Daily Archives: September 7, 2010

BMW, Mercedes

All words vary in flavour from person to person, just as all aesthetic preference is variable and each person brings different history and proclivity to perception. Brand names can give particularly salient examples of this, especially among brands that trade strongly on buyer self-image. BMW, for instance, provokes a strong positive response in some people who like a car with excellent control and solid design and build, and a strong negative response in others who observe that many BMW drivers seem to be status-conscious money-hungry people who drive rudely and aggressively. But those who dislike the BMW brand may very much like the Mercedes brand, equally a status symbol and equally a sharp and well-built German car but seen as appealing to a somehow less obnoxious set of owners.

In fact, I have a friend who once expounded to me his observations on car drivers. Beyond BMW and Mercedes, certain types of people tend (in his observation) to drive other cars. You seldom have to worry about a Volvo driver; they’re likely to be fairly enlightened types, not insane, fairly liberal too (professor types). On the other hand, SAAB drivers, who you might think would be similar, are in his observation generally pricks (probably failed architects or similar).

Beyond that, of course, we know that a person with a Jaguar has more than enough money, a person with a Bentley as very much more than enough money, and a person with a Rolls-Royce has frankly far too much money, and probably followers too. And we know the old saws about sports car drivers compensating for some deficiency in their manhood. It’s hard not to think so when you hear a Lamborghini revving nearby – a beautiful car utterly unsuited for city streets or in fact for any use most of their drivers will ever put them to, other than impressing people… but not necessarily in the right way. Many guys would like to own a Lamborghini but would not like to be thought of as the kind of guy who owns a Lamborghini.

Certainly the flavours of all these names – BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, SAAB, Jaguar, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini – are strongly conditioned by perceptions of quality and price and of the sorts of people who own and drive them. (The effect is more highly distilled, if less socially conditioned, for those familiar with less well-known very high-end names such as Bugatti and Maybach.) The question remains of the extent to which the aesthetics of the words and other impinging factors affect the brand identity.

Consider BMW. This is a muscular set of letters; the nickname Beemer, reminiscent of boomer, reinforces the brutishness. (The BM may have an excremental input.) It also has the authority of the initialism. Consider what effect initialisms have had on other brand identities: JVC – ahh, technical, high-end (would you feel the same about Japanese Victor Company?); LG – solid, well-made, technically adept (not flimsy, cheap, and hopeful like Lucky GoldStar). And even if you don’t know that BMW stands for Bayerische Motoren Werke, you know it’s German. And there’s that German reputation for well-made mechanical things.

Of course, you also know that Mercedes is a German company – Mercedes-Benz is the longer name. Some people may even know that Mercedes was actually the name of the daughter of the car’s designer: Mercédès Jellinek. Her father, Emil Jellinek, worked for Daimler (which later merged with Benz). There is a story going around that she died in a car crash; this is not true – she died at age 39 of bone cancer (after having two scandalous marriages). And actually her birth certificate didn’t say Mercédès, either; she was christened Adriana Manuela Ramona Jellinek. Mercédès was a term of endearment. Spanish speakers will recognize it as a Spanish name, taken from a name for the Virgin Mary: “Our Lady of Mercy”. (But Mercédès Jellinek was of purely Austrian lineage.)

Now, that history won’t affect most people who see the Mercedes brand, because they don’t know it. But the silvery sound of Mercedes (with that central /s/ played by the shiny c) and its liquid lyricism, with one stressed syllable flanked by two unstressed ones that nonetheless have no schwas (an opening murmur and a finishing ease), is a clear counterpoise to the punchy rhythm of BMW, which is like a drum flourish. And the single capital with a line of lower-case is less self-important than three big capitals. It may also have a more female-oriented flavour, with a rhyme of ladies and a sound of Sadie.

Apply the same kind of analysis to the other brands. What does Volvo taste like to you? What words does it make you think of? Does it make a difference if you know it’s from Latin for “I roll”? How about SAAB? Could its sound like sob and a spelling pronunciation of S.O.B. affect perception? Does it really seem Swedish, or more Dutch or Arabic? Does it matter that it comes from an acronym for Swedish for “Swedish Airplane Limited”? The animal flavour of Jaguar no doubt affects it, and probably the Jag-ed edge; will it taste different to Canadians (who say “jag-wahr”) than to Brits (who say “jag you are”)? Does Bentley sound like the name of a butler? (Would you feel different about it if you knew Bentley made the engine in the Sopwith Camel biplane?) Does Rolls-Royce have a different flavour for airplane buffs, who will immediately think of jet engines made by the company, than for the average person? And what is the difference between Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Bugatti, all three Italian surnames (though Bugatti is a German brand) – does one word feel faster, does another feel more technical, another feel more or less expensive, more or less exotic, more or less intriguing?

Ultimately, this is and always will be an exercise for the individual – though of course, as generally with aesthetics, there are likely to be correspondences between different people’s perceptions, at least to some extent. But also strong differences.