The Chrysler Corporation has been saved more times than a CPR dummy. Saviors have come in many forms, including individual cars, CEOs, private investment groups, governments, and now the Italians. Cats everywhere are bewildered as to how many lives this company could possibly have. In its latest incarnation, however, Chrysler may have its best shot yet at sustained success.
Mopar To Subpar. Rinse. Repeat.
Prior to its most recent government bailout and subsequent takeover by the Italian automaker Fiat, Chrysler hit the trifecta of automotive woes – poor products, inconsistent marketing, and a confusing corporate strategy. For example:
- Products – The smiling face of the first-generation Dodge Neon was long gone and the novelty of the PT Cruiser wore off years earlier. Left in their places were rental car stalwarts such as the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring (the latter of which, at its nadir, was considered by some to be the worst car in America).
- Marketing – Snoop Doggy-Dog helped increase the initial visibility of the Chrysler 300, but rapping does not make for a viable long-term marketing strategy. Unless, of course, hamsters are doing the rapping in which case it seems to be a perfectly reasonable way to sell cars Kias.
- Brand and Product Strategy – The Dodge brand came across as too bargain basement to be considered alongside blue-chip family brands, such as Toyota and Honda. In addition, Chrysler tried to position itself as an aspirational brand, but its products never got the memo.
Consumers became confused, and the doors fell off Chrysler. Again.
It Is Better To Be Wrong Than Ambiguous
Ambiguity is poison for a brand, particularly when its products are hurtling you through time and space at 70mph. In general, ambiguity elicits psychological uncertainty. Psychological uncertainty leads to emotional discomfort. Emotional discomfort may then lead to dislike for whatever is causing the ambiguity.
The ambiguity that Dodge and Chrysler elicited in consumers was just as harmful to its well-being as the negative reviews its products were receiving. Indeed, the two are inseparable. Consumers can understand a “value brand,” such as Dodge, but its products must provide some type of value. Similarly, consumers are fine with an “entry-level” luxury brand as long as the brand contains products that are a reasonable facsimile of luxury. If there is uncertainty about a company’s intentions, the execution of those intentions, or both, then consumers may experience negative affect (emotions) as a result of the ambiguity, which in turn leads to decreased sales. Eliminating ambiguity from Chrysler Group LLC products, branding, and marketing is therefore paramount to eliciting positive affect in consumers and subsequently increasing sales.
A Dodge, a Chrysler, and an Italian walk into a bar…
Based on recent corporate decisions and newly introduced or revised vehicles, Sergio Marchionne (CEO of Fiat S.p.A. and Chrysler Group LLC) and friends seem resolved to eliminate ambiguity. They are already beginning to build better products, clarify brand positioning, and deliver clear and consistent messaging. Nowhere was this approach more evident than Marchionne’s decision last year to not start a large-scale marketing campaign before Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep had products in their showrooms to justify a marketing blitz. I cannot think of the last time, if ever, I associated that kind of discipline with Chrysler. Although no current article (or past, for that matter) regarding Chrysler is complete without warning that the company is not out of the woods quite yet, the amount of progress made in just the past product year is very impressive. More importantly, it’s unambiguous.
Americans purchase Chinese-made products like Elton John buys sequined suits. While we have grown grudgingly accustomed to the omnipresent “Made in China” label, buying a product made in China is different than buying one made for China. Nowhere may this be more evident than with the automobile.
China is now the largest automobile market in the world. As red, white, and blue-blooded capitalists, we understand that domestic and foreign auto manufacturers are champing at the bit to “drill, baby, drill!” into China for sales. However, we may be less accustomed to the notion that our tastes are not breaking ground. The Chinese consumer is literally and figuratively driving what is parked in their driveways – and what may soon be, or already is, parked in yours.
The Chinese Are Coming!
Ironically, the best illustration of Chinese-influenced cars being sold in the United States is Buick. In particular, the Buick LaCrosse. GM sells more cars in China than North America (think about that), and Buick is its top seller in China. The new LaCrosse was therefore not only designed with China in mind, it was designed in China with the United States in mind.
Chinese consumers want others to know that they arrived, and did so opulently. GM global design chief Ed Welburn calls China’s influence on American styling the “C-Factor”. Welburn notes that Chinese styling is influenced by “jade sculpture, calligraphy, and a lot of art dating back centuries”. (I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I’ll take his word for it.) According to Welburn, these influences infuse Buick’s global design language with fluidic character lines, intricate headlights, taillights, and front grilles, as well as detailed wheels.
Regardless of the brand, Chinese consumers also prefer an unfortunate amount of chrome and long-wheelbase cars. Long wheelbases are important because wealthier customers frequently are, or aspire to be, chauffeured. Back seats are therefore more important to the Chinese than to John Mellencamp’s Jack and Diane. The goal is to thus make plush backseats with plenty of legroom. A premium is also placed on technological amenities throughout the vehicle, such as video screens and advanced audio options.
