The J-3 Cub: An Inspiring Brand for 75 Years

Photo: EAA

The light rain started during the first ten minutes of the Chicago Symphony’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony at Ravinia the other evening. We didn’t care. It cooled things off a bit. We just wrapped ponchos and tarps over our heads and continued picnicking and listening to the music.

Nor did I mind the jetliners flying over the festival park on a southwest approach to O’Hare. The jets reminded me of my favorite private plane: the small, cute, historically important J-3 Cub, an airplane reduced to the essence of simplicity and ease of flying.

The Cub was introduced by Piper Aircraft Co. in 1937. And for three-quarters of a century, many pilots including me have often wished we were in a Cub—with the large door open, exposing almost the entire right side of the cockpit—flying slowly over the countryside or landing at a small grass strip somewhere away from the suburban sprawl.

The day before the Ravinia concert, I was in Oshkosh, where the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Cub at its annual fly-in, an event I have attended almost every year for more than a quarter of a century.

Nearly all of the 200 Cubs throughout Wittman Field wore the Piper Cub Yellow color and flaunted the familiar bear cub logo that appeared on the first J-3 to leave the Lock Haven, Pa., factory. The Cub is absolutely adorable and will catch the eye of even the most unaware brand observer. Its color is not only easy to see against the blue sky but is the most distinctively recognized color of any aircraft in history. When you see it, you know the plane is some version of the Cub.

It may not be a J-3 because after building 19,073 J-3s from 1937 until 1947, Piper stopped making the small airplane, replacing it with the Cub Special and the even-larger Super Cub. Both were painted the same J-3 yellow and shared a family resemblance, much like big brothers.

At a time when most companies and individual business people gave little or no thought to branding, the Cub by design or luck became the benchmark against which other private planes were designed and built, spawning a host of competitors in the early 20th century. It has also triggered a longer list of copycats at the turn of this millennium, many available in Cub Yellow and looking enough like a J-3 to fool all but the most experienced observer. New Cub-lookalikes appear each year at the EAA fly-in.

Just as Coke became the symbol of the soft drink industry while Dr. Pepper, for example, became an also ran, and just as Chevrolet became the recognized leader of the auto industry while Pontiac became a good but indistinctive competitor, the Cub, for many years, led the private aircraft industry—in recognition, branding, and dreams. Today, people still buy used Cubs, spending years re-building them and then flying them on warm weekends to local airports and annually to fly-ins like the recent Oshkosh event.

Now, 65 years after the last J-3 Cub rolled off the assembly line and sold for around $2,200, a good, rebuilt, ready-to-fly J-3 can be had for $20,000 or so. One in excellent condition will cost you a cool $40,000.

Most companies today can only wish they could establish a brand that would inspire an industry of competitors and imitators, and encourage legions of people to lust after their products. Apple can do it. But few other companies, a handful perhaps, can now build such a brand.

Driving home after the Ravinia concert (an entire evening of Tchaikovsky music, including the 1812 Overture with live cannons), I hoped to see a lone Cub, flying low over the trees, a lone Cub on the first leg of its homeward-bound trip after a week at Oshkosh, a week when thousands of pilots and fans like me gawked at it, touched it, looked inside at the sparse instrument panel with its bear cub-emblazoned airspeed indicator—and wished that we were flying it all alone at, say, 1,000 feet above a field of fresh-mowed wheat, watching the sun sink slowly beyond the horizon.

Quote from Lisa Simpson

Anything that’s the something of the something isn’t really the anything of anything.

This quote came from Lisa Simpson, the smarter-than-her-age (she’s been eight-years-old for the past 23 years or so) daughter of Homer and Marge on The Simpsons TV show.

What she meant, of course, is that no one really wants to be known simply as being like something else. And we could add that most people don’t want their brand or company to be known only as a comparison to another business or product. In this case, her mother had just told her that although she couldn’t go to Harvard, she could go to McGill University, “the Harvard of Canada.”

