There is a saying that nothing runs poorer longer than an old GM. In more recent years, the same could be said for General Motors itself. As Chevrolet celebrates its 100th birthday and the world waxes nostalgic about it, let’s look toward its future.
Chevrolet chose the “Chevy Runs Deep” campaign to kick off its post-bailout future. Unfortunately, Chevy runs deep only for those who grew up unbelted in the back seat of one (in one position or another). Scores of those people then turned en mass to foreign vehicles into which they put their own securely buckled children. Those children now show up in dealerships online with Chevy running about as deep in their veins as a Jersey Shore plot line. The first commercial featuring this slogan starred senior citizens in a nursing home. It was like an advertising Freudian slip.
Chevrolet can’t look toward the past in order to sell the future. Consider that millions of people around the world, many of them young, line up for days to purchase a new Apple product before it even hits the shelves. Not a single one is doing so because they remember playing with an iPad 2 when they were 5 years-old. So how does Chevy keep the headlights on? (Besides selling Buicks to the Chinese like plastic surgeons selling their services in Hollywood)
TOP 5 (unorthodox) WAYS THAT BOTH GM AND CHEVY ENSURE 100 MORE BAILOUT-FREE YEARS:
1. Only allow women to design, source, and build vehicle interiors. GM actually took the initiative on this one when they hired Anne Asensio to give them desperately, desperately, desperately needed help in the interior design department. True story: My mother owned the same car for 16 years (non-GM). When it finally became time to replace her beloved car, she went straight to the dealer to buy the updated model. After sitting in her new car for the first time (note to reader: crying makes for a very good negotiating tactic), she looked around the interior for 0.3 seconds, touched the steering wheel, and then said, “This car is junk”. It took less than one second after 16 years of blissful ownership for her to dislike her new car based solely on sitting in it. Mothers are always right, hire them.
2. No executive is allowed to drive a new car. It drives me crazy to see automobile executives driving the newest and most expensive cars its company sells. GM executives need to drive what the majority of its current and potential customers drive – a 10 year-old car with around 100,000 miles on it. If every pre-bailout GM executive drove a 10 year-old Oldsmobile Achieva, they might still have a job.
3. All managers must learn to fight. Boxing, mixed martial arts, hand-to-hand combat techniques – whatever it takes to stoke an aggressive disposition (toward the competition, not one another). Contrary to popular belief, you don’t achieve catharsis or “getting your anger out” by hitting things. You become more aggressive. Enough with the benchmarking, fight to become the benchmark.
4. Make turning around against company policy. No turning around in offices, meetings, hallways, parking lots, and certainly not while driving. Every employee must always look forward. If they turn around, they might see a Chevy Chevette, Cadillac Cimarron, or any Pontiac with enough non-recyclable plastic glued to it to make even Rush Limbaugh blush. The future is one-way only. Look that way.
5. Change the bowtie for non-truck vehicles. This last suggestion is admittedly the most controversial, but to me, the gold-colored bowtie is psychologically soiled. Every time I see it, I have an immediate negative emotional reaction. It’s automatic. For so many years, that bowtie adorned some pretty bad cars. In fact, a lot of the time it wasn’t even gold, it was just embossed in bad plastics. I know it’s iconic, but I would love to see it updated, much like Chevy is doing with some wonderful new products.
A recent post on Autoblog understandably laments Kia’s decision to price the Rio hatchback higher than the Rio sedan. The concern is that such pricing will decrease the likelihood that customers will purchase the hatchback version, and increase the likelihood that our automotive landscape will continue to be marred by the car equivalent of weeds. Although this concern may make intuitive sense, Kia’s and other automakers’ pricing schemes may actually increase the esteem of hatchbacks in customers’ eyes and ultimately increase hatchback sales.
Automotive enthusiasts (and much of the rest of the world) tend to like hatchbacks. They are versatile, arguably better looking than sedans, and primed for sportiness. In contrast, it has been said many times that Americans do not like hatchbacks. Given the above arguments, Americans’ supposed aversion to hatchbacks makes little sense. Whenever behavior seems illogical, psychology can usually explain it. This case is no exception.
Even the most basic car-buying decision is influenced by emotions. For many decades, Baby Boomers have dominated the automobile consumer segment. Many Boomers came of age in an era of large sedans that evoke wonderful memories (ironically, memories made all the more distant by Boomers’ decisions to seemingly ruin the very things that made those cars possible). In addition, hatchbacks began to infiltrate showrooms in earnest during the 1970s oil crisis. Hatchbacks were largely offered for economy and not for versatility, looks, or sportiness. Thus, they do not have any real nostalgia associated with them for most of the car-buying population, and they may be perceived as cheap alternatives to sedans.
Negative emotions 1 Hatchbacks 0
Fast forward to today. While it is likely that hatchbacks are still perceived as being relatively low rungs on the automotive ladder, the reality is not so simple. First, ultra-luxury cars such as the Porsche Panamera and Aston-Martin Rapide (one of the most gorgeous cars to ever grace the roadways) are hatchbacks. Yes, really. Furthermore, the new Ferrari FF and proposed Bentley shooting brake are also hatchback/wagon variants. Second, Mini Coopers, Audi A3s, and even VW GTIs are on the premium side of the double-yellow line, albeit at much lower price points than the previously mentioned cars. Third, an increasing number of new vehicle launches (Ford Fiesta and Focus, Chevy Sonic, Hyundai Veloster) and industry stalwarts (VW GTI and Mazda Mazdaspeed 3) are hatchback-heavy or only offered in hatchback form. While some of them are aimed at people on a budget, none are being offered as lesser variants of their sedan siblings. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The result is that a new generation (literally) is growing up with and aspiring to own, dare I say it, hatchbacks!
