This month’s Consume This! feature post by Virginia D’Antonio takes us into the world of Corvette drivers, a window into brand consumption as civic engagement. Reminding us that contemporary goods are always a part of larger systems of meaning in consumer capitalism, D’Antonio trails the idea of the Corvette through club meetings of drivers, factory workers, and the Bowling Green, Kentucky museum, and we come away with the possibilities for forging social capital through consumer brands. This is a thoughtful set of insights about community, no matter your stance on luxury consumer goods and the status hierarchies they imply.
– Ashley Mears
“America’s Sports Car”: Brand Community and Civic Engagement
By Virginia D’Antonio
Over the last three years I had the exhilarating experience of driving down curvy roads with the top down and the wind blowing through my hair, looking for clues alongside the road in a car rally competition, and participating in a field size formation of the American flag comprised of over 200 red, white, and blue Corvettes. My field research of the Corvette brand community brought to life the symbolic importance of consumer culture intellectual pioneer, Sidney Levy’s (1959) theory; “People buy things not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean.” For many Corvette owners, this sports car translates into a high involvement experience. One enthusiast explained to me, “It gets into your heart and it gets into your passion. It’s almost like being a Green Bay Packers fan or something.”
The relationship of Americans to their cars has a history of cultural significance that reflects core American values of materialism, individual freedom, and mobility. While different models of cars may represent distinct personal identities, the Chevrolet Corvette has been culturally embedded through advertising, pop culture, and music as “America’s sports car.” Who doesn’t recognize Prince’s famous song, “Little Red Corvette”? Chevrolet marketing campaigns have been successful with iconic advertising slogans such as “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet,” “Heartbeat of America,” and “Corvette: The All American Sports Car.” I used an interdisciplinary approach (including consumer marketing and sociology), to explore what the symbolic significance of this sports car is to its loyal brand community by visiting numerous Corvette clubs across America, and surveying and interviewing both Corvette brand community members and marketing and production specialists.
The broader significance of my study contributes to the concern over the dramatic decline in civic participation over the last fifty years. Putnam’s (2000) seminal work, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, has been at the center of the debate about what defines modern life. In this era of individualism, voluntary membership in groups like the PTA, bowling leagues, and book clubs have waned. The structure of these memberships offered opportunities for the building of social capital that is beneficial to making people’s lives more productive outside of their immediate social circle. Today, much of the American individual’s social life occurs in relationships that are mediated by markets and products that are consumed individually and collectively. I found the Corvette brand community to be a unique example of how social capital built around consumption can lead to renewed civic engagement in larger, local communities.
The Corvette brand community is one that exists worldwide with members in over 14 countries. While most brand communities are formed and financially supported by the company (Harley Davidson, Saturn, and Saab to name a few), the Corvette brand community was created completely by the loyal consumers themselves. According to one enthusiast, part of the key to this brand community’s success has been “throughout Corvette history, the producer and consumer have fed off of each other, listening to the needs of each other.” Chevrolet has been credited with truly listening to what the consumer wants and feels about the car and this in turn has produced an incredible amount of consumer agency. The benefits of this? Lower marketing costs and secured brand loyalty for over sixty years. Corvette clubs have grown worldwide as part of a grassroots movement by consumers that “joined for the car, but stay for the people”. This motto parallels the brand community premise that “people are more interested in the social links that come from brand affiliations than in the brands themselves”.While ownership of the Corvette is obviously linked to income, this car distinguishes itself from the more elite Porsche and Ferrari and is described by most enthusiasts as an investment that offers, “the most bang for your buck.” The social class of the average Corvette owner ranges from upper-working to middle class status, and is often a purchase of delayed gratification that the owner has saved for after meeting family obligations, raising kids and paying for houses. The middle-class status of most members leaves the community less insulated to outsiders and more open to new members who want to join and enjoy the car.
I found this brand community to not only be defined by social class, but also by a set of lifestyle values such as patriotism, strong work ethic, and volunteerism that serve as guiding principles within the community. Patriotism was omnipresent within the Corvette community and many owners explained their purchase of this American made car as an expression of this patriotism. One Corvette club president explained; “the Corvette is the one true American sports car and it has stayed true to its heritage. The Corvette is one of the best parts of this country. It is something you can always depend on.” Ownership of this American sports car is considered by many to be a purchase that promotes brand continuity in the marketplace and the preservation of what is ‘American.’ The Corvette is 100% assembled in Bowling Green, Kentucky and in 2014, was named the most “American Made Car.” The authenticity of driving this American made car in a globalized world carries a lot of weight with the consumer. One Corvette owner explained, “I won’t drive anything else. I want my money to stay in America where it does Americans the most good. The assembly line, the workers, the tire people, everybody involved. I want them employed. I want them making good old American bucks.” A surprising find in the research was the connection that the consumer makes with the producer of the car through being involved in the community. In fact, Corvette assembly plant workers voluntarily contributed part of their paycheck to fund the construction of the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The National Corvette Museum is perhaps a good way of summing up what this brand community has achieved through philanthropy. NCM is the only non-profit museum dedicated to a single automotive model in the United States and is the only museum that has been conceived, designed, and implemented by brand consumers through donations and volunteer efforts. The museum’s mission is to “promote the traditions of the Corvette for generations to enjoy.”
The Corvette members are looking for meaning and purpose beyond material gains they have achieved and the strength of social ties that is produced within the group allows them to collectively focus outward to the community. The social life and philanthropic work of Corvette clubs in various regions of the U.S. revealed well organized activities that promote trust and support that touched local communities through monetary donations and volunteering of time to support the needs of their local communities such as wounded veterans hospitals and homes for children of incarcerated parents. The Corvette was described in various forms as a consumer object that was transformative, offering the owner both an emotional and rewarding experience that allowed them to be something other than themselves. Collectively, the Corvette brand enables social links to the needs of local communities and opportunities for renewed civic engagement in modern life.
Virginia D’Antonio is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Northern Virginia Community College. She has been teaching at the community college level for eighteen years and completed her PhD in Sociology at George Mason University in the summer of 2017.