Back to the Future
A country is experiencing enormous economic growth. In turn, a rapidly increasing number of upper- and middle-class consumers are hungry to display their wealth and exercise their newfound freedom. One of the best ways to do so is through the automobile. In particular, automobiles that are large, ornate, distinctly styled, plush, and dialed more toward luxury than sport. Sound familiar? It should. I just described America in the 1950s and 1960s. For all of our sakes, let’s just hope the Chinese skip over vehicles reminiscent of the 1970s.
Don’t Worry, America. You’re Still Important (just not as much).
Auto executives, such as the aforementioned GM global design chief, are also quick to note that the Chinese consumer will not dictate what the American consumer drives. It almost sounds more like a plea than a promise. I believe their concern is warranted.
There is arguably a growing xenophobic trend in the United States, as well as a increasing sense of isolation. Furthermore, China is not exactly seen as a Bert to our Ernie. Knowingly or not, auto executives fear American consumers’ reactance.
“Who are they to tell us what our cars can look like?”
Reactance theory is the notion that people do not like to feel that their freedom to do or think whatever they want is being threatened. It is most often studied in attitude research. It may also be applied to an American automobile consumer who feels that they are being forced to drive what Chinese consumers want, as opposed to what we want.
According to reactance theory, when an unpleasant sense of reactance is aroused, people can reduce it by engaging in the behavior that is threatened. For example, if our freedom to buy cars that we want is threatened by an automaker trying to sell us cars that the Chinese want, then we may experience reactance. In turn, we may attempt to reduce it by buying vehicles from another automaker that we perceive as making vehicles for us. You can imagine the PR nightmare waiting to unfold for any manufacturer who makes that mistake, especially a domestic manufacturer.
For so long, experts have stated that it is a matter of when and not if Chinese automakers enter the U.S. market. They have also wondered aloud what Americans’ reactions would be to these cars. Rarely, however, do I recall experts asking how Americans would react to Chinese-designed cars cloaked behind names of familiar brands. A more relevant question may therefore be, how will Americans react to China’s tastes weaving their way into cars that we have grown to know and trust?
Take a Breath
It is important to note that many Chinese-derived influences will likely be subtle. We may even find that Chinese consumers’ preferences enhance our vehicles. Furthermore, automakers can literally not afford to overlook the North American market. Foreign and domestic automakers continue to invest in North American factories, workers, and products.
The next few years should nonetheless be very interesting. As Chinese consumers wield growing power and influence across many industries, resulting products will certainly reflect their preferences. How Americans respond will depend in part upon how deft companies are in tacitly assuring Americans that the products they sell are geared toward us (and not them). In other words, who can best maintain status quo in times that are anything but.
(Special note: Thanks to Jim Kulik for his expert assistance on reactance theory)
On a scale measuring coolness, most Americans rank station wagons somewhere between fanny packs and accidentally walking around with toilet paper stuck to their shoes. There is even a Facebook group creatively named, “we hate stations wagons!”.
I believe my girlfriend is emblematic of Americans’ views on wagons. She insists that wagons are “mom-mobiles”. However, she sees millions more moms driving SUVs and crossovers. When I ask her why she feels this way, she responds, “Because, that’s how I feel”. When I tell her that SUVs and crossovers are just wagons in disguise, she shoots me a dirty look with a tinge of “whatever”. She is, after all, a valley girl.
My girlfriend is not conscious of how she learned to dislike station wagons. Learning does not have to be conscious. It can involve changes to long-term memory and/or behavior. In her case, both apply. She is adamant in her repugnance toward wagons, though she does not know why, and she says she will not buy one.
One possibility is that she was classically conditioned to not like station wagons. Classical conditioning is learning by association. Most people are familiar with classical conditioning because of Pavlov’s dog. Let’s substitute my girlfriend for Pavlov’s dog.
- Station wagons do not innately elicit an emotional response from her.
- Her mom driving a station wagon while picking her up from school in front of all the other children does cause an emotional response.
- Pair the station wagon with the negative feelings caused by her mom picking her up from school and, presto!, station wagons cause a negative emotional response.
Wagons have also been badly stigmatized by the leviathans of the 1970s. Those beasts could have easily spawned the phrase, junk in the trunk. Carrying the scarlet “W” is so bad that we would rather risk being seen as poseurs in an SUV that will go no further off road than a driveway. Even worse, we take no issue driving crossovers that look like SUVs, but do not have their capability. In a perverted twist of automotive logic, crossovers make more sense as cars because they don’t do what they look like they should do.
Some may be surprised that automotive enthusiasts not only defend wagons, but typically like them. It is because they tend to think of wagons rationally, whereas consumers, such as my girlfriend, think about them emotionally. As is often the case, emotion trumps rationality.
