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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Do I detect a movement? Car design gets more social by the week.

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I’ve just spent two fantastic days volunteering, presenting and learning at the sensational UXAustralia user experience conference in Canberra, Australia.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that this morning I learnt of another socially-led automotive design project.

Following in the vein of GM’s The Lab, Local Motors and Peugeot, Fiat Brasil has now launched the Mio project. Read the rest of this entry »

Quote of the Day: Wrong but Not Edition

“REPORT: Dodges to be rebranded as Alfa Romeos in Europe”

Chris Shunk, Autoblog

What!?

Oh, but wait:

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Sergio Marchione says that the two brands share the same core identity. He’s not wrong there…

[Source: Autoblog, Autocar]

Brand Capital and How Not to Spend It

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Over the last decade I’ve noticed an increasing number of brands willing to cash in on their previously unimpeachable images in the chase for bigger margins.

Sloppy strategies and even sloppier products have dealt manifold blows to companies like Mercedes-Benz (1st gen. A-Class, R-Class and Maybach), Porsche (Cayenne) and BMW (X6, X5 & 6Ms and 5 Series GT). For now, these brands can manage it. Decades of superb, focussed products have established strong brand perceptions that will take a few cheap hits (although I’d argue that Mercedes is really starting to try the patience of even the mainstream car nut with products like the new E-Class).

There are other brands, however, that can’t afford to play so loose and free with their brand capital and Aston Martin is a prime example. Read the rest of this entry »

Monocle: An object lesson in redemption.

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You may recall a recent post in which I mouthed off about my disappointing experience at the Monocle shop in London.

The day after I published the post, and much to my surprise and delight, I had received responses not only from Alain de Botton -the author of the book I was so keen to purchase- but also Sophie Fletcher, the manager of the London store.

Graciously offering her sincerest apologies, Sophie went on to explain that there had been higher than expected demand for Alain’s book at the launch party and that, unfortunately, one had not been keep aside for me as requested.

Acknowledging that no excuse was justified in the circumstances, she offered to send me a small token to assuage my ennui.

True to her word, I arrived at the family home in the leafy climes of Sydney to find a Monocle-stickered box with my name on it. Inside lay a lovely hand-written card from Sophie, a Monocle tote and a cloth-bound Monocle Moleskin-a-like.

That my experience was so unfortunate in the first place was…er…unfortunate. Yet from the moment I raised my concerns both on DownsideUp and in private, Sophie set about fixing things with a level of grace and expediency all too uncommon in the retail sector.

Sophie said in her note that she hoped she could change my opinion of the Monocle retail experience in the future. Although full redemption would require another, altogether more successful visit to the store, with the simple gesture of a personal note and two beautifully presented gifts, Sophie (and by association, Monocle) is well on her way.

And for that, I can simply say thank you.

[Picture: Shiner.Clay/Flikr licensed under Creative Commons]

Monocle: An object lesson in practising what you preach…or not.

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In my arena the words premium and luxury get thrown around with an abandon that’s bordering on Wilde-ian in its gayness. Everybody wants a piece of the premium/luxury pie and they’re willing to spend obscene amounts of money trying to convince customers that they have it. Said customers, if the marketing department has done their sums right, will then fork out similarly obscene amounts of money to own their own slice of the premium/luxury pie.

Done right, luxury can be both highly lucrative for the producer and deeply satisfying for the customer.

Yet party as I often am to endless talk – for that’s all it often is – concerning the top end of the market I’ve naturally become a little sceptical whenever the P and L words are bandied about, for it’s rare that the reality even comes close to the hype. Read the rest of this entry »

The relentless pursuit of premium and why it's a waste of time

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I read an interesting post the other day on the Orange Envelopes Blog about the importance of consistency, authenticity and history in the creation of premium brands.

When I think about John Heaney’s argument applied to the automotive industry, there’s fertile ground for ripping certain brands to shreds. The market is littered with the humourously devalued remains of cars that have tried to punch well above their weight (VW Phaeton anyone?) yet still product teams chase the top end of the market in the head-long rush for fatter margins.

The most recent budget upstart wanting their slice of the premium pie is Hyundai with the unbelievably priced Equus. The 70-odd thousand Euro saloon is designed to sit atop the Huyundai range and consolidate the company’s upmarket ambitions (remembering that Hyundai has the critically acclaimed Genesis sitting just beneath).

But we can’t talk about the Equus and Genesis without taking a brief wander through the other vehicles in Hyundai’s range.

From the i20 up there’s not a single model that would sell on an authentically premium message. The closest you get – and it’s a long way off – is the Grandeur. The only person that this baroque monstrosity will tempt out of their German exec is Reg, the mini-cab driver who’s looking to offload his 20 year old, 6 owner E-Class.

