Acura’s bid for a resonant brand

We hope every brand will resonate withAcura_5 something in our culture, it’s deep structure or recent churn.  Brands that don’t resonate, don’t flourish.  They don’t sell.  They die. 

But sometimes we build a brand so perfect it makes culture resonate in turn.  The brand gives off something clear and powerful and culture begins to stack around it in a gravitational array.  In their time, Coca-Cola, Mustang, Levi’s, Jeep, iPod, all had this effect.  They resonated till culture began to hum. 

The new campaign for Acura’s MDX is ambitious in this way.  Acura would like to bend the culture to its brand.  The point of this post is to ponder their chances. 

It’s an urgent matter.  MDX sales are off 16% this year. This is partly due to the downturn in the luxury SUV market.  It’s also because, as Susie Rossick, national advertising manager for Acura says, "it held on for so many years, but it was time for a redesign."

So far, not so good.  The design of the MDX itself is disappointing. Jason Kavanagh says his team drove the tester all over the Southwestern states "without drawing a single murmur or sideways glance."    MDX competitors are well designed or at least conspicuous: Porsche Cayenne, the BMW X5 and the Lexus RX 350.  Resonant brands almost always begin with brilliant design work.

So Acura has dug itself a hole.  The resonant brand will have to come from other parts of the marketing proposition.  Some from the West coast agency, Independent RPA, which has built a campaign around the "advanced" theme.  And Acura has given them license to explore this in interesting and ambitious ways.  As Rossick puts it, the Acura has forsaken the numbing predictabilities of the luxury car market, and positioning the brand for "independent thinkers."  Excellent. 

Here’s copy for one Acura ad:

At Acura, we help people advance from where they are to where they could be.  Advancing technology, advancing design, advancing life.

Now, this is in fact a modernist theme, developed in our culture in the late 19th century, intensifying in the 20th century, dropping into the mainstream around mid century.  In fact, that’s what we call it, "mid century" modernism.

Mid-century modernism helped confirm and create a new way of thinking about time.  It is characteristic of First World, industrial, cultures to think of time as something open ended (This marks them as very different from traditional, face to face societies, who are inclined to think of time as something repetitive, redundant, in a word, circular.)  Western time is a bullet train.  It hurtles away from the present, taking us with it as it goes.  In it’s mid-century formula, individuals suppose that this future will be better than the past.  Both collectivities and individuals looked forward with pleasure and anticipation.  (I think the only place on the planet that still entertains this concept of time is China.  Ok, there’s also a small community outside Bergen, Norway, and a guy in Munich.)

At mid-century, everyone quickened to the theme. Nations, companies, cities, individuals, were seen to be committed to progress and charging into the future.  The very idea of "forward motion" was elevated from a technical description to a collective enthusiasm, a cultural desideratum. 

So when Acura claims "advance" as their theme they are tapping something that exists in our culture.  The question is whether it is still active and compelling.  Does Acura want to put its eggs in this basket?  Is this the culture of the moment?

The answer has to be "no."  The mid century notion of progress is now on life support.  We have lost our sense of optimism.  We do feel ourselves to be hurtling into the future, but we have our doubts about what will happen there. Political and economic instabilities give us pause.  The big question is what will happen to the environment.  How badly have we f*cked this up?

Technology, so admired in the 1950s, is now seen as the culprit.  We suspect that our fate will depend upon a foot race between the new technology and the effects of the old technology.  It’s going to be a squeaker.  When Acura promises, "advancing technology, advancing design, advancing life" our hearts no longer fill with joyful anticipation.  No, what we think is, "Geez, Louise, it’s going to be a close one." 

Happily, there is another arrow in the quill of this campaign.  A second Acura ad (pictured above) shows a car moving down a country road with a city scape springing up around it.  The voice over intones, "connect to the modern world or escape from it"

Ok, that’s better.  The Acura is not just all-terrain.  It is also all-time, just the thing when we want that "off modernism" driving experience. 

A third spot shows, in black and white, a a guy standing in a city street surrounded by tall buildings.  He is standing still but moving forward as if on a mobile platform.  People move around him in a blur.  The  voice over:

The world is advancing.
Faster and faster.
Are you in or are you out?
Introducing the all new passenger Acura MDX.
Technology takes it to  whole new place.

Well, this is not good at all.  Now we have to choose?  Are we in or are we out?  (I would have preferred, "Is you in or is you ain’t," but that’s probably just me.)  Come on.  This does nothing to diminish the anxieties of our moment.  Any one of us could find ourselves "ain’t" at any moment. 

The question, the test, for any brand that wishes to resonate is 1) what is the culture of the moment, and 2) how can contact be accomplished?  For Acura, it is not clear that the target is well chosen, and the really bad news is contact was successful. 


Kavanagh, Jason.  2006.  More than meets the eye. Insideline.  November 15, 2006. here. [for quotes and prices]

McCracken, Grant. 2006.  When Cars Could Fly.  Culture and Consumption II.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

Solman, Gregory.  2006.  Acura MDX Cites Advances in Next Campaign. Brandweek.  October 17, 2006.  here. [for sales figures and Rossick quotes]

For examples of the MDX campaign, go the the RPA site here.  (You will have to wrestle with the "time line" but this proves to be quite good fun once you get used to it.)

4 thoughts on “Acura’s bid for a resonant brand

  1. p|n

    I love your blog Mr. McCracken. I stumbled on it some months ago and find it a joy to read each day. I work for a company that is struggling with the same problem or relevance. We are working on a product that our CEO believes will be a panacea for the consumer. The rest of us see the design as sub par and somewhat behind the times. The technology itself is novel, but provides little real world benefit. In a marketplace flooded with appropriate alternatives, I fear I am in a similar spot to the Acura Ad Manager. I will be asked to create a campaign for a product that has little resonance with the culture it is trying to penetrate. Poor management decisions have crippled our ability to build the best product. And now it’s going to be dumped in my lap. Wish me luck; I’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. steve

    But is the Acura really technologically superior, even if it doesn’t draw head=turns with its aesthetics? That seems to be a key question for this campaign.

    I don’t agree that a modern auto brand needs to resonate with the deep general meanings of the culture. It’s all about niches now, and there are plenty of people who are disgusted with the anti-tech hand-wringing pieties now regnant (ever since I can remember with a brief hiatus in the late 1990s).

    I thought we were living in a time of plentitude and flux, with streams and cross-currents and eddies of meaning in our ultra-complex culture–at least I thought that was what Grant was successfully persuading me to believe. So everything can’t be tailored to the New York Times/PBS/NPR/New Yorker view of the world. Aren’t there enough afluent, optimistic, pro-tech pragmatists to support an SUV brand?

  3. Seamus McCauley

    “Both collectivities and individuals looked forward with pleasure and anticipation. (I think the only place on the planet that still entertains this concept of time is China”

    Seen the Long Now project?

    Perhaps more a confirmation of your point than a refutation that this singular attempt to look at the future positively and hyperopically should currently appear so contrarian. And amusing that what they’re doing is ultimately culturally retrograde. Still…if you haven’t already seen it, worth a look.

  4. Brian Phipps

    If Accura really wanted its MDX brand to resonate with customers it should have dropped an energy efficient and clean (bio)diesel under the hood. Brands are deeds, not words.

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