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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Luxury is out and Premium is in: a riff on Audi lamp graphics

Living in Germany, I became increasingly perturbed by the proliferation of LED daylight running lamps on Audis of all shapes and sizes. Always on, always glaring – sometimes painfully so – and always screaming “look at me, look at me!” like the cleaning lady in TittyTittyBangBang, I would pray that I was driving slow enough to force an overtaking maneuver (not too challenging given the 90 asthmatic horsepower I was – sometimes literally –  pedaling back then).

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From the luminous slashes on the A3 and Q5, which simultaneously manage to make the cars appear cross-eyed, centre-heavy and like an automotive tribute to Dame Edna Everage to the baseball-player warpaint on the R8, these glaring light signatures made me long for the Audi of years gone by when the brand stood for discretion and quiet sophistication.

The same devolution of Audi’s trademark understatement has also become evident in their tail lamps. Bare-bulbed LEDs now blink in their psychotically digital way, forming shapes that would make Edward Scissorhands feel completely à l’aise. To sit behind an LED besmirched Q5 is an exercise in keeping my blood to a low simmer.

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I’ve wondered wheather I’m alone in my fall-out with Audi on the basis of it’s new found crassitude, yet given some recent consumer research that was presented at BMW’s university day at their US headquarters, I wonder if some prospective customers might soon recoil in much the same way I have.

The key takeaway from a presentation, given by Madeleine Hochstein of DYG Inc., is that luxury, at least by that name, is dead. Would luxury by any other name smell as sweet? If we start talking in terms of premium, then yes. There’s clearly a battle of semantics going on here but the research behind it, conducted since the financial shit/fan interface that was late 2008, holds some fascinating insights, particularly for the design teams of premium brands.

Take in the fact that 49% of U.S. adults earning $100-$150,000 are now describing themselves as thrifty, up 12% from 2005. Or that the proportion of people earning over $150,000 who would describe themselves as humble has grown from 31% in 2006 to 50% in 2009. Those same people are now increasingly shopping with social, political or environmental concerns as drivers for their purchases, the percentage swelling from 44% to 63% from 2008 to 2009. Surely these figures represent a pretty substantial shift away from the me-ism of the last decade.

Stepping away from the numbers for a minute, Hochstein talks about the emergence of a responsibility revolution which will see some significant, and permanent, shifts in consumer self perception. No longer will premium consumers galavant through life with a sense of entitlement. They are learning that rewards must be worked for and when those rewards come around, excess is passé. Premium consumers are now looking to brands and products that speak of ethical values.

Then comes the kicker, the single point, hammered home in terms we automotive designers can easily get our heads around: Luxury is being recast. Gone will be the preponderance of price, size or brand name as we transition to “to muted, almost secret signals to others “in the know” – about design, engineering, sustainability and fuel breakthroughs, ethical company behavior.” We’re now dealing with premium, a taste world where products have to clearly demonstrate their worth and communicate what Hochstein calls “…dog whistle taste”.

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Which brings me neatly back to Audi’s LED eyeware. Is it the embodiment of Hochstein’s dog whistle taste? What about that dramatic, double-decker grille? Does it communicate ultrasonic signals about the fuel-sipping technology sited just behind? Come on, together they’re about as subtle as a Russian hooker at an Oxfordshire church tea. And if recent Audi concepts like the A7 Sportback and the truly ghoulish eTron are anything to go by, there’s plenty more of this particular brand of Bavarian bling to come.

Which means BMW must be feeling rather smug right now.

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After the visual orgy that was the original Z4, X3, X5, 5er, 6er and 7er, the crowd in Munich have toned things right back to the point where some members of the automotive press have bemoaned the lack of drama in the newest 3s and 7s. Fear not, the drama is still there, you just have to know where to look, surely the very definition of dog whistle taste. I now get the same feeling of awe with the new 7 that I used to get with Audi A8s and while it’s not a reaction of the jaw dropping variety, there’s a deep satisfaction gained from the quiet, internal realisation that I’m looking upon something seriously… well… cool. One look at a 7er tail lamp will let you know that BMW has subtlety down for, despite being LED powered, they emit a warm glow through a set of beautifully resolved light pipes.