I’m not saying that brands can’t create a more high-value proposition by appealing to the market’s more sybaritic side, but there is a limit to how far you can go. For me the Equus is writing premium cheques that the Hyundai brand can’t cash.

Let’s not forget that this is the company that made it’s name on the back of the Pony, Excel and Accent. These were cars that majored on dirt-cheap, reliable and thoroughly uninspired transport for those that didn’t care about what they drove, as long as it got them where they were going. It’s hardly the basis on which to quickly build a premium car empire. Surely the long, bloody wars fought by Acura, Lexus and Inifniti should be warning enough as to how long and hard the road to luxury superstardom will be.

The frustrating thing for me, as a design strategist, is that Hyundai has produced some fabulous concepts over the years that were focussed on creating a unique, innovation-led image that was much more in tune with the brand’s Korean heritage. Call it creating the K-Factor if you will (you heard it here first…).

When you think of Korea and Korean products, you don’t think of traditional luxury, you think of the amazing array of exceptional, high-tech product design from companies like LG and Samsung. The Qarmaq, Helion and Veloster translated some of this Korean cool into automotive form and gave a taster of what the brand’s designers could achieve given the freedom. The Equus shows what happens when the board wants a new limo, to horrifying effect.

In looking back to Heaney’s argument, Hyundai has neither the history, consistency or authenticity to make the Equus work outside of Korea.

It’s funny to think that the Korean brand to watch over the next couple of years is Hyundai’s budget sidekick, Kia. By being left out of the premium party they are free to develop their own, unique product identity that’s true to it’s affordable, Korean roots. If they can keep the creative juices that lead to the Soul flowing, Kia could well emerge as the cheaper Volkswagen, offering high-value, design-led products at a price point that’s completely in tune with the brand’s history.

Would You Buy a $30,000 Timex? | Orange Envelopes | Small Business Strategy, Design Thinking, Marketing and Branding.

Where fashion goes, cars may follow

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Just read this really interesting extract from an interview with Simon Collins, the Dean of Fashion at Parsons where he talks about the impact of the recession on fashion.

Am I alone in thinking that what he says could be easily be translated into rationalising some of the largesse of the car industry?

“The biggest challenge was the biggest opportunity with designers eschewing big runway shows into a static exhibition. This in tandem with an internet presence is a more modern way of working and I think we’ll see much more of it.

A lot of the rubbish will be swept away. We are going to focus on brands with real integrity. There was a much more intelligence to the merchandising of the lines. There was the same level of creativity but less window dressing and more focus on salable items.”

His comments regarding shows is particularly pertinent given the impending Salon de Geneve. Yes, I will be there (hopefully) enjoying my three course lunch with champagne at Audi, I’ll admit. But what if car makers moved away from the massive cost of running their motor show stands and introduced new product like Apple will, who has decided to not continue with their traditional MacWorld keynotes?

Read the rest of this entry »

Adventures in Brand Extension Pt. 1: Audi's Virtual Assistant

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Audi Australia has just installed it’s first virtual assistant in a Sydney dealership and, sadly, it’s a case of  implementation not meeting expectation. This happens all the time (T-Mobile G1 anybody or Apple MobileMe anyone?) but not normally to companies with an otherwise unimpeachable image such as Audi.

For a brand whose presence is so tightly built around Vorsprung durch Technik (Advancement through Technology for the non-German speakers), this 10mm sheet of plastic (rigid hair cut-outs and all) and some projection technology seem positively crude.

The limitations of the technology also mean that the actress had to stand still and try to not use her hands for expression which contributes to an awfully forced experience. I can’t imagine many prospective customers standing around as she delivers her spiel about how great the latest Audis are, it’s just not engaging enough.

To top it all off, she does not posses an “Audi” voice. To those of you unfamiliar with the Australian accent we may all sound the same. We do however enjoy a diversity of accents and manners-of-speech down under and unfortunately the actress used here comes over a bit (see below after watching the virtual assistant and you’ll understand what I mean). It just doesn’t communicate  the level of refinement and sophistication that people normally associate with Audi.

Although I recognise that this is a product of Audi Australia, or perhaps even the dealer, the fact that I discovered this poorly resolved gimmick through Autoblog and YouTube demonstrates that even localised branding decisions can have a global reach.

Head over to YouTube (no embedding was allowed) and decide for yourself whether the virtual assistant is a case of advancement through technology or technology without a cause. As always,  let me know what you think in the comments.

PDM via Autoblog.

About DownSideUp Design

I'm Drew Smith and I'm an ethnographer and strategist. By day I shape culture and strategy at Seren. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I host an event called Rising Minds, at Shoreditch House.

DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. All views represented here are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of anyone else.

Get in touch at drewpasmith (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.