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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Lincoln to hit Weight Watchers. Unsurprisingly, Mercury dragged along for the ride.

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Automotive News (sub reqd.) is reporting that Lincoln and Mercury are looking to rationalise their product range by downsizing existing products and exploring new market segments. Although hardly surprising in the context of an industry-wide trend for downsizing, it is interesting that Ford is applying this strategy to it’s steadfastly large-car near-premium and premium brands.

Lincoln’s intentions were made clear with the delightfully characterful, Focus-based C Conept at January’s Detroit show and AN reports that the next MKS saloon and a small crossover will be moving to the Mondeo and Kuga platforms respectively. So far, so rational and so on trend even if the C Concept making production is “far from definite” according to Amy Wilson, author of the article.

Based on Amy’s intel though, it seems that Mercury will be… doing exactly the same thing! The other Merc will produce a four-door sedan based on the Focus, the Milan will move to the Mondeo platform and the Mariner will share its guts with the Kuga/Lincoln twins. Awesome.

For as long as I can remember, Mercury has struggled to find it’s place in the Ford Portfolio. Positioned as an entry-level premium brand to slot between work-a-day Ford and the once-glorious Lincoln, Merc has suffered the worst evils of badge-engineering, mis-directed marketing (the Milan Voga, aimed at Hispanic women being my fave) and being sandwiched between brands that gave it no room to breath. Surely the introduction of the new Ford Taurus, with it’s premium aspirations, will only cloud things further.

One could quite easily draw the conclusion that Mercury has no reason to live, given that the plans outlined simply call for still more badge-engineering. Indeed, the number of times that talk of Merc’s demise has emanated from Ford HQ tends to suggest that thoughts of Mercuricide have crossed the minds of Dearborn’s strategists more than once. Yet I can’t help feeling that the brand could still be put to some good.

Ford has developed some industry-leading ICE, hybrid and electric technologies and possesses studios of talented designers champing at the bit for a genuine challenge. Could Mercury, as it’s name suggests, become Ford’s messenger from the gods, bringing with it tales of a glorious, sustainable future? Why not allow Mercury to be the harbinger of Ford’s drive-train technologies and sustainability strategies in urban-appropriate packages?

This kind of test-bed automotive brand focused on urban vehicles isn’t entirely without precedent. Autobianchi fulfilled the same role for Fiat Group from ’55 to ’95 and presaged many innovations that later found their way into mainstream Fiat and Lancia products. You may scoff, wondering what place anonymous Mercury has becoming an expression of new urban cool, but let’s face it, what have they got to lose? Certainly not brand appeal. In the 2009 J.D. Power APEAL survey, Mercury sat comfortably in the bottom 10, along with Chrysler, Hyundai, Saab and Suzuki.

Given all the discussions I’ve had with @joesimpson and @charmermark about Ford’s future direction and encouraging a radical shift towards new models of personal mobility, Mercury’s reinvention as a sustainability-focused brand is scenario that I’d like to explore further. So over to you, dear reader. What do you think?

[Source: Automotive News (sub reqd.)]

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 »

Das (schönste) Auto

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Last Friday I completed another photo shoot and of my three subjects, VWs Polo and Scirocco and Mercedes E-Class, it was, as it was in Geneva, the Polo that really took my breath away.

Here was a €12,000 car that made the object of every German middle-manager’s affections, the E-Class, look more than a little underdone.

The Polo is so good that two days later, reviewing the shoot, I’m still struggling to comprehend how VW has got their detailing so fine, their tolerances so tight yet still make money on the thing. Here is a “peoples” VW, as opposed to the superlative, but somewhat more haute bourgeoise Phaeton, that at long last takes over the flame of surprise and delight that was lit by the Mk IV Golf.

You may think it’s more than a trifle geeky that I get so turned on by these tiny details – or turned off, as was the case with the Aston Martin One-77-, but it’s these small things that can build brands up or let them down entirely when it comes to customer perception.

A good friend of mine, who works for Apple, once remarked that their products were the mass-produced equivalents of Bang & Olufsen products. Noting my slight incredulity, he reasoned that objects like the iPhone or a MacBook Pro were as close to the perceived quality of a Beosound 9000 as you could get while still churning items out by the million on a high-speed line, rather than the low thousands, or indeed hundreds, with a great deal of hand finishing. Turning my still-flawless, glossy black iPod in my hands, I have to agree.

And for sure, the miniscule panel gaps, thoughtful detailing and sense of integrity, let’s call it craftsmanship, are among the things that pull in buyers of Polo and iPod alike.

One only need to look at the level of detailing in the headlamps, something hithertofore seen only in Audis and… well, I can’t think of another brand that does lamps so well. At the rear, the gap betwixt lamp and quarter panel was so tight I couldn’t get a finger nail in. Really.

Just as a Skoda Octavia gives you a bit of VW Golf niceness at a lower price in a unique body, so the Polo packs a deft touch of Audi in the B Segment, at least until the A1 comes along.

Craftsmanship, be it industrial or imparted by loving, skilled hands, sends subtle messages about the depth of thought and engineering ingenuity that imbue these products. The Polo has it in spades.

