Ferrari’s Brilliant Brand Stewardship
Ferrari is the most recognisable brand in the world. Not Coca Cola, whose iconic red cans can be found in tens of millions of hands each day. Not Disney, whose mouse named Mickey is the talisman for a destination nearly every child on earth dreams of visiting. The distinction goes to Ferrari, a tiny race team and sports car manufacturer in an even tinier Northern Italian town.
Its logo, the Cavallino Rampante, or prancing horse, was painted on the sides of the airplanes of World War I pilot Count Francesco Baracca, and is said to have been given to Enzo Ferrari by the Italian ace’s mother after he won a race. Enzo had a brief driving career of modest success, but it was enough to cement motorsport as the cornerstone of his life, and that Prancing Horse has been inextricably tied to it since Scuderia, or Team, Ferrari was born in 1929.
As a symbol, the Prancing Horse is not terribly original or exclusive. Unlike Apple, whose half-eaten logo is instantly associated solely with their products, the Prancing Horse of Ferrari can be found elsewhere. Namely on the flag of the city of Stuttgart – and hence, on the badge of every Porsche – as well as on an Austrian gas station’s signs and an American trucking company’s rigs. In other words, it’s a fairly generic logo that Ferrari co-opted and has since been co-opted some more. Enzo added the yellow background, the color of Modena, his family’s city, and the tricolore, or Italian flag, banner at the top – and a legend was born.
Ferrari, the man, died in 1988, but the company that bears his name has grown immeasurably, and that can be solely attributed to careful and taut stewardship of the brand.
In 1947, Ferrari ceased being merely a race team and became the going concern it is today. But founder Enzo expressly stated that Ferrari the sports car manufacturer only existed to fund the race team. Over the years he made many statements that define the brand, like: A Ferrari shall never have four doors, chassis are for people who can’t build engines, the V-12 engine is the heart of Ferrari, and, like a horse and cart, the engine should pull the car, not push it.
For some, these are the musings of a megalomaniac with a penchant for creating intrigue and drumming up publicity (when asked to describe himself once, he famously replied, “I am an agitator of men.”). To others these are the genetic sequence of Ferrari, the DNA of the cars that bear his name. Some of these genes have mutated over the years, namely the horse and cart analogy, which went the way of, well, the horse and cart. But even within that apparent betrayal of the brand’s genetic makeup, there is proof of Ferrari-ness, for in the 70’s, to compete and sell the road cars needed to fund the racing team, the engine had to be moved behind the driver. The nature of a ‘sports car’ had changed, but by following the trend Ferrari only proved the primacy of its strongest genetic trait – racing is the brand. In other words, yes, nurture plays a part in development, but nothing can overrule nature.
The same can be said of Ferrari’s insistence that the engine is the dominant force in a true sports car. Before examining this thread that ties 70 years of Ferrari together, let’s first look at the inherent rightness of the claim.
Lotus is the only other dedicated sports car manufacturer that can claim to have stayed as true to its charismatic and brilliant patriarch’s vision as Ferrari. In Lamborghini: A Legacy of Lunacy, I argued that Feruccio’s quick exit and scattershot product planning allowed that company to do anything it wanted going forward, as long as it was extreme in performance and design. That’s not what Ferrari and Lotus are about. Their founders had incredibly specific ideas about what their cars were…and were not. The very name of my blog is cribbed from the principle that Lotus founder, Colin Chapman, instilled in his cars – to make a car perform, just add lightness.
To this day, Lotus is synonymous with small, lightweight sports cars whose performance and feel are defined more by these characteristics than brute power. Unfortunately, they are also defined by the spectre of death constantly hanging over the moribund company’s light and nimble head. But I believe if Lotus were to betray its genetic makeup, it would be gone in an instant. The world needs what Lotus offers, it just seems like less of the world needs it. But small companies can be profitable too, if they stay true to their core values…
While Chapman was speaking to our logic-o-phyllic neocortex, Enzo appealed directly to our emotionally charged amygdala. ‘Just add lightness’ might make sense, but a V-12 makes power and noise and speed and heat. Regardless of whether or not you believe there is any wisdom in the speech of the market, I’m afraid it has spoken quite emphatically. And it has proclaimed Enzo, with his army of all-powerful engines, King.