Like it or not, wagons make sense. They are often comparatively less expensive to purchase and maintain, more functional, and drive better than SUVs and crossovers. I and others predict that wagons are going to make a comeback. Before they do, however, Americans will need to re-learn their benefits.
Here are some suggestions to manufacturers to help make it happen:
- What’s in a name? A lot. Europeans have no problem with wagons. They may also have better taste. Take the hint and use the European name for wagon, estate. The word estate conjures up images of fame, glamour, and glitz – positive feelings. In contrast, the term station wagon conjures up images of the Family Truckster in National Lampoon’s Vacation. However, no need to trick us with terms like “sportback”. We’re not dumb, just impressionable.
- Styling. Wagons can look good. Look at the styling of the Cadillac CTS-V wagon. It is not enough to throw a rounded rectangle aft the c-pillar, fail to sell wagon variants of existing sedan models, and then say Americans don’t like wagons.
- Sex sells. Prius’ are not particularly sexy. Therefore, Toyota gave them out like Tic-Tacs to celebrities, which in turn helped their popularity because people paired the car with celebrity. Do the same, or something similar, with
wagonsestates so that they also become sexy (or at least less dowdy).
- Use your words. Direct routes to persuasion (i.e., appealing to our logical selves) typically do not sell cars. However, it may not hurt to intersperse some information in that sexy marketing campaign to point out the reasons why estates make sense. Make sure journalists get the memo.
- Build good ones. Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes, Subaru, Volvo, and VW have all had some success in making wagons that appeal to Americans. It helps to know your customers prior to putting out an estate and build it for them.
What’s your favorite estate of all time? Click the link at the top of the post to let us know!
(Special note: Thanks to Jon Poon for suggesting this post’s topic)
Minivans are like the kids in class who constantly get hit in the back of the head with spitballs. It’s not that people don’t like them, it’s that they don’t want to be them. Indeed, if you talk to people who own a minivan, most will say that they genuinely appreciate its functionality. However, almost without fail, they then cover their faces and apologize for owning one. It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance has frequently been described as an uncomfortable feeling caused by a thought or action that is discrepant with one’s usually positive self-conception. According to cognitive dissonance theory, this discomfort drives us to reduce the negative feelings, much like hunger and thirst prompt eating and drinking, respectively.
We typically reduce cognitive dissonance in one of three ways:
1. Change our behavior to bring it in line with the dissonant cognition.
Example: Buy a Ford Excursion with a gun rack and start hunting lions.
2. Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.
Example: “I bought this minivan for the kids because I am the best parent in the world, and those narcissists in the Chevy Suburbans clearly have no respect for human life.”
3. Justify our behavior by changing the dissonant cognition.
Example: See the list below to help exercise this option…
10 REASONS WHY MINIVANS ARE COOL
1. Exclusivity. In 2010, minivans accounted for about slightly less than 4% of the approximately 11.7 million light vehicle sales in the United States. Therefore, only about 460,000 people bought minivans last year. Some people have more Facebook friends.
2. Engineering. I love supercars, but doing more with more is not particularly impressive. In addition, they are impractical and about as uncomfortable as men who wear skinny jeans. In contrast, minivan engineers have an incredibly tough assignment – please an entire family by building a vehicle upon which every owner will crucially rely yet under-appreciate, using mainstream components in a difficult-to-style package that must be mass produced and sold within a reasonable, albeit increasing, price range. Building a Ferrari is like playing with Legos, in comparison.
3. Luxury. In order to be competitive, minivans must now have more cup holders than a baseball locker room, so much A/V equipment that MTV had to cancel Pimp My Ride, doors that automatically open, close, and provide therapy, interiors flexible enough to have their own Cirque de Soleil show, and even chilled beverage containers for the discerning sippy cup crowd. If I owned a limousine company, I’m a little nervous come prom season.
4. Procreation. No, not the kind that forced you into a minivan in the first place, the kind in which minivans themselves have engaged. In the United States, we now have a new automotive niche born from minivans, mini-minivans. You are probably most familiar with the Mazda5 and others, such as the upcoming Ford C-Max, will be showing up at dealerships within the next few years. Therefore, minivan owners (or, “minivan rollers”, because it sounds cooler) have not sold their soul to the diaper-changing devil. They’re trendsetters. Speaking of which…
5. Minivan-chic. There is shabby-chic, geek-chic, and eco-chic, none of which have traditionally chic origins. Contrary to the perception that minivans are a 4,000 lb. needle hurtling straight toward the bull’s-eye on your self-esteem balloon, I believe they represent a type of chic just waiting to be hyphenated. Drive it with confidence, and you and the Beckhams may just find yourselves using all of that horsepower to outrun the paparazzi.