[Images: Andrew Philip Artois Smith]

Unslick Sticks: Aston's been raiding the parts bin again

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The first pictures of the interior of the one point seven five million dollar (US) Aston Martin One-77 were published today after the car’s official reveal at the illustrious Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza.

Whatever you may think of the overall design theme, allow me to draw you to one tiny yet, for me, crucial detail: the indicator/wiper stalks.

Just in case you hadn’t got it in the opening line, this car costs ONE POINT SEVEN FIVE MILLION DOLLARS yet possesses black plastic sticks that would be right at home in something costing a hundred times less.

Lest we forget, the Bugatti Veyron, the hallowed company of which the One-77 would like to keep, possesses milled stalks with tolerances that would make a Swiss watchmaker weep. They’re also reputed to cost $4000 a pop.

For this wannabe sybarite (me, not the Aston), something ripped out of Grannie’s hatchback just doesn’t cut it.

More befuddling is that pretty much everything else in the cabin has been lovingly hewn from crystal, stainless steel, carbon fiber and Bang & Olufsen, materials that send a serious message about the craftsmanship of the car. Against this background, the presence of black plastic is somewhat of a shock.

To be fair, this car is number 1 of 77 and may be pre-production, but Aston’s got a history of bin raiding: the Vanquish was lambasted in the press for having Volvo S80 vents and Ford Fiesta stalks.

I would have thought, now that Aston is charging almost six times as much for this new beast as they did for the Vanquish, that they could have lashed out on something a bit more special. When you see the care an attention that has gone into detailing other parts of the car (the rear suspension block is my personal highlight), it really does seem a shame.

P.S Bonus points for anyone who can tell me where these parts have come from. They *could* be old Fiesta, but I’m not certain…

[Images: Drew Smith, Aston Martin and OmniAuto]

Cars, culture and how the General lost touch

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My deep, abiding passion sits at the confluence of cars and culture.

For a while I thought I wanted to be the guy drawing cars but I soon came to realise I was more interested in the effect that cars have on people. The same goes for the flip-side: as the needs and wants of a culture change, people effect change on cars. It’s an engrossing cycle of cultural cause and effect.

So it was that I started my working life as a design strategist for the car industry. Like a pig in muck, I delight in observing the whys and hows of the choices people make when they buy a car. Connecting the emotional dots between the prospective customer’s personal needs, surface composition or the “face” of a brand and the eventual purchasing decision is a fascinating experience.

The most important lesson I’ve learnt, however, is that in my work my personal view counts for naught.

I’ve driven 400 Bhp bahnstormers that have left me stone cold and angry with the world (BMW 750i, Mercedes CL), been totally enchanted by an oddball French coupe that left others infuriated with it’s dynamic mediocrity (Renault Laguna) and I adore Volvo 200s and Citroen CXs. Clearly my automotive passions fall outside the mainstream.

Personally, I am but one consumer among millions (and one that’s unlikely to ever spend money on a new car). Professionally, however, it’s my job to elicit the passions, desires and fears both from individual customers and the cultural world they inhabit. I then filter this cocktail into a form that helps designer and eventual owner find a happy medium, that elusive product that sets synapses (and wallets) alight.

Grant McCracken has published a fascinating piece examining Bob Lutz’s role in GMs downfall. He argues that it was the former Car Czar’s imposition of his personal views on what a car should be, rather than understanding American culture, that lead to a yawning disconnect between American consumers and GM.

Of Lutz’s single-mindedness, McCraken has this to say:

“In point of fact, he knew relatively little about our culture. What Lutz knew was cars, and what he liked about cars, by all accounts, was speed….He loved muscles cars because they went fast. Lutz was worse than average as a river captain. I think it’s fairly safe to say that Lutz did not ever grasp the muscle car revival (the one portrayed by Hollywood in XXX, The Fast and the Furious, and now Fast and Furious). He must have gloried in the power and the glory and all that sound. Just as surely, he must have been mystified by fact that it was being produced in some case [sic] by tiny, winged Hondas.”

McCracken suggests that Lutz, to disastrous effect, let his personal emotions and story get in the way of understanding those of of GM customers. Lest we forget, this is the man that in the midst of the post-Inconvenient Truth environmental zeitgeist, declared global warming “…a total crock of shit.”.

Head over to McCracken’s blog to read the full piece, including an idea (one that I heartily support) about how the disconnect could have been avoided and why GM’s future, no matter what the courts have in store, looks bleak even after Maximum Bob’s departure.

Post script: My choice for Detroit Chief Cultural Officer? Freeman Thomas.

[Source: Grant McCracken, Chief Culture Officer: fixing Detroit now, 2009. Glenn Hunter, GM’s Lutz On Hybrids, Global Warming And Cars As Art, 2008] [Image: Andrew Philip Artois Smith]

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.

Quote of the Day

“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

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

About DownSideUp Design

I'm Drew Smith and I'm an ethnographer and strategist. By day I shape culture and strategy at Westpac. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I help teams host an event called Rising Minds in London, New York, Toronto and Sydney.

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.