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The Truth About the Future and Marketing

Chris Haining December 15, 2017 All Things Hoon 15 Comments

“Everything you can buy from a car dealership today is simply a product. From Mahindra to McLaren, it exists to be sold. To make money.”

The above is a breathtakingly obvious statement, but isn’t one that has troubled me as much before as it does today. This is because the true nature of the industry has become jarringly, egregiously transparent over recent years, placed in sharp focus with the launch of the Lamborghini Urus SUV, the unstoppable (and as far as I can see, unsolicited) march of autonomous cars, and recent changes to BMW’s global website.

In case you’ve not seen it, the core BMW website has moved from information-heavy font of vehicular knowledge to become more of an online lifestyle dispatch, eulogizing the wonderful things you can do in a BMW and the colourful, influential personalities who drive them. This is a sign that the storied German marque knows that its cars no longer sell on what they are, but what they mean. And that, I’m afraid, rather sums the decline – not of cars – but of motoring as a whole.

You could see this happening from a mile off, and without any disparagement implied, it’s reinforced by the number of Kia and Hyundai SUVs on the road. These are perfectly workable, even ‘good’ cars, but they wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the more expensive, premium brand SUVs that came before them. The Range Rover, the BMW X5, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, these were once ‘the best’ SUVs you could buy, and you had to belong to a certain segment of society to own one.

That segment broadened, though, when the Korean marques arrived. Lower prices meant that an SUV was accessible to more people than ever before, and the fundamental desirability of that category of car meant they sold like hot cakes. They weren’t up to the standard of the establishment, though – from an innovation and technology, design and material quality viewpoint, they were some way behind the ‘premium’ players, despite reliability that often shamed the old guard. Attainability was their killer appeal, though. People could now buy into that cherished SUV lifestyle.

So, why did SUVs become so popular in the first place? There are thousands of reasons, and they’ve changed over time. Their initial popularity came from joy that somebody finally offered such a vehicle in the first place. Finally, a way of traversing rough roads and terrain in comfort. Lovely. I’ll take one.

Inevitably, SUVs became synonymous with the moneyed, country set, and became attractive to city folk who aspired to that kind of lifestyle. Before long, the aspirational side of the SUV became more saleable than the functional side. In the late 90s, Mercedes and BMW, who were riding high with brand names that were in ascent, struck gold with SUVs of their own. Combine the already desirable SUV form factor with an upwardly mobile badge, and the cash register would go absolutely wild. It happened, and further established consumers’ rabid appetite for such machine, which was later pounced upon by more nondescript brands who promised SUVs for all.

Jack Baruth’s recent piece on TTAC nailed the significance of the Lamborghini Urus – he described it as non canon. That is, effectively, an extraneous offering that should be regarded entirely separately from the maker’s main body of work. This works for me. Just like the Porscje Cayenne and Bentley Bentayga, Urus buyers are unlikely to be Lamborghini enthusiasts – they’ll simply be hungry for the prestige of the brand and the road presence of the machine. They’ll force bundles of cash in Lamborghini’s direction, and this might – if we’re lucky – result in more development investment in the core product, the sports cars that Lamborghini should be making.

Sounds great. But what if the sad truth that selling aspirational SUVs is far more profitable than development-intensive supercars becomes too much to bear? It’s conceivable that, as the Urus becomes a more common sight on the road, buyers could forget that the company ever made anything but. North America, for example, is awash with Range Rovers, for which ‘Rover’ has become the abbreviated form. But few are aware that there was ever a Rover car. I appreciate that this is something of a metaphorical stretch, but I think it’s one worth taking. Of the most recent dozen Porsches you saw on the road, how many were actually sports cars?

Pretty much across every product you can buy, image is more of a goal than design or fitness for purpose. BMW’s new website is more focused on fashion than function and car manufacturers are increasingly turning to influencers rather than experts to review their cars. The marketing world loves influencers – witness crowds of people creating Youtube and Instagram channels with the express aim of becoming an influencer – no doubt driven by the promise of promotional freebies, invitations to high-profile public events, and possibly international travel. Neutrality, though? I hardly think so. The burgeoning influencer’s trough is filled by corporate sponsorship, and will soon run empty if the compliments stop flowing.

And anyway, the more importance is placed on influencers rather than expert reviews, the more obviously ‘a product’ the car becomes. It starts to seem that it’s no longer designed to please the experts – those renowned journalists who have held their positions long enough to know when progress is being made, and won’t hold their tongue when it isn’t.