6. Good looking. Seriously. The new Toyota Sienna and the previous version of the Honda Odyssey are pretty good-looking vehicles complete with relatively athletic stances. Furthermore, the new Honda Odyssey has a lightening bolt running down the side of it. How cool is that?
7. Disco balls. These should be optional because pushing the button that opens all of the minivans’ doors, especially the tailgate, creates an instant party. From tailgating to drive-ins, everyone will be clamoring to press out the wrinkles from sitting in their cramped midlife-crisis sports cars to hang around the “cool people” with the minivan. And you know what they say, what happens in drive-ins, stays in drive-ins.
8. Unlike babysitters, they won’t eat your food. They may guzzle gas more than the average family sedan, but it will be from the pump and not the fridge. My sister and brother-in-law have a minivan, and my nieces and nephew have been instantly transformed into something that they have never been before – quiet. Now they can take them anywhere. Those televisions are like visual valium for children, though probably just as addictive. It may not be the best parenting technique, but it works in a pinch.
9. Covert cargo-ops. Minivans are chameleonic in their ability to carry cargo, whether it be the human–type or the Home Depot variety. However, the best part is that neighbors will never ask you to help them move because your cargo hauler is virtually camouflaged for that duty. Anyone who has ever owned a pick-up, including this author, thinks that is way cool.
10. Easy living. Unless one is a slave for fashion or a masochist, comfortable is better than uncomfortable. Minivans make life easier and that may just be the best reason to buy one. Compared to the fashionistas in their four-door coupes, you will arrive at your destination refreshed and looking your best. And remember, nothing is forever. Once the kids gets shipped off to college, the army, or prison, you can get something even cooler.
Do you think minivans are (not) cool? Vote below and sound off by leaving a comment!
I have found inspiration, and it was looking at me through the shadowy eyes of a Lexus.
As this blog finds its voice, it appears that Lexus may have found its face. Teaser images indicate that a unique front-end design may find itself on the new GS350 that is scheduled to be unveiled at Pebble Beach, and its DNA may eventually be shared with other models in Lexus’ lineup.
I think that Lexus’ about-face is a good move for the brand, and here’s why.
Faces are important. People can generally recognize and infer information from human faces, such as age, sex, personality traits, and emotion, within milliseconds of exposure. This ability gives us an adaptive advantage. For example, quickly recognizing anger in others’ faces allows us to infer that physical danger may be imminent. Therefore, if we cannot recognize a face or discern what thoughts and feelings may lie behind it, then we lose valuable information, and perhaps much more.
Would you react to each of these people in the same way?
I believe that automobile manufacturers face (sorry!) similar risks when designing cars. Our facial recognition system is so hyper-aware, that we also see faces in non-human objects. Thus, if a car’s front fascia does not provide information about its attitude, purpose, or behavioral intentions, then potential consumers may suffer from a form of automotive prosopagnosia – they can recognize that the vehicle is a car, but it does not appear distinct in any way. In contrast, who can forget the first time that they looked into the soul-piercing stare of a BMW’s “angel-eye” headlights while its nostrils flared in the rearview mirror?
Lexus’ new face provides information about the GS350’s intentions and, by extension, the brand. In fact, it appears that Lexus is getting increasingly serious about its cars’ sporting prowess. This renewed focus may also give the brand more street credibility, which is an important weapon in the constant battle with luxury-car manufacturers that have sporting images, such as BMW and Audi. In essence, sportier and more aggressive Lexi Lexuses Lexera Lexus mean that there will be increased cohesion between the cars’ faces and their body language (another important source of visual information). Speaking of aggressiveness, this design direction may be a particularly good way to go. For example, findings from a recent study suggest that male and female participants “liked” cars that convey a sense of “power”. According to the authors, power involved traits of dominance, masculinity, and anger. While we will have to wait until the production version is unveiled to assess its visual power, the GS350 seems to be on the right track.
Does liking and brand recognition lead to increased purchases? Psychologists and market researchers have known for years that liking and buying intentions do not necessarily equate to increased sales. However, good designs get people into showrooms, and good cars tend to get into people’s driveways. Therefore, if Lexus continues with a distinct design theme, the driving capabilities to back it up, and its relentless pursuit of perfection, their cars will be much more than just another pretty face.
If I were to suggest that the best way for an automobile manufacturer to increase sales of a particular vehicle is to fit it with a relatively small base engine, downgrade the interior materials from the previous version, and refrain from making the design stand out from the crowd, would you agree? Someone at Volkswagen made such suggestions during the development of the new Jetta…and it happens to be working quite well.
Journalists may have been relatively ungenerous with their automotive praise, but car buyers are so far bucking their reviews. In a way, it’s refreshingly different. Perhaps that is what Jetta owners feel about their new cars.