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As I finish this piece, I wonder what the future holds for Audi’s increasingly expressive design language. And then I remember the VW Phaeton, the car that replaced the A8 in the under-the-radar cool stakes, and the fact that it’s due for rebirth in the next couple of years. I’ve no doubt that the Volkswagen group will be able to nail the impending premium bandwagon, just probably not with Audi as it stands today.

Category: Design, Design Strategy, Premium

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

9 Responses

  1. Harold says:

    I can’t put the A’s and the Q’s together and say they are the same, but I find the daylight running LEDs on Qs much more in-your-face than the As. I think the rear lights are especially annoying just because they are slightly higher and likely to be at eye-level if you’re not also in an SUV. I find the rear lights of the A’s very attractive, almost distracts me if I am to ride behind one.

    I never thought the Q’s looks good comparing to the A’s anyway, I feel the Q’s have a weaker job in styling than the A’s.

  2. Joe Simpson says:

    I remember seeing one of the first, top-of-the-line, current shape A6 Avants with its neat array of rear LEDs one night back in 2005, and thinking “that looks very cool, very discrete”. But like many things, with familiarity comes contempt.

    To me, there’s a wider issue with the strategy Audi have employed here. I don’t have a problem with many of the LED lighting designs per se (the back of the A6 avant comes to mind), but it’s the fact that every Tom, Dick and Harry in the base spec A3 now has them, and that every rep in the land specs these things on his company A4 tdi S-line.

    They’re becoming ubiquitous, firmly associated with Audi in the public’s eye, and are a key part of the firm’s overall design strategy it would seem. Which doubtless has the marketing department in rapture, because they can charge several hundred pounds extra for them. Yet it’s also quickly helping to sully Audi’s image, because the association for non Audi drivers (thanks to Mr A4 sitting on your bumper in the outside lane of the M1) can be summarised with the word “tosser”.

    When these things were the preserve of R8s and top of the line A8s and A6s, it was a discrete signifier of the fact that a rather more special than normal Audi was about to pass you, which meant you were happy to get out of its way. But the guy in the 1.9tdi A3 who’s been sitting on my arse for the past mile? He’s clearly a jerk, so there’s no way he’s coming past me! 🙂

  3. admin says:

    Joe,
    Once again, you’ve absolutely nailed your comment (god I love the whole blog/comment interaction thing!). Thanks to you, I’ve realised that I failed to mention when, and in what form, Audi’s LED strategy actually worked.

    The A6 Avant lamps, to this day, are still one of the coolest – if not the coolest, interpretations/uses of LED technology in tail lamps. Minimal in the extreme and somehow evoking a cold-as-ice, utopian/dystopian future, I think they work so well because they are in harmony with the outline of the lamp unit and the sculpture of the vehicle itself. Further, the fact that they are a closed loop gives me some kind of geometric satisfaction. Funnily enough, the LED lamps on the facelifted A6 saloon have never done it for me. I think I know why:

    Other lamps in the Audi range may also form a closed loop but, in the case of the Q5 and A6 saloon for example, are so angular, so… jaunty in their juxtaposition against the surrounding sculpture of the body that they appear as a crass afterthought, a technology or a hallmark installed for its own sake, rather than out of any desire to complement the overall design theme.

    You talk of ubiquity. I knew that the game was well and truly up for Audi and it’s current interpretation of LED daylight running lamps when I started noticing B5 Volkswagen Passats (the previous generation) with LEDs in the headlamps, under the headlamps and even around the headlamps.

    Surely Audi must know the game is up when you can buy your piece of Bavarian “luxury” as a €/£49.99 kit from Halfords… Oh well, at least the heat is off the chav in an E36 BMW with an “angel eye” kit.

