No, really — it's perfect.
You see vinyl signs more than you think. Almost no one still paints on storefront glass or stencils auto surfaces. The Time Warner Cable lettering adorning the giant company's local fleet, for example, is Pearson's work: glued-on vinyl. So are the numbers and logos on the cruisers of the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department.
And so are the Union Jacks, European flags, boot stripes and rally symbols on about 2,000 Mini Coopers nationwide, including the bulk of those whipping through Greater Kansas City. After more than a decade building his kitchen-table business (a 1993 investment of about $5,000 in equipment and software, with most of his client base established through word of mouth), Pearson found the brand he wanted to brand when he test-drove a Mini in the spring of 2003.
See, every available product exists on a shifting continuum of brand awareness, whether you buy it or avoid it. Mountain Dew, for example: a neon-colored caffeine blitz with a silly name. True, the marketplace also accommodates the consumer who prefers low cost and anonymity — Hy-Vee sells a house-brand version of Mountain Dew called Heee Haw, just in case. But in America, few products confer as much status and amplify as much identity as cars.
Choose a car and you brand yourself. But people who drive the Mini Cooper — that fuel-efficient, caffeine blitz of a compact car — are especially eager for their vehicles to reflect their own ideas of personal branding.
In short: vinyl.
Pearson ordered his first Mini after driving the salesman's own. Then he documented his three-month wait for the car on a blog that would become Confessions of a Dangerous Mini Owner. Within a year, he was Baron BMW's go-to guy for applying custom art to its customers' already accessory-loaded Minis.
"I was never a car guy before this," Pearson says. "I'd never changed the oil in a car. Now I can do the brakes in my Mini."
Next came his rise in the ranks of the Kansas City Mini Enthusiasts, one of the hundreds of worldwide social groups centered on the car. He was president for a while, but now, he says, the organization is casual enough that its 200 members require no hierarchy.
Still, the Mini masses, here and elsewhere, look to Pearson for guidance and gossip: via his podcast. Together with fellow Mini lovers Don Burnside, Michael Babischkin and Gabe Bridger (all of whom live in other cities), he started White Roof Radio in 2005. And in this, the 50th-anniversary year of the Mini, the fellas have kept busy attending (and sometimes playing host at) events here and abroad, collecting interviews with Mini's execs and putting up their 300th podcast.
In Pearson's Lenexa house, his latest project covers a table like candy pieces on waxed paper: a roll of small vinyl magnets designed to fill the Mini's motoring badge holder. (It's on the car's grille.) At $7.50 apiece (on motoringbadges.com), they've sold in quantities that allow White Roof Radio to fund its podcasters' travels.
Pearson's success, then, isn't solely a triumph of marketing savvy or a fluke of timing. You could chalk it up to many years spent leveraging his time and resources in the service of brand-savvy collecting — he still has the Matchbox cars of his childhood, crated up in a far corner of his home. Whatever its roots, that success is a Midwestern confluence of common sense and observation with a glossy coat of the X factor. He has achieved something wholly American: spotting a Todd Pearson-sized demand and meeting it, for consumers whose loyalty isn't just to a line but to a lifestyle.
— Scott Wilson
(Photo by Angela C. Bond)