So, yes, Ferrari’s engine-focused DNA has been a hallmark of its success. But all could still go out the window without careful continued attention to the brand’s nature. So reluctant was Enzo to experiment with Ferrari’s core values that he wouldn’t even allow his name to appear on the first road car his own company built with something other than a V-12. The pert little V-6 engined Dino was named after his son. Perhaps Enzo hoped it would grow up to be a ‘proper’ Ferrari unlike his poor son who had died tragically young some twelve years earlier.
Again proving that nothing came before racing, Ferrari had no such qualms about using engines other than his beloved V-12s in his race cars. If it won races, it was a Ferrari. But he understood that the masses – the wealthy he courted so carefully yet disdainfully – responded to emotion, and nothing was more gut-churningly emotional than a screaming 12-cylinder engine.
Eventually, the ever-pragmatic Ferrari began to build a range of V-8 engined cars. A two-tiered structure was put in place decades ago that still exists. These ‘entry level’ cars provide two services to the brand: One, they are the volume seller, and two, they serve to highlight the majesty of the 12-cylinder cars even further. Even within the world’s most aspirational brand there is aspiration.
And speaking of aspiration, Ferrari believed it should be normal. But when turbos proved to be a better form of race-winning aspiration for his engines, he bolted them on and chased down the pack. Eventually they were even allowed on the road cars. Such was the cult of his personality, that no one questioned him when he endowed the then top-of-the-line supercar, the F40, with a small turbocharged V-8. It was the technology that was winning races, so it was good enough for you. End of story.
Ferrari’s turbocharged F40. From Ferrari’s Facebook page
When current chairman Luca di Montezemolo took over, the world held its breath. What would Ferrari look like without Enzo? As stated, it has only gone from strength to strength. And that can only be attributed to di Montezemolo’s dogged persistence that the brand stay true to its own nature. His first big move was to reinstate, not without controversy, the front-engined V-12 as the core of the upper-tier product line. He then brilliantly seized on the success of the F40 outlier and created a third tier for once-every-ten-year hypercars. The first under di Montezemolo’s watch, the F50, reverted to a screaming V-12 engine, as if to prove to the world his understanding of Ferrari’s history and traditions. The newest iteration, the LaFerrari, clings to its V-12 genes despite a global climate hostile towards internal combustion, and eases itself towards tomorrow by adding yet more power from an electric motor – technology pulled from its racing team. The aspirational stratification continues to get finer and finer with the introduction of the XX and Corsa Clienti programs, which provide the highest echelon of Ferrari owners with cars they can’t even take home or drive on the street.
But what about the global onslaught of cheap Ferrari merchandise, you cry! Silence, for the race team is hungry and it must be fed. Modern racing is not the gentlemen’s pursuit of yore, and it requires more capital than ever. Ferrari could cheapen the brand by producing more cars, thus driving down the value of its core product, or dump branded Teddy Bears into mall stores, creating nothing more than a market for existing and new fans to celebrate the success of the racing team. Like the New York Yankees, Ferrari is a sports team – its OK to be a fan covered in your favorite team’s logos. Unlike the Yankees, Ferrari is also a manufacturer, and its products, some of the world’s greatest sports cars, are merely branded Teddy Bears for grown-ups with deeper pockets.
And therein lay the genius of Enzo’s early proclamation. Ferrari can do whatever it needs to do to keep racing, because racing is the core of what Ferrari is. So successful have they been with this branding, that not only can it be said that racing is Ferrari, but in a large part, Ferrari is racing.
This article originally appeared on Nicholas D’Amato’s blog, Just Add Lightness