Mar 26, 2009
“This is a non-rational business. It’s not irrational. But it’s not necessary for anyone to get a new car—almost ever.”
Jerry Hirshberg, former president of Nissan Design International
When Jerry Hirshberg uttered these words in an interview with Gary Vasilash of Automotive Design and Production back in 2002 he was fresh from taking part in a highly successful product renaissance at Nissan. He was at the height of his powers: making consumers fall in love with a product that they didn’t need.
Hirshberg was the guy that, when Nissan had sunk to a financial and creative low in the late 90’s, suggested reviving the Z. Clearly he knows how to pull at consumer heart strings to get a return on investment.
I don’t think we will ever eviscerate emotion from the car/human equation but what if the emotions we feel in relation to cars change? Imagine, for a minute, if automotive brands could no longer leverage power, size, opulence and selfishness as their emotional draw cards, but instead had to appeal with intelligence, authenticity, longevity and real value.
If you had asked me even 18 months ago if there was any merit to such a scenario I would have probably giggled and said that “premium” was the way forward. The world was on a wave of ever-more conspicuous consumption that drove car manufacturers to find ways to give everything they sold the touch of premium, no matter the effect on weight, practicality or the discordance with their brand image.
Well, there’s a developing school of thought that says that the consumer wave may be about to abate. Needless to say, the impact this could have on the way we design, market and support cars can’t be ignored.
Hiroko Tabuchi recently wrote in The New York Times (free sub required) about how consumer spending habits changed in Japan after the financial crisis of the 90’s. For starters, there has been a significant reduction in discretionary purchases with car sales falling by half since 1990 and retail spending rising by only 0.2% between 2001 and 2007. Even the well off seem to have changed their habits for good despite a return to health for the Japanese economy at large. Sales of luxury goods have plummeted with Louis Vuitton down by 10% in 2008 and a survey of men in their 20s found that only 25% were interested in buying a car, down from 48% in 2000.
Given that Japan is now entering a new period of, for want of a less ironic term, negative growth, the attitudes that these figures represent only stand to become more ingrained. Tabuchi quotes a 20 year old female college student as saying “I’m not interested in big spending, I just want a humble life”. The turn around in Japanese consumer thinking that this represents cannot be underestimated.
Grant McCracken, a blogging anthropologist, recently outlined three models of possible change in consumer spending. In doing so, he addresses the factors at play in a long-term scaling back of discretionary spending in western economies.
Using Tabuchi’s analysis as a basis, among others, McCracken suggested that the current crisis alone won’t be enough to change our deeply entrenched heavy-spending ways. But if, for example, the allure of competitive spending (otherwise known as “keeping up with the Joneses”) disappears along with the compulsion to be either on the bleeding edge or a fast follower of trends in fashion and technology then we might just get comfortable with spending less. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is actually starting to take hold in some economies.
John Hockenberry, writing for Metropolis Mag, offers a similar assessment when he states “… after 2008, it is clear that the consumer aspiration to buy nothing—whether out of exhaustion, bankruptcy, or simply to pay other bills—has become a plausible narrative.”
This is all very well, you say, but we’re designers! What does this mean for us?
In the automotive and consumer product industries we strive to differentiate our products, and get people to buy them, not on the basis of their practical merits (which are by and large a given these days) but mostly on their emotional value.
For the last 60 years, designers have developed products for consumers looking for tangible indicators of their lifestyle as a means of communicating their place in the world to others. As trends in lifestyles change, so the demand for these indicators changes. Each time this happens manufacturers and designers embark on another round of projects as they seek to replace old products with ones that will drive more sales. Whether there is any functional improvement is often a moot point.
This cyclical relationship between consumers and designers has worked very well up to this point, driving massive economic growth. But where would automotive companies be left if the lifestyle is to buy nothing that is not necessary and we find ourselves in, as Hockenberry puts it, an “economy of no product”?
It may not be as big a problem as you first think. Given my recent post about repairing things and mutual musing here and over at Re*Move on the topic of a more democratic model of vehicle distribution, the components of the answer may already be under our nose.
By designing for longevity, reuse and repair and, crucially, redesigning the distribution, ownership and support system, car manufacturers might be able to continue, albeit in a radically different way, to build cars. Done right, these new products would possess the intelligence, authenticity, longevity and real value that will become the hallmarks of a post-consumerist culture.
The 64 billion dollar question is whether the behemoths of the industry could react fast enough and with enough conviction to capitalise on this scenario? Possibly not, although I continue to live in hope. The companies to watch closely, as I outlined in a recent interview over at Strategic Aesthetics, will be the small start-ups, unencumbered by history, politics and inertia.
Whichever way you look at it, however, the change won’t come easily, either for consumers or manufacturers. Both parties have both been on a giddy high of self-satisfaction for so long now that we can expect some kicking and thrashing as we go through withdrawal. Artificially delaying the process, as many governments are now looking to do through scrapping schemes, will only make the inevitable even more painful.
For all we know, we may soon come out the other side of this financial crisis with our consumptive habits bruised but intact and the car industry will go on doing what Hirshberg knows it does best. It seems rash, however, to not take this opportunity to consider what good, for both designers and society at large, could come out of the retreat of consumerism and it’s impact on the automotive industry.