The score may be beginning to even out.
So what role does pricing play in this psychological equation? Pricing is important to our perception of a product’s place in the market. For example, suppose you walk into Home Depot with intentions of purchasing a power tool, something about which you hypothetically know nothing. You see a bunch of drills laid out in front of you, all of which look similar. However, some are priced in the $50 range, others in the $150 range, and yet others in the $400 range. All else being equal, which range of drills do you perceive as “better”? Exactly. That is why hatchbacks may actually benefit from higher prices relative to their dowdy siblings.
Have no fear hatchback fans. Before long, you may be lamenting that you see too many of them on road as opposed to not enough. We’ll save the psychological lure of exclusivity for another time though.
- Recent reports suggest that Land Rover may drop its alphanumeric nomenclature (LR2, LR4) in the United States. The company is ostensibly planning to revert back to its vehicles’ God-given names of Freelander and Discovery. This move will allow for both global naming consistency and an opportunity for potential customers to recognize, associate, and remember the names of Land Rover products. To this I say, “thank you”!
Much like wheel sizes and their commensurate low-profile tires, alphanumeric naming has gotten out of control. How did this insidious trend happen? It seems likely that someone has data somewhere suggesting that Americans are more likely to associate alphanumeric nomenclature with higher-end vehicles. This association makes sense given that millions of us were raised with aspirations of owning, or at least having an appreciation for, BMW and Mercedes (I am referring back to when their alphanumeric naming schemes were actually decipherable).
There are several problems with alpha, numeric, and alphanumeric nomenclatures. My biggest concern is when manufacturers switch to one of these naming schemes from a more traditional one. For example, Acura went from making Integras and Legends that everyone knew and loved to making RSXs and RLs that are more difficult names (and thus cars) to pin down. It is true that this change put them more on naming par with Lexus and Infiniti. However, Lexus and Infiniti used alphanumeric names since their inception. Similarly, Mazda one day began insisting that journalists refer to the iconic and revered “Miata” as the “MX-5”. There was nearly a revolt. In turn, Mazda came up with the roll-off-the-tongue compromise, “MX-5 Miata”. I cannot think of another industry where manufacturers actively try to diminish name recognition.
Another problem with using alphabet soup to come up with car names is that companies run the risk of them being nonsensical. Nonsensical names are harder to remember and therefore so are the cars. Case in point, Lincoln. Other than car buffs (and even that may be a stretch), I doubt most people know the difference between the MKS, MKZ, and MKX. True, “MK” has some relationship to the historical “Marks,” but most people will not know that either. Ask anyone who makes the Town Car versus asking who makes the MKZ. There is no doubt that the percentage knowing the latter will be significantly higher.
It is also worth nothing that ultra-luxury cars use names, from Bentley Mulsannes and Flying Spurs (so cool) to Rolls-Royce Phantoms and Ghosts (equally cool, if not more so). Names tend to evoke more emotion, which in this case will facilitate recall. Alphanumeric nomenclatures, particularly those that are a departure from the names to which people grew accustomed, will not. It is fine to spice up a regularly named lineup with an RX-7 or a GTI here and there, but it becomes distracting and potentially damaging when meaningless and emotionless names are used. Please Acura, bring back the legendary Legend, and make the car worthy of the name. You will be recognized, remembered, and rewarded.
Prius drivers are some of the most hated on the road, and their Prii are not far behind. There have always been cars that people dislike and, by association, their drivers. Remember Hummer? In the case of the Toyota Prius, the process is reversed.
The vitriol directed toward Prius drivers follows two routes:
1. Driving habits – Prius drivers seem particularly singled out for their poor driving. In addition to being perceived as unusually inconsiderate drivers, the Prius-hating crowd seems most enraged by the general slowness with which Prius drivers go about their business. After all, it is unfair for one group to maximize its fuel efficiency at the expense of another trying to minimize it.
2. Liberal, hippy, do-gooding, entitled jerks – The majority of the venom is reserved for the perceived personal characteristics of Prius drivers. To some, driving a Prius is like going to McDonald’s and ordering a salad. Nobody likes to be reminded of the fact that they should be ashamed of themselves. Similarly, driving a car that is synonymous with saving the planet really ticks people off.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game
The above routes to Prius-driver hatred reflect a basic stereotype of Prius drivers. Stereotypes are generalizations about a group of people in which certain traits are assigned to virtually all members of the group, regardless of actual variation among the members. Thus, the Prius-driver stereotype is just as notable for what it does not include. Namely, the possibility that some people might just want to save money on gas.
Judging from the number of Prii sold, it is unlikely that Prius owners are continuing to huddle together in order to decide how they can best admonish other drivers. Prius prices are becoming more competitive and the number of Prius choices are set to markedly increase. All of these factors suggest that regular people are driving Prii, including those who never thought that they would.
The times they are a-changin’
If non-tree huggers are driving Prii, then it may be time for Prius-haters to direct their animus toward another group of drivers. Any suggestions?
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)