• December 1, 2013
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Top Gear Is Driven to Excite

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Great brands create a unique and memorable experience for their customers. So what would you call a brand that does that for other brands? For people who aren't customers of any of them?

In my case, you'd call it Top Gear.

Some of you may know what I'm talking about; the rest of you are probably my fellow Americans. Top Gear is the world's most watched factual television show. It's a car show from England—a car show like no other, and I have loved it since I found it on BBC America a few years ago.

You've got to understand something about me for this to make any sense. I am, in many ways, not your typical North American male. Professional sports are of only vague interest to me, and I am not mechanically inclined. This is despite the fact that my dad was one of the best ground crew chiefs in his Air Force days and was scouted by a pro baseball team while he was there (the pay of pro sports wasn't good enough to tempt him). I appreciate all those things, but my personal involvement is light.

Dad and I were close, but these weren't things we really shared. He taught me the basics of baseball, and made me an expert with a screwdriver, but that's about it as far as that stuff is concerned. We watched the occasional game on TV (football, that is—baseball on TV is child abuse), as well as a fair number of car races. I think that's what we liked the most. F1 or NASCAR, it didn't matter. It was there, and it was for us.

Skip forward many years, and a cable channel called BBC America is a thing. I stumble across this show, and from the first moments, I can tell it's different. First, it's British, which means it's smarter than domestic TV. Second, it's funny. Really funny. The banter between the trio of presenters, honed over a 20-year-plus run, is priceless, and the writing is solid.

Possibly more important than either of those factors is how cars are presented. Whether they're reviewing supercars from Bugatti or sedans from Ford, the focus is on the experience. What's it like driving it? What does the engine sound like? How well laid out are the cockpit controls? It's about the things that make driving fun and exciting, not the gear ratios and ignition timing.

By focusing on the joy of driving, Top Gear frees itself from needing a technical audience to succeed and thus reaches a wider world. I may never get to see a Lamborghini Gallardo up close, much less drive one, but I know how it handles in tight corners (like it's on rails). Vauxhall might not import its hot hatchbacks to the States, but at least I know they exist (and might get one if I ever move to Old Blighty). And slowly but surely, I'm learning something about cars and motoring that I couldn't have gotten by just driving around.

The situation is very meta, as the kids say. I am in love with the Top Gear brand (at least the UK version; there's an American show, too, among others, but it hasn't managed to enchant me), but I am also getting exposure to brands of cars I might never have heard of, and beginning to want them. The brand gives me such pleasure that it boosts other brands by association. They're not trying to sell the cars via the show—if a car is a disaster on wheels, they'll say so—but they are selling cars nonetheless.

And who knows? Maybe someday, when I grow up to be rich and famous, I'll have a Bugatti Veyron or a Pagani Huayra and imagine I'm taking Dad for a drive. They're only about $1.7 million each, so why not? You know, dear readers, it is my birthday this month ... .

Marshall Lager is the head grease monkey at CRM advisory firm Third Idea Consulting. Arrange a test drive at marshall@3rd-idea.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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