No. 1009
August 14, 2019

About The Autoextremist

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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The Autoextremist - Rants


RANTS #439

April 2, 2008

Great Design: The Ultimate I.P.D.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

Detroit. Have you ever participated in a focus group? Better yet, have you ever participated in an automotive focus group? I’ve watched hundreds of them from behind the one-way observation glass, and I’ve even acted as the moderator in a few. From observing new product clinics to watching as ill-informed consumers play advertising “experts” for an hour reviewing new ad campaigns, I’ve seen it all, much of it painful and most of it irrelevant to making a car or truck – or an ad campaign – better.

Auto focus groups are remarkably similar in that one person in a session inevitably becomes the know-it-all car “expert” who dominates the group while the others sheepishly follow, being much more interested in the free food and the compensation they get afterwards than actually contributing something of value to the discussion.

Get a group of people in a room and ask what’s important to them when they consider the purchase of a new car or truck, and the answers are as predictable as the sun coming up in the East. The words that will be regurgitated back to the moderator are inevitably “safety,” “fuel economy,” “reliability” and of course, “quality.”

And manufacturers that actually take those responses as gospel do so at their peril, because everyone will recite those words when asked, but no one will actually go to a showroom or an auto show and abide by their own list of “must haves” when picking out a new car or truck.

Why? It’s simple, really. Words alone don’t motivate people to buy cars or trucks. There has to be an emotional connection on some level, no matter if you’re spending used car money or picking up a new Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe. Great advertising can create an aura for a car or truck, there’s no doubt (e.g., Hal Riney’s original Saturn campaign), but that won’t matter if the vehicle in question has the emotional appeal of a rake.

This is where great design comes in. Some people in this business still need to be reminded of the real impact of great design, which is shocking to me. You only have to look as far as the new Malibu to be reminded of the power of great design. Do you remember the previous model? Didn’t think so. It was swiftly relegated to Rental Car Land because it had all the presence of a fax machine.

GM did a superb job on the 2008 Malibu in every respect, and they even spent proper, big-time money on a comprehensive launch - for the first time in its history - in order to get the car into the public’s consciousness. But if the new Malibu didn’t have great design language inside and out, it wouldn’t be having near the impact on the market – or on the company’s bottom line – that it is today (transaction prices are up anywhere from $4,000 - $5,000 over the previous Malibu).

That’s what great design can do. Back in Detroit’s heyday, great design was the only “Initial Product Differentiator” that really mattered. Today, people will argue that safety, fuel economy and quality, etc., are the only Initial Product Differentiators that matter. But I would say that those focus group-driven ingredients are merely the price of admission to compete in the business today.

Does safety sell? Sure it does, but no manufacturer has the market cornered on that anymore (despite what they say in their ads). Fuel economy? Sure. Reliability? Quality? Of course, but people expect all of those things now. And for the most part, every manufacturer delivers a basic package of those standard ingredients. Not one of those items put people over the edge to buy, however, because ultimately it comes down to the look and the feel of the vehicle inside and out that motivates people - that instant initial emotional impression that only thoughtful design can convey.

Now, before all of those readers out there fire up their keyboards to praise the Camrys, Corollas and other pertinent examples from the Blandtastic automotive universe, I will make one more point. I submit that the second generation Toyota Prius has been a success as much for its design as anything else. When it made its debut, the Prius II looked unlike anything else coming down the road, and it became seared in the public’s imagination as a new, contemporary, forward-thinking vehicle – and that was before the hybrid aspect of it was factored into the equation.

The bottom line is that people gravitate to excellent design, whether it’s a tea kettle, a perfect little black dress or an impactful piece of architecture. And when it comes to automobiles, that emotional pull is even stronger – and more immediate.

Some out there may insist that the old saying, “you are what you drive” has become obsolete in this touchy-feely, green-tinged world - but I’m not buying it for a second. People still have strongly-formed opinions as to what they’ll be seen in - and why – and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

As I’ve said before, we should never forget the essence of the machine, and what makes it a living, breathing mechanical conduit of our hopes and dreams. Harley Earl understood it implicitly. Bill Mitchell revered and nurtured it. And now GM’s Ed Welburn is the latest proponent of its power. And automotive designers around the globe understand its power, too, which is why great design has reemerged in this business as the ultimate Initial Product Differentiator.

And as this business slowly but surely moves toward a common set of ingredients in our cars and trucks, the importance of great design will grow exponentially going forward.

Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.