Editor’s note: Ty Montague is a founder of co:collective, a New York growth and innovation firm. This post is excerpted from his book True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press.
One of the best modern examples of the power of metastory – a story told through action – is Hummer. During an arc that went from birth to high-volume success to death in less than 20 years, the product experience itself, from a strictly engineering standpoint, improved steadily. The fate of the Hummer brand and business had nothing to do with product functionality; its fate was determined by its metastory.
Like Jeep before it, Hummer was born as a military vehicle – the Humvee – manufactured for the Department of Defense by the American Motors Corporation (AMC) starting in 1977. A civilian version of the vehicle, long contemplated by AMC, was finally produced in large part due to intense personal lobbying by former world-champion bodybuilder and then Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger laid eyes on his first military Humvee when a column of them drove past a movie set he was on in Oregon. He decided on the spot he had to own one and personally lobbied AMC management for several years until the company finally capitulated and went into production with a civilian version.
Schwarzenegger purchased the first civilian Hummer to roll off the assembly line in 1992 and then famously drove it everywhere, including to most of his movie premieres. Obviously, he had no practical need for a military machine or even the civilian version of it, but it filled a much more important need for him. It helped him do his personal metastory. Purpose-built for war, the Hummer was a big, tough, expensive vehicle for a guy who was at the time making his living playing big, tough guys in big, expensive movies. The metastory of the vehicle advanced the metastory of the action hero perfectly. And vice-versa. It was a dream come true for AMC – an unpaid celebrity endorsement by one of the biggest action heroes of all time, which certainly helped to cement the metastory of Hummer in popular culture. The fact that a few environmentalists squawked about the greedy 10 mpg fuel consumption almost made it better. Who better to thumb his nose at the tree huggers than the Terminator himself?
In 1998, sensing a rising tide of popularity for the vehicles and envious of the fat margins on each unit (Hummers sold for between $50,000 and $100,000 apiece), GM purchased the brand from AMC and immediately set about improving the vehicle for civilian use. The original rough-riding, hulking civilian version was renamed the Hummer H1 and GM rapidly introduced two new models based on other smaller GM vehicle platforms, the H2 and the H3. Both the H2 and H3 were considerably tamer vehicles, with better ride and handling, much cushier interior amenities and even slightly better gas mileage (the H3 got 13 mpg city, 18 highway).
By 2004 GM was selling 30,000 Hummers a year. There really was only one wrinkle: Schwarzenegger was aging. And as he aged, his popularity as an action hero declined. But Schwarzenegger was a wildly driven person. He wasn’t about to take a little problem like aging lying down. In fact, he was already planning the next chapter of his life. Having watched Ronald Reagan move from actor to governor of California to president of the United States, Schwarzenegger, characteristically, was dreaming big.
Now here is where it gets really interesting from a metastory point of view. Until now, Schwarzenegger’s personal metastory had been one of conquest – bodybuilding champion, action hero, cigar-chomping renegade. And while he captured the governorship by playing up his macho “I don’t give a damn about politics and, by the way, I can’t be bought” story, that story wasn’t going to help him actually govern. Californians love a renegade but California has always been socially and environmentally progressive with, for instance, some of the toughest emissions laws in the country. The prevailing feeling at the time among voters was that the laws needed to get even tighter. Oh, and Schwarzenegger personally owned seven Hummers.
For a while, he tried to stay on offense, using the Hummers and the cigars as symbols of his toughness (he even had a smoking tent installed in the courtyard of the capital building to get around California’s tough antismoking laws). Then, sensing change was needed, he began trying to consciously alter his personal metastory – he took the action of converting one of the Hummers to hydrogen power and began using that symbolic action as a way to publicly advocate for alternative fuels for vehicles. But as time passed, there was growing awareness that vehicle emissions contribute to global warming and films like An Inconvenient Truth began to win major attention and awards. Schwarzenegger realized there was a powerful new cultural zeitgeist developing and even he was no match for it. To keep his metastory contemporary and not be seen as a political dinosaur, the Hummers would have to go. In September 2006, the man most personally responsible for the birth of the Hummer brand took dramatic action and sold off his entire Hummer fleet for a reported $950,000.
There is a saying “so goes California, so goes the nation.” In the case of Hummer, this is certainly the case. Hummer sales peaked in 2006 at 54,052 units. But by 2007 the Hummer metastory was beginning to feel uncomfortably out of step to many more affluent Americans. Consequently, fewer chose the brand to help them advance their own metastories. Sales dropped to 43,431 units. In 2008, with the double whammy of gas prices at $4 per gallon and the onset of one of the worst recessions on record, the bottom really fell out: only 20,681 units sold. In 2009, with the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico drawing attention to the ugly side of oil and bringing to the fore discussions around energy independence, Hummer sales dropped to a pathetic 5,487 units. People who drove gas-guzzlers like Hummer were in some quarters openly accused of being unpatriotic. It became a very brave choice indeed to use a Hummer to advance your personal metastory.
With sales stalled and no end to high oil prices in sight, GM finally decided to cut bait and began actively looking for a buyer for the brand. In late 2009, it swallowed hard and shut the brand down. The last Hummer H3 rolled off line at the factory in Shreveport, Louisiana, on May 24, 2010.
What really happened though is the Hummer metastory ceased to be useful to people who needed a vehicle to tell the world something about themselves. And so the brand died – as will any brand or business that ignores the importance of helping people do their personal metastory.
The implications of this story for today’s marketers are profound, particularly in a world of wild product abundance. Today, the question you have to ask yourself is not what does your product do? The question that truly matters is what does your product mean, today and in the future?