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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Does GM Design "get" Social Media more than Ford? The Lab is an emphatic "Yes"

It’s been a while since I’ve turned my mind to the GM empire (in fact the last time I saw fit to comment was when the highly questionable GMC Terrain surfaced…). But conversations with the head of social media at GMH (Holden) and a little discovery I made yesterday has got me thinking about the people’s car company all over again.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks discussing the ability of social media to open up dialogue between automotive designer and customer. The benefits, as I see them, are twofold. Firstly, designers get access to crucial insight from the people they often have the least professional contact with, their customers. Secondly, the designers themselves, as opposed to the cringe-inducing PR lackeys, can help spread the message about their work, breaking down the hitherto impermeable walls of the design studio.

Lo and behold, GM has jumped into the ring with a new project called The Lab (take a look at it here) and it seems to be a solid first step in engaging designer and customer in a productive, conversational way. This marks a turning point  in the use of social media as a truly two-way street into and out of automotive companies outside of the PR department. It’s also heralds the incorporation of social media research into the product development process by enabling access between customers and the people responsible for designing their cars.

Traditionally, market research consultancies were commissioned to suss out customer need and wants on behalf of design departments. Somewhat predictably, market researchers, with their marketing imperatives, ask marketing questions and present their marketing answers, mostly metrics, to… designers.

Based on my experience, marketers and designers very rarely speak the same language and, unsurprisingly, rooms of blank stares and yawns are the usual outcome. At best, there might be a clue or two hidden in the marketer-speak for design management to interpret for the benefit of the designers. At worst, nobody in design gets it and they go off and sketch something for themselves (probably on the back of the latest trend report from marketing).

Somewhat notoriously, Ford has tried to get around this disconnect by building a persona around the marketing metrics (her name is Antonella) but at the end of the day she’s a fabrication, too easily moulded to suit the whims of the various stakeholders in the design/marketing/sales triumvirate.

Recognising that the traditional market research model fails to connect with designers and that there’s no substitute for real people, a small number of ex-designers and design strategists (people who, in this context, sit at the confluence of market insight and design output) have set up consultancies that aim to ask the right kind questions of customers in order to get design-relevant responses.

The key to their success is that their outcomes are presented in ways that make sense to designers and the marketing/sales teams. It’s a largely successful approach, and having worked in this kind of arrangement, I can attest to the palpable sense of relief expressed by designers when another of their ilk gets up and delivers truly useful, comprehensible market insights. Importantly, these consultancies strive to deliver outcomes where the direct implications for the designer’s work are clearly defined.

Where this approach falls down, however, is when you want to establish a richer, longer-lasting conversation with the customer. The project-by-project basis on which the older strategy consultancies work is just too finite and the idea of using the internet to reach more people in a more more conversational way just hasn’t occurred to them.

This is why GM’s Lab experiment is so interesting. It cuts out the woefully inappropriate (for designers) market research companies, the simplex, time-limited information stream of the design strategy consultancies and gets right to the customer in a way that openly encourages dialogue.

Admittedly, there are a couple of issues that come to mind. Firstly, if the content isn’t inclusive and word isn’t spread far enough, the only people the designers will be talking to are the die-hard fans (although die-hards have their place as brand evangelists, it’s actually Joe Average who almost always provides the most surprising, useful insights). Their current content videos are too one-sided and way too corporate for this commentator.

Secondly, I have an inkling that asking the right kind of questions, the analysis of the responses and, most crucially, maintaining the momentum of the project will still require dedicated design strategists. Then again, I would say that. I still believe that outside consulting will continue to have an important role in defining design projects, a social media stream will simply provide another, more immediate source of feedback for designers to bounce off.

As an experiment, The Lab ties in closely with the views I’ve expressed in the past and GM should be applauded for their pioneering efforts. It will be fascinating to watch how the dialogue between designer and customer develops over the months and, hopefully, years to come. Ultimately, it represents a bold step towards opening up the design process in a useful, engaging way and a wonderfully appropriate one. I mean, it is the people’s car company after all.

[Source: General Motors, Thanks to @cbarger for the original tweet]

BMW Project-i for Isetta

Way back in March I wrote a piece discussing BMW’s Project-i. In it (you can read it here), I roused on BMW for taking such a high-minded approach in describing the project.

I also suggested that if they wanted to provide new forms of popular (as in “for the people”) urban transport, the wonderful Isetta brand was ripe for the picking, leaving the precious BMW unimpeached.

Lo and behold, BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer has just announced that the vehicular outcomes of Project-i will be marketed under a sub-brand called… well, we still don’t know for sure yet. But take a look at the wonderfully feel-good, BMW-produced video above and there’s no prize for guessing what it will be.

Thanks to @bjkraal for the RT from @tmrnews: http://bit.ly/dIQxJ

Antonella gains a voice, brain, pulse and a… well, becomes a boy

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There’s a risk that I may depart on some vainglorious romp here, but I figure a little self-indulgence is warranted given that DownsideUpDesign has just kicked over the 10,000 visitor mark.

While I was out in Broken Hill, I had to good fortune to catch up with Mark Charmer at the Movement Design Bureau and, even more fortuitously, Rob Hunter and Amy Johannigman, whose work I had the pleasure of reading as part of the Sue Cischke project back in May.

We ended up having a mind expanding conversation (they come along with pleasing regularity when in Mark’s company), discussing the potential for a highly personal style of social media to help generate really meaningful dialogue around design and sustainability.