Look at the burgeoning ‘crossover’ SUV market. These aren’t cars designed to address a particular transport need – they’re designed to sell purely on fashion. “If you like SUVs, here’s a smaller, less useful one that you can afford.” The crossover SUV has undone loads of progress that’s been made in aerodynamic efficiency, rolling resistance, ride comfort and handling. But this doesn’t matter – because consumers increasingly don’t seem to mind how “good” their cars are.

This is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Are manufacturers responding to this trend, or influencing it?

There are a lot of people out there whose experience of coffee is limited to frieze-dried instant. Proper, percolated, filtered or pressurised real coffee is a scary, alien substance – yet the TV yells at every opportunity about ‘Barista-style’ instant coffee. This is great news for the consumer, who can convince his or herself that they can taste the difference, and is somehow enriching their coffee-drinking experience. They’re not, though – they’re simply paying more money for the same empty experience.

I despair when I visit people whose low-quality stereo systems are set up with their speakers either side of the main unit, for virtually zero stereo separation. I’m further depressed when I find somebody who listens only to an iPod attatched to a ‘cheapest on Amazon’ docking station. These people, in my minds eye, don’t care about what they’re listening to, they only know that they like it. This is what car manufactures might end up relying on. As long as people want your product, making sure it’s good is of secondary importance.

Ironically, with autonomous cars becoming ever more imminent (even though I don’t recall anybody actually asking for them), such archaic principals as handling, steering feel, balance and poise will become utterly irrelevant. It seems unlikely that the makers of a car that spends 95% of its time making routine, mundane journeys on autopilot will work too hard on how it feels the 5% of the time that it’s under manual control.

Certain brands are already finding it tricky to retain their USP. BMW, for instance, which made a name for itself through its (often justifiable) claim of “The Ultimate Driving Machine”, is no longer head and shoulders above the competition in that regard, particularly where Crossover SUVs are concerned. Fortunately, right now, the theory of being great to drive is still saleable, in the same way as all-terrain credentials are easily marketed even if the end user is improbable to ever use them. The latter point has worked well for Land Rover for decades.

Once autonomy is upon us, and we hand our driving pleasure over to the computer, BMW will be reduced to a level playing field, where it can no longer sell cars on the basis of how they make their drivers feel. And, assuming autonomy comes at roughly the same time as widespread electric power, they’ll not be able to sell on their mastery of internal combustion, either. BMW will be on a level playing field along with everybody else in every factor except one – image.

The BMW roundel, together with a lightweight skin that might incorporate traditional Bayern cues such as Hoffmeister Kinks and double-kidneys, could be applied to pretty much any electrically powered, sensor controlled sub-structure. In fact, there’s not much reason that it should have any German content.

Once an optimised battery pack, motor and processor combination has been arrived at, I can see every car ‘manufacturer’ using a single ‘car module’. This would, in all likelihood, be made in China, in the same manner as those massive factories that churn out generic consumer goods in the shipload, all ready to receive whatever brand identity commissions a production run.

The established brands, now trading solely on image, will become merely marketing tools. It’s happened with LCD TVs, a Panasonic and an LG might come from the same Chinese production line. There’s no reason it shouldn’t happen with cars. I reckon the smart bet is that it eventually will.

Something resembling this wholly dystopian vision of things to come is a way off yet, but it strikes me as a fairly probable outcome. We might moan that autonomy and electric power is being forced upon us, but technological innovation and environmental pressures are forces that can’t be stopped.

However, for placing less importance on competence and quality than on what a product says about us… we only have ourselves to blame.

(All content is the opinion of the author and doesn’t necessarily reflect the viewpoint of Hooniverse. Images purloined from various corners of the internet, if you’re unhappy with our use of them please contact us to receive a grovelling apology)

  • P161911

    Long before the Range Rover there was the Jeep Wagoneer, Bronco, Blazer, and Scout. The S-10 Blazer and Bronco II/Explorer predate the Grand Cherokee and X5. SUVs are just another class of vehicle that has evolved. I would say that the current class of SUV has more in common with an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser or Country Squire wagon than an Original Range Rover. The same demographic buying a Korean, Domestic, or non-luxury Japanese SUV is the same demographic that was buying big body on frame rwd wagons 45 years ago. The big problem is more people just have more stuff these days that they want to haul around. See George Carlin’s comments on stuff.

