Making broad claims about a topic one does not fully understand and then poorly supporting it with flawed evidence is a recipe for a failing grade in most university undergrad programs. However, it appears to be the norm when it comes to lecturing at Harvard Business School. This is hardly surprising with all the recent news surrounding Harvard’s lax approach on grading, though it does catch our attention when it concerns the brand we all love.
“The fact that this car [the Cayenne] seemed to be targeted toward women was highly problematic for many in the brand community,”
Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard, recently published a study that outlines what she calls ‘gender contamination‘ of the Porsche brand since the release of the Cayenne SUV in 2003. Her research gained some attention when an article summarizing the study was published on Harvard’s Business School (HBS) website this November. Her study’s premise is that Porsche enthusiasts found the release of the Cayenne to be problematic because SUV’s are typically associated with female drivers and Porsche has traditionally been a male dominated brand. According to the story on the HBS website, Avery reached this conclusion by monitoring the behavior of members of various online Porsche communities two years before and two years after the launch of Cayenne. What she found was a conversation centered on themes of masculinity and femininity. Members attempted to distance themselves from the model through sociological and psychological methods by stating that the Cayenne is ‘not a real Porsche‘, that drivers of the 911 must now distinguish themselves as ‘911 drivers‘ rather than ‘Porsche drivers‘, and that Cayenne drivers are somehow ‘not real‘ Porsche owners. In a fashion that matches the overall ridiculousness of the study the author concludes by proposing the question ‘Can the Porsche brand survive gender contamination?‘ Readers should take a look at the article in order to fully grasp the position Avery has taken but this is essentially the crux of her argument.
Avery’s hypothesis is flawed in that it does not offer any solid foundation to show how the Porsche brand has been contaminated by the introduction of the Cayenne.
There are several issues with this study but let’s first look at that which is most glaringly obvious: the sample set. One gets the impression that Avery formed her argument based on the words of literally a few of the most hardcore Porsche enthusiasts. Are online communities the most ideal way to form an overall opinion about an entire group? If her study is looking at how the Cayenne has affected the Porsche community as a whole it seems misguided to make such conclusions based on the words of a tiny fraction of the most vocal owners. However, if the purpose of her study is to show that a tiny fraction of zealot owners feel abandoned by the brand well then I suppose she has succeeded. It seems rather trivial, though, to conduct a study merely to discover the thoughts and opinions of such a limited group.
Avery goes on to claim that Porsche’s initial marketing campaign for the Cayenne was targeted heavily towards women. Ads that spoke of fashion and losing your car in the parking lot were seen by these same members of the community, according to Avery, as clearly targeting women. Though after a quick search I found an early Cayenne ad linking the SUV to Porsche’s sporting heritage, another asked, ‘When do you tell it that it’s not a sports car?‘ And perhaps most amusingly, an ad from February 2004 stated, ‘If the Cayenne is just another car, I am just another man.‘ It appears these advertisements, which seem to target sports car drivers (and men) more than anyone, are conveniently ignored in Avery’s study. Also ignored, rather interestingly, is the data on Porsche sports car drivers in the years after the Cayenne’s release.
If one is making the claim that Porsche’s male fan base has been alienated after the release of the Cayenne it seems rather obvious to use data to support such a claim.
In 2011, a study was conducted by the automotive research firm TrueCar.com to examine car purchasing habits between men and women. It found that not only is the Porsche 911 extremely popular among men, but it is in fact the most male driven car on the market. An astounding 88.2% of Porsche 911 owners are men and this was up 2.7% from the previous year. Had Porsche ‘gender contaminated‘ its core sports car ownership base, would we not see some male decrease in these numbers? The claims made by Avery’s study seem dubious in the face of such data.
The last issue with Avery’s study is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the Porsche enthusiast beast. We are an eccentric group. We claimed the sky is falling when we first heard the term ‘water-cooled‘. We laid in bed for days when the steering went electric. We collectively held our breathe and stomped our feet when we learned the 991 GT3 was to be PDK only. And yes, we cried, and kicked, and screamed, and chanted apocalyptic prophesies when Porsche unveiled the Cayenne. And yet, we got over it. All of it.
Gender contamination isn’t the issue, but rather the issue is change. Porsche purists are opposed to change arguably more than any other enthusiast community but it is a superficial opposition. The fact is, as long as the company continues to make great sports cars, and moreover, continues to make great 911’s, then male drivers will flock to showrooms to buy them. Never has there been a question of whether the Porsche brand would wither as a result of change, for it has consistently been proven that Porsche will always retain its customer base as long as it continues investing in its sports car products.
Avery has attempted to form a blanket theory that can be applied to all companies offering products typically purchased by men. She has not striven to understand the group which she is examining. The fact is that the Porsche brand was neither feminized nor gender contaminated by the Cayenne and, in my opinion, this was never a realistic threat.
Jill Avery’s study seems to be making three broad claims
1. That Porsche is a brand that is typically associated with male drivers.
2. That SUV’s are typically associated with female drivers.
3. That by releasing an SUV Porsche has risked alienating its traditional market forcing these core buyers to sociologically stray from the brand.
It appears as though her study is flawed in several ways. Though Porsche is indeed a male dominated brand, the release of the Cayenne has in no way affected the way its core market has embraced its sports cars. In fact this has been bolstered in recent years. Further, much of the initial marketing campaign shows an attempt by Porsche to retain its male customer base by linking the Cayenne to its sports car siblings and by marketing directly to men. Lastly, the study generally shows a lack of empathy toward the Porsche community. It attempts to apply a very broad, cold, business theory to a nuanced community of passionate and opinionated enthusiasts. When considering the above it appears that not only has Porsche survived this so-called gender contamination but that it may not have even existed to begin with.