A Porsche earns admiring glances the world over. Few brands enjoy such a positive image. Porsche built this inestimable respectability bonus into the legendary Porsche 356 “No. 1” Roadster of 1948. And it’s been part of every model since.
It wasn’t about gaining fame. And it certainly wasn’t about making the world a better place. Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche simply wanted to do himself a good turn. More than a few journalists, friends, and contemporaries asked him what gave him the notion to build a sports car, of all things, and so soon after the end of World War II. Ferry Porsche replied: “It was actually a hobby of mine to build a fast touring car for myself.” The mid-engine sports car with chassis number 356-001 was completed in the summer of 1948—the first vehicle to bear the name Porsche.
Porsche has always stood for a dream. And, of course, it wasn’t just Ferry who dreamed that dream. Many people share it. That’s why they drive a Porsche. Or would like to drive a Porsche—the passersby who stop to watch a Porsche 911 drive past and roll into the distance or the kid who simply can’t be induced to play with another toy car. Over the past seven decades, Porsche has exhilarated millions of people. No other brand has such a positive image. The company itself calls this social acceptance. But how has Porsche achieved this acceptance? And can it be preserved in the future? Isn’t it a part of the nature of a dream that at some point the alarm goes off?
How does social acceptance come about?
Those who enjoy social acceptance experience sustained, positive support from those around them. The need for social acceptance influences many major decisions in our lives: Whom we marry. The career we choose. Whether we buy a Porsche 911 Turbo S. We’ve never had more opportunities to be socially accepted. In earlier times, people evolved in small groups and may have met up to 150 people, tops, over the course of a lifetime. Today, we can easily encounter that many people in a week. Regardless of whether they’re strangers or members of our immediate family, they give us a sense of social acceptance. Family members and close friends embrace us, while colleagues invite us to lunch. We join religious communities and political parties. We devotedly follow sports teams or play sports ourselves. The basis for all of these activities is the pursuit of social acceptance.
This is the basis of social media’s power. Mark Zuckerberg, among others, makes use of it. The Facebook founder says that he started the company “to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.” When people share information online, they get a rush of dopamine similar to when they eat chocolate. We experience the same thing when others “like” our social media posts, because social acceptance is important to us.
Belief in the brand
What does all of this mean for Porsche? Political scientist Weert Canzler, head of the mobility project group at the Berlin Social Science Center, explains: “The prestige of the car in society is changing. Digitalization will revolutionize the entire industry. Environmental topics are gaining in importance. All of this, naturally, changes how a brand like Porsche is perceived. It’s a significant challenge.”
Ferry Porsche died in 1998. “The development of the automobile has never reached a point of stasis,” he said in an interview way back in 1966. “We face many problems today, and just as many will be waiting for us when we’ve solved the current ones. [ … ] Sports have always played an important role in finding answers to all of these questions, and that’ll be the case in the future as well.” These are words that indicate a sober-minded engineering intelligence. And there’s no doubt that this temperate attitude, this air of cool understatement has played its part in making Porsche the beloved brand it is today. Those who wish to stand out, at any price, find themselves a different sports car to buy. A Porsche is more restrained—one of the reasons why a Porsche doesn’t elicit negative or aggressive responses in observers and non-Porsche drivers.
In his many books—such as Porsche 911: Perfection by Design—American journalist Randy Leffingwell has written about how important the company’s design language has been in the success of Porsche. When Ferry’s son Ferdinand Alexander Porsche designed the 911, his aspiration was to create a clear, elegant, and concise design language. It’s exactly why the 911 is such a perfect fit with the times, then as now. It’s the reason most kids draw a sports car with round headlights, elevated fenders, and the smooth roof line of a 911.
The first Porsche Club was formed in Dortmund, Germany, in 1952. Today, there are some seven hundred official clubs around the world. Over two hundred thousand members attend meetings, hold club evenings, and organize rallies and races. The enthusiasm of Porsche drivers in turn increases the social acceptance of their sports cars. A Porsche, as everyone knows, is an object of desire. But for all its beauty, a Porsche is an object of utility as well. It’s a getaway car in which one can escape everyday life, with all of its routines and stuffy structures. Hit the gas and the adventure begins.
The prestige of the car
The car has liberated people. They can simply set off and go wherever they wish, whenever they want. But do people even dream of this type of mobility anymore? “For a long time, the car stood for social advancement, the idea of the good life. It was the central status symbol, an object of desire,” says Mark Morrison of the Zukunftsinstitut in Frankfurt, Germany. “It has lost this exceptional status. But that certainly doesn’t mean that the entire industry is doomed. If brands adapt to changing needs, they’ll continue to awaken desires in the future as well.”
Several surveys, statistics, and studies have shown that young people in particular are less interested in owning cars. “That also presents an opportunity for Porsche,” believes Canzler. “People will rent a Porsche from time to time. Perhaps there could be some sort of subscription model, with people buying a certain number of kilometers. It could be a way of tapping into completely new consumer groups.”
Even more important, according to Canzler, is keeping pace with the development of electromobility. With its plug-in hybrid race car, Porsche recently won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times on the trot. The first fully electrically powered Porsche is slated to hit the market at the end of the decade. And why shouldn’t this Porsche thrill buyers every bit as much as the 356, the 911, and the Cayenne before it? The electric motor once again offers the company the opportunity to show the world just how innovative the Porsche brand is.
Innovation and charisma
Psychologist Jennifer Aaker from Stanford University believes that every successful brand has to tell a good and coherent story about itself. Such stories, according to Aaker, can compellingly convey “what a brand stands for at its core.” A manufacturer with a history as long as Porsche’s has a clear advantage in this regard. The brand owes its charisma not only to the elegant design of its cars, the performance of its models, and the sheer enthusiasm of its admirers. It can also draw on a reputation for technical mastery that the company has burnished time and again over generations. And will continue to burnish in the future as well. Porsche has a history and many stories to tell. Starting, of course, with Ferdinand Porsche, the father of Ferry. Way back in 1900, long before the founding of his own company, he built a hybrid vehicle. The vehicle’s name: “Semper Vivus”—“always living” in English.
People, as well, will certainly never stop in their pursuit of social acceptance. It’s too firmly rooted in our brains for that.
By Nathan DeWall, Jakob Schrenk
Photos by Marc Trautmann, Martin Seraphin