In last week’s article, we reviewed the many sources of inspiration automotive designers draw from when developing their creations. And while it certainly can be an art form, the viability of any design is its marketability and sales potential. So the next question is: “what inspires consumers?” In the early days when gas prices weren’t as much of an issue, it was “the bigger the better”, with more power being equated to engine capacity. Now with more cars on the roads and varying prices of gas, and a better understanding of our dependence on potential limitation of fossil fuels, we find everything being compacted into the smallest package possible that can deliver on key expectations. Below are a few observations as to what drives the consumer decision-making:
#1) Status Symbol: you know those guys who get the sweet Beamer you’ve always dreamed of driving, but let it get dirty and dinged up? They don’t maintain it with the same amount of love and passion you would have. Yet still, there they are, pulling into the corporate parking lot thinking they are all that! How have manufacturers catered to this type of consumer? Buick, Hyundai and others are looking to appeal to this type of consumer who want the looks and style but may not necessarily be influenced by the craftsmanship, material selections or the ride itself. And in my humble opinion, let those guys drive those cars.
The thing that really irks me is when you have a celebrity or heir who buys an exotic, unique, to-die-for kind of car and then proceeds to scratch the wheels every time they fail to parallel park or pull into the drive thru. They touch the paint all the time, put their coffee cup on the hood, and all the while enthusiasts cringe at the sight. I would love to develop a pre-qualification program for any of those consumers who intend to purchase a ride just because they can.
#2) Expression: then there are the consumers who appreciate their auto, they take care of it, they treat it like a member of the family (or sometimes even better). It’s the 6’4” guy who wants to drive the Mini Cooper or the BMW 1 Series, or conversely, the 5’2” guy driving a lifted Ford truck. There are the people whose car you can hear way before you can see thanks to that loud exhaust, and let’s not forget the guy with them thumping base … oh year, they are still out there. And these days, there are also the eco-friendly drivers.
Speaking of Prius, you know how electric vehicles always seem to look different than any other car? (Exception: Tesla) Why is that? Why does an EV have to look space-age, or like a box-on-wheels? I think it has to do with the consumers wanting to express their desire to minimize their environmental impact. They are making a point. I don’t care that my car doesn’t have all those cool, swooping lines, I care about how it is giving me amazing gas mileage and is my more eco-friendly. How about the Nissan Xterra with the first-aid kit in the back? It’s an expression that “I take risks, I have fun, I’m an active person…”
#3) Lifestyle: the millennials are shaking things up in many ways. I think that this category of inspired consumer is indicative of the future. Lifestyles inspire consumers because it makes it easier for them to do what they like to do. Have you ever driven around Portland and found yourself surrounded by SUVs and Subaru Outbacks? Or you go the neighborhood park and all the soccer moms are loading up with their “stow-and-go” minivans? I think this category makes the most sense because it’s where form meets function. The design is appealing for a very real reason and it’s the application of the design that drives the consumer. I have to say the foldaway seats in some of these minivans are an amazing feat of engineering!!
#4) Performance: this is my category. Does that spoiler actually do anything? The scoop on the hood… is it functional? Does the style optimize aerodynamics? These consumers are driven by the drive. When asked the question, what do you like to do for fun, your answer is inevitably “jump in my car, crank up the tunes, and drive”. You do end up with those who modify to the extreme, but I think there is a way to tastefully update/upgrade your auto without molesting it. Upgrading to those 19s and Z-rated tires in the summer makes a difference. Not only does it look cool, but it provides a better handling experience. I just swapped out the regular bulbs in my accent lights to white LEDs and they look amazing! When I’m considering a new ride the styling matters, but it has to meet my expectation on the road as far as its drivability.
In summary, there are lots of automakers out there looking to differentiate themselves, to attract specific markets and to enhance their overall brand. The key to success in these endeavors is to start with the consumer’s expectations in mind, to deliver on these expectations without trying to cater to every consumer in the market. Innovators are coming up with all kinds of cool technologies that are incorporated into automotive design, but how those technologies actually become solutions is where the rubber meets the road.