possibly create.
Typeface, positioning, colour, design: all serve as a sophisticated code to the initiated – a means not just of identification, but hierarchy. Whether it’s GTI, RS, HSE, Ti or Titanium, badging confers status and social mobility. A lady of my acquaintance used to tell people she drove a Bertone, because she believed that Opel badge on her Astra cabriolet was declassé and such things mattered to her.
Symbols matter. When professional cyclist, Lance Armstrong set up his charitable ‘Livestrong’ cancer foundation in 2003, the yellow wristband that launched a million imitators was more than a way of saying I support the cancer community. It also was declarative of, I’m on team Lance. Those Livestrong bracelets became more than a piece of moulded rubber with the charity’s logo scorched into it, they were for a time a kind of talisman; allowing the wearer to believe they could ward off cancer itself. Viewed in the aftermath of his subsequent disgrace however, they now serve to tacitly implicate everyone who wore them in his deception.
So if symbols matter, does narrative? Ford paid $2.5 billion for Jaguar in 1990. Most of that was derived from the badge/brand and what it signified. The decades of heritage. Those Le-Mans victories. The E-Type and the 60’s. The gangland aura of the MK2. While it is not impossible to create something like this from scratch, it’s a vastly more costly process.
Ask Ferdinand Piëch. He once told a journalist that had he known just how much time and money it would take to elevate Audi to the premium top-table, he would never have embarked upon the journey. Certainly, VW’s later brand acquisition strategy points to that lesson being learned and learned well. If you have any further doubts, look to Lexus and Infiniti. Both have been in existence for over 25 years and while Lexus has achieved some moderate success in Europe, Nissan’s upmarket nameplate continues to knock plaintively on a premium lounge door that remains resolutely shut.
Now when you have the likes of Kia and Hyundai producing product so competent and so attractively packaged, it becomes truly difficult to see how more established marques can compete. Yet the storied marques retain one advantage. The allure of their badge. All that truly lies between companies like Fiat, PSA or Renault and oblivion is the public’s perception and residual affection for their brand. As Fiat struggle to breathe life into Alfa Romeo’s unresponsive corpse, management are counting on the appeal of the legendary ‘Biscione’ and some nostalgic model names to attract a global audience who’d much rather a Munich propeller or the four rings of Ingolstadt, truth be told.
So imagine if you can a piece of music or a film that you particularly admire. Perhaps you have over a number of years formed a connection with the words, the performance; maybe the cinematography. It may provide a certain emotional trigger – sometimes it’s enjoyable to have a bit of a weep. Then imagine if you suddenly discovered it was based upon a true story. Would this affect your enjoyment of the piece? Furthermore, imagine finding out that the story was in fact based upon someone you actively dislike. I don’t know, say, Boris Johnson or (the holy mortifying shame of it) Gary Barlow? It’s a very different piece of work now.
Next time you walk towards your motorised pride and joy, picture it with a different badge, especially one you don’t particularly admire and ask yourself this: just how much of your regard is enmeshed within that emblem on the nose?