    • Fuhrman16
    • kogashiwa

      And they refuse to buy the obvious solution to efficiently carting around a mountain of stuff* because they won’t be caught dead driving what their parents drove. This is what killed the full size wagon** and is killing the minivan right now, and thankfully will also kill the CUV in 20 years or so.

      *insofar as any inherently wasteful activity can be done efficiently
      **to be fair, the original Caravan was simply a better answer to the question of “how do we fit all this junk without burning too much gas” than the wagons of the day.

      • Sjalabais

        The junk carrying tendency (JCT) seems to be a highly infective idea. In my neck of the woods, roof boxes are a huge thing. People don’t ever take them off. I can’t fathom why. They make a lot of noise, add space that I really don’t understand how it is needed in the first place (“Our boy needs his pedal car when we go to the mall!”), and they totally destroy the fuel economy of carefully designed vehicles. We took three kids skiing this morning and everybody else had roof boxes at the parking lot. Everybody else also had cars that could easily carry ski in a ski bag inside the car, like we did. That may come off as condescending, but from where I am sitting, it is not rational do buy more to spend more – when you could easily do without.

  • cap’n fast

    the basis of retail marketing is one must be marketing a product which the customer desires to purchase. high quality products are always defined by the customer and not the manufacturer or retailer. it should come as no surprise to one and all when customers buy a product which over and above is meeting the customer’s expectations. it should come as no surprise at all that luxury SUVs are selling like hotcakes. the process of getting there is half the fun especially when one is comfortable doing it.

  • Rover 1

    A good example of not bothering to care about how good your product is, and then suffering when you don’t have a badge or brand to fall back on, is of course FCA, rapidly becoming FJA, or even just Alfa Jeep. If a company goes too long making stuff that’s only just ‘good enough’, no-one is prepared to be seen in one, then the brand dies.

    • kogashiwa

      Yes, eventually people do figure it out.

      • outback_ute

        Range Rover is the exception that proves the rule perhaps, despite decades of bottom of the barrel reliability they are still one of the most desirable brands. I suppose enough owners have another car to use while the Rangie is being repaired.

        Also, the first Porsche Cayenne I remember seeing was towing a GT3!

        • Vairship

          Breaking down in a Range Rover is fine, as long as it it does aristocratically.

  • Sjalabais

    I see where you’re coming from here, but I disagree on a couple of points. Futurists have been talking about the “single car module” or some such utopy of a Socialist common denominator forever. If history has proven one thing when it comes to car design, it is that customers will always want to distinguish themselves from each other. Even if everybody on your block drives a Golf (or a F150 in the US), the tiniest differences will be important to them; trim lines, engine sizes, colours – like the Hofmeister kink branded module you mention. But there will always be a marked for a different approach. I don’t believe lawmakers will be able to ban skilled driving. And I am certain that once the tide turns, the ability to move a car freely, on nonmarked roads, on your own, will become a symbol of scarce spare time and competence. Otherwise called: Luxury. So cars that have to be driven instead of driving themselves will remain or return to be something desirable.

    I know a fair bunch of people working with marketing. It’s an odd herd. On one hand, they shake their heads about the impact of the bullsh!t they produce. Some people tattoo brand symbols onto their arms because they believe in the “values” the brand transports. At the same time, few of the marketers wouldn’t be caught dead with a non-Apple phone in their pocket, or being dressed in anything other than the casual, accented, “style breaking” uniform people call “fashion”. The stupidity of it all is sort of depressing…like the excellently chosen Ferrari branded telephone above. That said, not everybody gets carried away, and I hope that with education becoming easier and easier to attain, more and more people will be able to cut through the mist and make rational choices. Tl;dr: Kia FTW!

    • Vairship

      Re: the “single car module”: NASCAR is ahead of the market here with a single car but vinyl wrap that makes them seem different.

      • jeepjeff

        They even have fuel injection now!

        • Vairship

          No carbureted Camry coupes anymore? Quelle surprise!

  • Jakub Kdzirski

    This is exactly what i have been thinking about recently, with the uncanny popularity of “hype” clothing brands such as supreme this seems to be the way things will be in the future.

  • jeepjeff

    FWIW, I have [non-car] friends who are looking forward to self driving cars. Some so much that they are carefully nursing the car that they currently own so it’s the last piloted car they own.

    Given how little care and attention most people give to driving as a skill, there will be plenty of demand for them. I’m both not looking forward to this and looking forward to it (getting careless drivers replaced with consistent, predictable robots is going to be great for motorcycle safety).