  4. Massimo says:

    Sometime around 1 year ago, 3 blokes presenting a very famous TV show on Sunday evening, were warning us that the new COCKs, had shifted from driving the cars from the lower bavaria, to the one built on the other bank of the Danube River in Ingolstadt (upper bavaria).

    In fact is the all product strategy that i would question.

    In any case, we may like it or not but the Audi guys are cashing in multiple times on their little pieces of light that we can buy for 50 quid (check on the accessory list how much they charge for the led lamps).

    True the LED game is nearly over, but the COCKs, will be there for much longer.

  5. admin says:

    True Max, they are making trucks-a-cash but at what long-term, strategic cost to the strength or resonance/values of the Audi brand? Like you say, the LED game is over but the cocks will live on.

    I can see the temptation (driven, as Joe said, by marketing/sales) to drive LEDs down the scale because they can charge precious euros for them. However, in the long run, motorists are left not with the image of ueber-cool (as they would have been if the current LED language had been limited to the R8/RS models and the A6 Avant), but of the twat in his A3 1.6 with a “visibility option pack’ or something similarly crap.

    It almost seems a pity, in this case, that one of the benefits of LED technology is extra long lamp life…

  6. Massimo says:

    You see, i agree with the matter.

    “What about the long-term strategy?”

    And the only conclusion i came up during the last year and half (basically from when the economy crashed), is that especially the German car manufactures (and few other) has such as strong and powerful resource on money, marketing, ads and etc., that they are brain washing people.

    The TACTICS is: ” Nobody will remember, and if they do we will make them forget”.

    Here same example:
    Audi this year as “CELEBRATED” the 100th year, well the was and is a big bullshit (Volkswagen introduced the Audi brand to the United States for the 1970 model year, and Audi AG only started in 1985).
    But in times of recession they needed to cash in. SO THEY DID, they put up a big campaign Worldwide, and here we go Audi is 100th.
    (and the mass did not check, did not know, did not care; they just trusted).

    I could continue with other example from the MERC, just look at how they have dry executed their “real” entrance (again) with “their OWN” F1 team.

    And MORE to make this operation, (in which now we know, there were talk for over 5 months); they have waited, (to make their announce or even the smallest speculation), the have waited to be sure that BMW effectively was pulling out, so now all the scene is THEIRS. (and think if they will really take on board Schummy).

    I would not like to be a member of the BMW board during these months, and i believe that who take the decision to pull the plug now is under incredible pressure, right now.

    Another very important aspect of the “Nobody will remember” strategy is the amount of Industry news that every day are out. You see 15-20 years ago a news break up, and was in every bodies mouth for weeks, today news are out constantly, true is easier to get them, but again they are so many that people just forget, they come and go, they come and go.

    A little like the LED lamps, they have come, they will go, the important was cashing in….(at the right time)….

  7. flo says:

    I think you’re right – they can be quite annoying. LEDs have probably reached the tired stage in the Expired-Tired-Wired ranking. But I guess they are here to stay.

    On the strategy argument – just how much sense would it make for Audi to restrain itself to use LEDs only on the bigger A’s, Q’s and R’s when we’ll be dealing with LED lights in every new little city flitzer from Hyundai, Kia, Dacia and the likes in the near future?
    So maybe the problem for Audi’s design strategy is not the A4 in your rear view mirror on the M1. I’d just love the actual design to be way more subtle and sophisticated in the future again.
    Less is more…

    Ah, and one more thing – if we are to believe Wikipedia, Audi was founded in Zwickau, Germany on July 16, 1909. I’d think this gives them quite a good reason to celebrate their 100th birthday.
    (Even if they only came to the states in the 70s.)

  8. Michael says:

    Your post here brings up a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Which is a better direction to evolve? In BMW’s case, they’ve become more essential and reserved, where as in recent Audis (the Ford Mustang is also an example) the opposite has occurred. Assuming exterior styling needs to evolve to signal “newness” to consumers, is one a definitely better strategy than the other?

  9. […] To tie a car of questionable lineage and even more questionable taste to such a bête noire seems like marketing suicide when dealing with a core clientele that are now looking for dog whistle taste. […]

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