Category Archives: auto design

How marketing destroyed fog lights

Buy a European car such as Jaguar, Mercedes, Saab or Volvo and you’ll find something different on the dash — a switch to turn on rear fog lights. In Europe, cars are required to include special lights on the back that can be clicked on in foggy weather — as a bright warning to cars coming up fast behind you not to hit you. It’s a rather simple, brilliant idea.

Of course, in the U.S., most cars have fog lights as an optional accessory on the front of the vehicle, low-down on the bumper, where they do little good. Really. Drive in the fog here, turn on those low beacons, and you get a little extra wattage illuminating the ground 10 feet in front of your tires. Most U.S. fog lights are not yellow either (a color that can cut through haze better than white light).

Why does the U.S. have fog lamps that are just cosmetic, jazzing up the front of the car or SUV, while Europe has truly functional lights on the back that might save your life? Marketing. Fog lamps are an extremely noticeable add-on to a vehicle, and when you’re considering whether to drop $29,000 or $36,000 for exactly the same car, little accessories such as front fog-lamps, fatter tires, and leather seats add thousands of dollars to automaker profits. You would never spend $7,000 for a leather couch and new lamp — such a price would be a rip-off! — but you’ll gladly consider spending $7,000 more for exactly the same car with a “package” of fog lights and leather seats.

Marketers know that a car without fancy lights on the front looks less inviting than the vehicle with a touch of glamour, and we’ll irrationally pay far more for that. In marketing psychology, they are using a bland car bumper as a reference point to upsell you to a non-bland car bumper, at a higher price point that really makes little sense. The package bundle includes parts that are not as great as the perceived whole; the price obscurity sucks us in, and marketers win fatter margins.

So if you get rear-ended in the fog next week, don’t blame the driver behind you. Blame yourself for spending money on front-facing lights that make your car look cooler.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Image: kardboard604
Originally posted on Google+

Volvo tricked me with a decoy

After a few weeks of hunting I bought a new car, lured completely by a decoy. A decoy, in marketing or sales, is when someone offers you a thing knowing full well that thing isn’t really what you want, but will get your attention. The world is full of decoys — $1 appetizers at bars that get you to buy $20 in beer; $7 movie tickets that coerce you to buy $10 in popcorn and candy. A decoy likely put you in your house — Realtors use a classic strategy of showing you a home that needs repairs right before the pristine home they want to unload on you. That “whew, this house is OK!” feeling was completely a psychological setup, but you knew that, right?

The most successful decoy of the past 20 years was likely the New Beetle, released in 1998 with a brilliant redesign by J Mays. VW rode a wave of new sales, but many were Passats and Jettas purchased by consumers who strode onto the lot curious about the cute new bug, then decided they needed something more.

I just did the same thing, lured by a Volvo C30 and discovered an S60 with more power and room, for a few K more. I’ve always considered Volvo one of the most boring brands in the world. Safe. Secure. Yawn. A hot-hatch design got me on the lot to discover the Swedes have been playing turbo catchup to the Germans.

Decoys are a variation of “price framing,” a concept by behavioral economist Richard Thaler that customers are bad at judging value, so marketers must give them a reference point A to react to. A dress marked 50% off, down from $200, refers to a price of “$200” that never really existed — but makes the $100 price point feel so much better. Some decoys are magnets, pulling you into a sales ecosystem to buy something else. Some can be negative, showing what you don’t want so you’ll move over to item B. Decoys cut through the clutter of commercial capitalism by giving us a beacon. They help us fool ourselves into perceiving value, since we now have something to compare that value with.

I wanted something that I didn’t want, then ended up wanting another thing. The Volvo is a rocket and is safe and has room for the kids. I never would have found it without the impulse to chase a cooler design I didn’t need.

Decoys work really well.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Posted on G+.

Cup holders and mothers’ milk: When your product surprises you

A few years back Volkswagen sent its German designers to the U.S. to study American driving habits, and they ended up shocked about us Yanks’ obsession with cup holders. German carmakers still don’t get it; a colleague of ours drives a Mercedes, and the cup holder is a Rube Goldberg-type thing that unfolds vertically from a slot between the seats, obviously a design afterthought.

Michael Martineck of The Truth About Cars wrote that cup holders go deep into the reptilian (oldest) parts of our brains and our human itch for security. Michael quotes cultural anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille: “What was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cup holders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cup holder, it is not safe.”

The lesson for marketers is we often act like German auto designers enamored with our unique engineering … without thinking about the psychological thirst of the consumers who will buy the product. Customers often use goods in vastly different ways than the original marketing plans intended. Play-Doh began as a wallpaper cleaning tool. Hot dogs started as a slur against cheap sausages on Coney Island suggesting they contained dog meat. The Honda Element launched with a wink-wink campaign telling young drivers about surf-friendly fabric and fully reclining seats … and Honda was surprised to find the average buyer a father in his late 30s with young kids who just wanted to haul stuff and clean up spilled milk.

If what customers want is warm liquid that conveys security, you better build it into the product.

Ford: Drive fast and you kill plants

Notice anything green at the right of this dash display?

Ford and Smart Design have released a prototype for the dashboard of the future — an electronic display that uses iconic visual representations to convey information clearly, without distracting, so you don’t crash the car. One of the nice touches is a fuel-efficiency symbol at right. Ford research showed consumers often want to get a “high score” for mileage, so the display uses an organic symbol of growing leaves to convey your impact on the planet. Go easy on the gas and the leaves bloom; accelerate hard and the leaves wither and die. Clever.

Via David Armano.

