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!

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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.

The C-Factor

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.

Photo: Buick. Buick Envision SUV Concept: Designed in China.

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.

Photo: Junglecat. 1957 Chevy: Ahead of its time in more ways than one.

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)