retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Hopefully you had a chance to read/watch Kevin’s commentary last week about William Shatner because it packed a huge business lesson. Essentially it matters not whether you like Shatner, Star Trek, or anything he’s done. (If you didn't, here it is.)

The key is that Shatner likes who he is and is comfortable living inside his skin. In that way he understands his brand. It is the essence of being authentic and successful.

In a very similar way consider the best-selling car in the US, the Toyota Camry. The Camry is sort of the every car. It isn’t sexy, powerful, glamorous or even the most fuel-efficient. Yet it succeeds because it delivers exactly on its promise.

Here’s how Warren Brown, the car expert for the Washington Post, summarized the Camry’s appeal in a recent article.

“It’s simple: Camry works and works flawlessly. It works in rain, snow and super-frigid temperatures. It works in the flatlands and the mountains, in urban traffic jams, and on expressways where the majority of drivers are either unaware of or simply unwilling to comply with posted speed limits.”

Obviously cars are not sentient beings, but you get the sense of authenticity all the same. The Camry is comfortable being what it is: a reliable means of transportation.

Yet the story goes further, which explains why the Camry has been the best-selling car in America for most of the past 20 years. That seemingly nondescript car line is constantly changing.

Go on line and Google up the Camry and you’ll see the remarkable changes the model has undergone since its introduction in 1982. It keeps getting sleeker, better and even more technological. For the Post review, Brown drove the new hybrid version and couldn’t stop raving about how well the car performs.

Again, the Camry doesn’t win awards for eye-catching design, power or fuel efficiency. It simply lives up to the promise of its brand even as the brand evolves with the times.

There was a second story in the Post that captured the essence of brand authenticity, this one focused on Sonic, the fast food feeder. Problems in the fast food industry are hardly news these days. McDonald’s, the behemoth of the industry, is struggling with sales and is heading for menu additions, deletions and who knows what else.

Sonic, a company one-fourth the size of McDonald’s, is bucking the trend. Sonic is growing and hasn’t suffered a sales decline in more than three years.

Partially that’s a result of a smaller base to expand upon. However, as the Post reported, most of Sonic’s growth is due to brand authenticity: Sonic understands what it sells and what it is.

Unlike other fast food companies, Sonic doesn’t offer salads or other “healthier” items beyond smaller sizes of some products. Sonic’s ads usually feature two guys sitting in a car discussing their fries, shakes, burgers or hot dogs. You may not like the cuisine, but you have to admit: Sonic is simply being Sonic, focusing on what it is and making it better all the time.

Of course, there’s another important side to this argument. If what makes you authentic and distinct is no longer relevant and valuable to your shoppers you need to change fast. No doubt smarter minds than mine inside McDonald’s felt experiments with salads were a better choice than building better burgers. Instead that business moved to Five Guys, Shake Shack, In-n-Out and others.

Authenticity doesn’t mean rigidity, especially as we see with the Camry. Know your brand, understand its value and grow with it.

On Star Trek they would probably find that quite logical.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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