April 25, 2012
In this era of the entitled and self-absorbed, does design still matter?
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 4/25, 8:00 a.m.) Detroit. For the third and final part of my discussion on the current state of automotive design, I must get to the overriding issue facing this business right now, and that is the fact that an alarming number of Gen “Y” types are showing a complete lack of interest in driving, and a genuine reluctance to immerse themselves in the traditional car culture itself.
My colleague Art Spinella, of CNW Marketing Research, appearing on our weekly webcast Autoline After Hours described it best when he said that this is now the “thumb” generation, whereas we grew up in the “wheel” generation.
The obvious meaning? The social connection that went with the gathering of young people was once accomplished by the fundamental act of driving somewhere – on wheels – but the entire culture built around that has now been replaced by the instant communication era we live in today accelerated by hand-held technology, and thumbs.
No, not a revelation by any means, but as I’ve said before in this column this lack of interest demonstrated by the next generation is keeping auto marketers up at night all over the world.
Why all of the hand-wringing? It's only The Future of the business that's at stake. If these automakers can't reach The Thumb Generation, they'll have nothing to build on. So the question has to be asked, in this era of the entitled and self-absorbed, does Design matter? And better yet, can Design still make a difference?
Two very important things are part and parcel of this discussion. One is the fact that there is still a basic need for mobility, and we’re seeing that now in the burgeoning transportation markets in China, India and Russia. Secondly, even in this self-absorbed era brands and brand image count for absolutely everything.
Let’s start with this idea of mobility. The Doom and Gloomers out there are absolutely convinced that we’ll all be transported in pods in the not-too-distant future, that driving will be so not cool that it just won’t matter anymore. Well, I’m not buying that in the least.
Yes, we will certainly have transportation alternatives in the massive urban centers around the world, but the fundamental desire and freedom that comes with mobility is a delightfully human need that will never go away. You only have to look as far as the explosive transportation market in China to understand that.
What do consumers in China want as soon as they’re able to afford it? Wheels. Yes, texting and iPhones are nice, but getting a set of wheels and actually going somewhere? Now that’s something. Mobility is a powerful idea. Mobility brings a kind of freedom that just cannot be contained once it’s experienced. That same powerful idea that once propelled this country forward is now working its magic in China and other markets. And it’s as if we’re getting to witness it all over again from afar.
The feeling of freedom and adventure that comes with mobility cannot be denied. Once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no turning back, which is why I am absolutely convinced that the transportation business will grow in importance.
And what will continue to be the most compelling ingredient in transportation? Design. And yes, as I’ve said repeatedly – okay beaten it to death, actually – design will continue to be the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator going forward.
And what goes hand-in-hand with design? Brand image.
In a discussion of brand image I must digress by marveling at the extraordinary machinations that auto manufacturers are going through to appeal to consumers in the Chinese market, especially when it comes to design. All I hear are things like, “Well we did that for China.” Or, “It’s what the Chinese consumer wants and it’s now influencing everything we do.”
And I just have to ask, at what point do these manufacturers lose their way completely and forget who they are while trying to be all things to all Chinese consumers? At what point do these manufacturers lose their own brand image in the pursuit of sales? And I can just hear the roar from the minions in these car companies now. “You can’t ignore the Chinese market!” And “You must acquiesce to their tastes!”
Really? I’m not suggesting that anyone ignores anything, especially when it comes to China. But to me brand image is sacred. It takes years upon years to hone and finesse a brand’s image, and it has to be handled delicately.
Let me point out to everyone in the automobile business – which is as much a fashion business as anything else – that before they completely go off of the deep end and pander to Chinese tastes unequivocally, that they should take a long, hard look at what the luxury goods makers are doing.
The purveyors of luxury goods understand the power of their brands implicitly. Brands like Louis Vuitton did not get to the place they are today by chasing trends or pandering to anyone else’s idea of taste. These luxury goods makers define taste. Their brand image is why they are who they are today. And guess what? Chinese consumers interested in acquiring luxury goods understand that, just like everyone else around the world.
Consumers around the world are drawn to the great brands, especially the timeless luxury brands. Why? Not because these brands go out of their way to “adjust” to the markets they conduct business in. No, it’s the other way around. Luxury intenders all over the world flock to the traditional luxury brands because of the fact that they are exactly who they are, as advertised, and their brand image is impeccable.
And I would like to see these auto manufacturers “pull up” before they get lost in the profit-fueled haze generated while doing business in China. The fundamental desirability of the great brands lies in who they are and what they represent. Let that be a warning to Cadillac, Ferrari, Bentley, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, et al. The moment Ferrari ceases to be Ferrari, or the moment Audi doesn’t mean anything anymore in China because they spent so much time chasing Chinese “tastes” that the brand lost its way is the exact moment it’s over.
Yes, design and brand image go hand-in-hand. As well it should be. Even though this new generation is allegedly non-plussed and uninterested, I believe the freedom of mobility is a powerful and compelling idea. And once experienced, there’s no turning back.
That’s why design and design point of view will become even more crucial from here on out. After all, even if there are two-passenger mobility pods, the one that’s designed the best – and has the best brand image – will win out.
When the denizens of the “thumb” generation finally emerge from their gaming lairs and take in the novel notion of sunlight and a warm summer breeze, their eyes will be drawn to provocative shapes and compelling visual stimulation of all kinds, including and perhaps especially the automobile.
Yes, even in this era of the entitled and self-absorbed, design still matters.
More than ever, in fact.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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