In search of a brand: Zipcar’s dilemma
October 23, 2008 ‐ 2 comments
There are a few meta-brands that can be many things to many people (Coca Cola and McDonalds, for example), but the vast majority of brands can’t, and too many die trying. We submit that this is a lesson that every organization needs to learn, including a company we’re keeping an eye on: Zipcar.

In today’s economically uncertain, environmentally conscious times, Zipcar is a company whose time may have arrived. For $50 a year, you get access to a fleet of cars available for hourly or daily rental. Gas, insurance, and 150 miles are included in the service, which is offered in many major cities in the U.S., as well as Vancouver, Toronto, and London. You book online, use your membership card as an electronic key for the car, which awaits you in a reserved parking spot, and you return the car to the same spot when you’re done.

So how is Zipcar positioning their offering? We would argue that they have yet to figure out how to do so.

Their tagline is “Wheels when you want them.” Sounds like they’re selling convenience to us. But could Zipcar really be more convenient than jumping in the Canyonero parked right outside my front door?

The logo and identity system are conspicuously green (just like Barcelona’s avancar, and Munich’s STATTAUTO, but unlike London's city car club) and the web site devotes a section to ‘green benefits’. They’re telling us it’s a more sustainable mode of transport than personal auto ownership, right?

Visit their website, and the main banner contains one of two rotating quotes.

The first: “Zipcar satisfies all my driving needs at a fraction of the cost of owning a car.” Okay – got it. A value proposition based on…well…value. Zipcar meets my driving needs (not desires, but needs) for less money.

The second: “Zipcar is a utility – as valuable as electricity, heat, and water.” A utility? Well that’s sexy! I guess they’re telling us that we can think of a car as a service as opposed to a depreciating asset.

Finally, they define their customer as a ‘zipster’: a: Someone who rejects the established car owning culture; advocates extreme savings. b: One who is exceptionally aware of the latest trends and tastes; lounges in Zipgear. [syn: Zippie, Zipper, Zip-child]. The definition’s substance and style evoke notions of counterculture and hipness – Zipcar makes you cool.

So which is it, Zipcar? Sorry, but ‘all of the above’ is not the right answer.

For Zipcar, for anyone defining a new brand, and even for anyone revitalizing an existing one, the problem with a shotgun-blast approach to branding is that it dilutes your value proposition.

We’re not suggesting you only market around one benefit or message, but we’re convinced that a strong brand needs to assert one thing, and all other messages can emanate from that assertion.

Think Volvo and safety. Nordstrom and service. Verizon and coverage.

These are not niche brands. They do market around other attributes, such as performance, selection, and price, respectively. But they do so in the context of larger and singular definitions of each brand’s significance.

It’s really hard to decide on the one thing you’re going to stand for. But it’s the best way to build a strong brand, it’s the best way to create a connection with and preference among customers, and it’s worth the effort.
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October 24, 2008 4:01 am
Good point Kevin. Does a category's first-mover have to brand the category itself? Yes. But we believe they have to do so by identifying and focusing on the category's most important value proposition - not by listing all of the benefits the category makes possible. Cases in point: Toyota positioned the Prius as a 'green' vehicle, and not as a car that was cheaper to drive. Flickr positioned on sharing photos easily, not on storing memories permanently. The verdict is still out on Kindle, but it is betting on versatility, rather than on the environmental benefits of going paperless.
October 23, 2008 9:16 pm
but could verizon have 'invented' the cell phone, and launched a campaign a few years out on the idea of 'coverage' (when most people still didn't understand why the needed, or desired, a cell phone)? ie shouldn't Zipcar be compared in context of other new-category brands?

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