Chevy Vegas and Dodge Darts: Consumers remember when you’re bad

When we were a teenager learning to drive, our father told us of a Dodge Dart he once owned where the shift lever came off in his hand. We laughed as he recalled the f***-ing crappy design and how it almost killed him, as he went down a hill across an intersection with the rod waving in the air … it was in fact the first time we heard our dad drop the F bomb.

More than 25 years later we still think of American cars as substandard, even though some, especially Ford, have improved quality and come forth with innovative, efficient designs.The ad above, for the 72 Chevy Vega, may represent the worst automobile of all time, according to a U.S. consumer survey. That car was littered with design defects; pistons were mismatched to cylinders, the carburetor tended to catch fire, the body oozed rust. Bob Eicholz of Hollywood, Calif., commented “after 20,000 miles of gentle driving, it needed a valve job, and possibly a new engine, a new clutch, a new transmission sync gear and new tires.”

The irony of marketing is that consumers need incredible stimuli to think differently about a product tomorrow, but they carry word-of-mouth opinions from yesterday for decades. Once a person’s mind is set against a product, it’s almost impossible to change. The recoil of Americans as they ponder a vast bailout for the U.S. auto industry is almost amazingly unpatriotic, until you consider the pent-up anger consumers feel based on decades of automotive design incompetence. Yes, U.S. cars have improved dramatically … but buyers still remember.

As you head into the new year it might be worth mapping what customers think about your past products. Like a therapist trying to improve a relationship, you can’t move people forward until you address the sins of the past.

The Think electric car: Less is the new more

Driving in this morning we realized that small cars were suddenly looking sweet. Take The Ox, a concept design by Norwegian car maker Think. The size of a Toyota Prius, this baby is pure electric, goes 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds, and can run more than 120 miles on a single charge. The car is slated for release in two years for about $25k.

Which is curious. Why do we respond to this design and suddenly crave smaller curves of sheet metal? Does our subconscious realize that resources are scarce? Perhaps it’s the vibe we get before a hot summer, when everyone wants to disrobe, go on a diet, and work on the six-pack … because heavy consumption in times of heat just doesn’t feel right.

We bet this type of efficient design will embed itself in other products, as the combined weights of recession, high energy costs, environmental guilt and consumer conversion to a very visible product — small cars you see every morning — make little the new big. Designers, time to go on a diet.

Marketing lag, or why it’s now safe to buy a Ford

Buddy of ours is shopping for a pickup. First words out of our mouth were: Buy a Toyota. Cause we all know American cars are crap. Like those Ford Explorers that tend to roll over and almost killed two friends of ours in a snow storm or those 7.5 million GM A-Cars that had gas tanks placed dangerously between the rear axle and back bumper perhaps to save costs, ready to rupture if the bumper got tapped …

But wait. We’re wrong! Consumer Reports has just announced Ford SUVs are climbing up the charts in quality, and now greatly outpace those fancy European models. All that bad press Ford and other U.S. automakers got years ago is still stuck in our minds … but CR has recommended not one but six Ford models (Edge, Expedition, Explorer, Explorer Sport Trac, F-150, and Taurus X). Egad!

This is the problem with marketing. CMOs and marketing managers tend to change companies every two years, and when they come in fresh, they immediately launch NEW! IMPROVED! marketing messages trying to establish a name for themselves. But consumers remember. Ford, for one, faces an uphill battle in convincing anyone it can match Toyota in quality — yet Consumer Reports notes that several Ford models are now better than the giant Toyota Tundra 4WD V8.

You can’t change history, but if you work in marketing or advertising, you have to recognize it. While operations works on tomorrow’s quality control, here are a few things to address in your messaging to consumers today:

– What marcom went out in the past 10 years?
– What PR — good or horrible — did your company create in the same period?
– How will prospective customers remember those marketing messages and PR debacles?
– Is your current brand message building upon that history realistically?
– Are you gradually migrating your customer base to a new awareness?
– Or, are you making promises that are wildly out of sync with where you’ve been?

Just a thought. P.S. Be sure to buckle up.

(Note to lawyers: See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, the debate that Ford may have inflated tire pressures unsafely low to mask high center of gravity here, and the infamous 1973 Edward Ivey “value analysis” memo for GM here.)

Honda Clarity: How to lead a market to product

You’ve heard for years that car engines could be powered by hydrogen — a clean fuel that emits nothing but water vapor. Trouble is, the economy is locked into a petroleum fuel infrastructure, and automakers and energy companies have been caught in a stalemate. Auto producers won’t build cars unless someone can fuel them; energy companies won’t invest in thousands of hydrogen stations unless cars exist to take the fuel.

And so, our cleanest technology lies unused. Sure, your Hummer could get huge torque with a hydrogen engine. But the barriers to entry are just too high.

Enter Honda in 2008. Honda (like other automakers) has been experimenting with hydrogen cars since the late 1990s. This summer, it will begin sales of its FCX Clarity in three cities in California (Torrance, Santa Monica and Irvine, where hydrogen refueling stations now exist). And Honda is also developing a home recharging system for the car, which converts natural gas into electricity (for the home) and hydrogen (to refuel the car). This would circumvent the entire problem of no hydrogen fuel stations, by converting any gas-heated home into your personal Hydrogen Mobil stop.

This last move is most interesting. What if Honda became a global power in providing the energy that runs cars? What if 110 million U.S. households eventually realized, hey, we could put a cheap generator on our house, take us off the grid, and fuel up every morning?

Honda could be moving into a whole new realm of energy provision. Oil companies and other automakers had better pay attention, or they may just be passed out of the new energy loop.