I’m not sure I agree with Lisa in every case, but I can certainly see where sometimes the comparison stretches facts so far that it becomes absurd, making the object being compared actually seem worse than it really is.

Sometimes making a “something of the something” comparison is negative and harmful to your brand. Hearing, for example, that the laptop your company builds is the computer industry’s Edsel—the mid-1950s Ford failure—is not something you ever want to hear.

Sometimes the comparison is neutral and adds nothing to your brand. Calling most small private planes “Cubs,” as non-aviation people have done for the past 75 years, makes a point everyone can understand. The comparison is as harmless—accept for the misuse of the copyright—as calling all cotton swabs “Q-Tips” or all tissues “Kleenex.” It’s neither negative nor positive. It merely represents the way the plane’s name has become generic, symbolic of a whole fleet of similar aircraft.

But occasionally the comparison brings a positive twist that lifts your company’s brand from the also-rans. Saying as we sometimes hear, for example, that a company’s new refrigerator is the Cadillac of home appliances gives the brand style, a symbol of quality enhanced by the comparison. The same is true in saying, as has, that the owners of the Five Guys hamburger restaurant chain are the “Willy Wonkas of Burgercraft” or in calling bird artist Roger Tory Peterson “the Audubon of the 20th Century,” as mentioned this week in The New York Times.

Sometimes saying a product is “the something of the something” is not really a direct brand comparison but stills makes a point, such as when the TARDIS, the British police telephone box on the Dr. Who TV show, was referred to as the sports car of time machines.

A Certain Head on Your Shoulders

Zadie Smith, a novelist and essayist, says in “That Crafty Feeling,” her essay on writing, that to be a good editor, you need to get away from your work for as long as possible before tackling this task. She adds:

“You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel [and I would add, to edit anything], and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger, who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.”

I agree with Smith that you want to approach your editing assignment as a stranger if you are going to bring an added spark of creativity to the task and are going to raise the end product to the next level.

But in our work because we’re rushed for time, many of us write that executive speech or that article for the employee newsletter and then immediately begin editing it.

That’s a mistake.

Clearly, it’s got to be done NOW. But whenever possible, it’s best to have someone else edit your work, someone who doesn’t know the material as well as you do.

Many years ago, as a young PR manager and primary writer for the department, I reported to a vice president who edited my documents. Sometimes she made enough good changes to improve my copy, without making enough bad ones to destroy it.

But rather than use a standard ballpoint pen or even an editor’s typical red or blue pencil, she edited my work with a broad, black-inked felt-tipped pen. She always did her editing in the evening after I had left the office—I think so I would not see her making the changes, since our glass-walled offices were right next to each other. And she never failed to make big marks on the page, not gentle strokes inserted between my words or above the type, but bold deletes and lines leading to the margins where she occasionally suggested a word or sentence or two, but where she mostly wrote as boldly as I thought she could in the space available, “What?” or “Really?” or most intimidating and least helpful of all, simply, “No!”

I really enjoyed working for this boss but, to be sure, coming to work some mornings was not pleasant—especially because she always left the edited documents in the middle of my desk, and I could see her big, black scribbles long before I got anywhere near my office.

Nevertheless, having her edit my copy was the right thing to do.

But if no one else can edit what you write, you should do yourself a great favor: Let the material sit overnight, so you can come back to it as at least a partial stranger, an objective observer who by having a little distance from the writing can see its flaws that can be corrected, its good sentences that can be improved by what one client refers to as “enhanced writing,” and its excellent passages that give it real melody and rhythm.

Quote from Frank Partnoy

Email, social media and the 24-hour news cycle are informational amphetamines, a cocktail of pills that we pop at an increasingly fast pace—and that lead us to make mistaken split-second decisions.

Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, made this statement in a recent New York Times article about the need to slow down and think before we do something that may be wrong and may make us look silly, such as announcing the incorrect Supreme Court decision about the Affordable Health Care Act, as CNN and other news outlets did.