It’s dialogue that companies like Ford need to be having yet can’t seem to get started. I have a sneaking suspicion, as do Mark, Amy, Rob and many others, that their reliance on mute personae like Antonella has something to do with it…

While I’ll let Mark and Amy fill you in on the details, I’m honoured by the profile they’ve put together and the concept Mark discusses is something that resonates with me on so many levels. It speaks of a bright future for not only  this DownsideUpDesigner and the others out there like me, but also a more open, responsive and sustainable future for the automotive industry, which I seem to have been destined to be a part of for a while now.

If you’ve got this far, then your the kind of reader I love to have. It’s even better if you leave your thoughts below because without the dialogue we share, DownsideUp is just another tree falling in the woods.

Thanks so much for being a part of the first 10,000. I’m looking forward to many, many more.

[Image: Juliana O’Dean-Smith. “Glamorgan”, Manilla, North-Western N.S.W, longer ago than I care to remember]

Updated: Dirty Slickness: Make Her Say with Kanye, Common and Kid Cudi

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Time for some gratuitous (and somewhat NSFW) video content.

I’ve been bobbing my head to this mighty fine take on Lady Gaga’s Poker Face for a while now, but I’ve only just come across the beautiful, cinematically slick film clip thanks to NewWork. It’s almost Felliniesque (massive call, I know) in that you could grab most frames and they’d be beautiful images in their own right.

Totally made my morning. Now, if only somebody could tell me what the the lovely turbine-lamped cabriolet is, my day will be complete. Over to you, fellow carspotters…

[Update: The killjoys at YoutTube won’t let me embed the video, so click on through to watch it there]

[Update 2: Thanks to @michaelbanovsky (you can read his excellent auto writing here), we’ve now solved the mystery of the sweet blue cab. It’s a Dodge Dart GT, a ’64 by the looks of the grille. I can sleep easy now!]

[Update 3: Thanks to the industrious @bjkraal who actually emailed some mates in the States (pow!) and then found a lovely brown Dart on the BrownCar blog. I’ll take one brown and one blue please…]

Ford Pits New Taurus Against Luxury Brands, hands Mercury/Lincoln a Noose

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Up until now, confusion has reigned supreme regarding Ford’s positioning of the new is-it-premium-or-isn’t-it Taurus and how it relates to the Lincoln/Mercury ranges.

Well be confused no longer because the online ad campaign for the new car, going live on August 4, pits the new EcoBoosted sedan against… the Lexus LS460!

In a move that’s sure to mightily upset the brand guardians at Lincoln and Mercury (if indeed there are any…), the campaign gives a blow-by-blow account of how the butch sedan bests the behemoth from Japan, along with the Audi A6, Infiniti M45X and Acura RL, while being up to three times cheaper.

The Detroit News quotes Jim Hall, an analyst at 2953 Analytics LLP as saying the approach is “smart and necessary”. “None of the cars in its segment have these features… when people think of your car as more upscale than it is, it’s only going to help you when they see the price.”

Indeed! Why bother with less well equipped Mercury or an overpriced Lincoln?

The words home and goal are coming to mind right now…

[Source: The Detroit News via Autoblog]

Robin Chase speaks about the social and financial value of car sharing

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Although Robin Chase may not be a household name outside the transport strategy sector, her work has had a major impact in the development and acceptance of car sharing in the US, Canada and the UK.

As the co-founder of Zipcar (a shared vehicle service) and the CEO of the US-based GoLoco (which uses social networking to allow members to maximise the use of their cars), Robin has been at the forefront of changing the way we think about either maximising the use of what we already own, or abandoning ownership all together and sharing a network of cars.

Robin was recently interviewed by Eric Steuer (creative director for Creative Commons) over at Good Magazine and it’s great listening for anyone who’s interested in the future of open sourcing and product-as-service. Crucially, Robin outlines not only the manifold financial benefits of her take on future mobility, but also the social benefits. Head to Good Magazine for the full audio interview.

[Image: Good Magazine]

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 »

Ferrari 599? Not so much. Ferrari 599 in matt black? YES!

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Having enjoyed a lovely lunch with the even more lovely Lady Nogrady in Marylebone, we set off to find a place for a coffee.

Low and behold, parked with impunity in the Baker Street bus lane, was this wonderfully sinister Ferrari 599.

Normally not much a fan of the new Fazzas (has there been a truly poetic stallion since the F355 or 456?), this machine drew me in like a moth to the matt black flame. No mere wrapping job, this appeared to be a full re-spray. It was also fitted with a (relatively) subtle carbon fiber body kit for good measure.

Seems the traffic cops were similarly attracted, judging by the growing pile of parking tickets under the wiper.

A beer in the sun and the future of the industry. A perfect combo, no?

Ah, the perils of a pub on the Thames, a pint and a video camera!

Last Friday I had the good fortune to, finally meet with the other half of the Movement Design Bureau, Mark Charmer.

With Joe Simpson and I in tow, he lead us to the most magical London pub I’d ever encountered, the Angel at Rotherhithe (somewhere near Bermondsey if you’re keen).

Ostensibly a social gathering, the ever scheming Mark had the sense to bring along a video camera to catch unsuspecting design strategists mid-pint, mid-cigarette and mid-flight setting the problems of the automotive world to rights.

Head over to the Movement Design Bureau to see Joe and I talking about the long term prospects for automotive industry and how I feel that, despite the massive strides made in HMI and connectivity in the last few years, I still don’t think that we’ve successfully grasped the aesthetic and social potential of the digital age.

[Photo: Mark Charmer]

Awesome(ly) Small Target Market Alert: Japanese Rockers

Take a look at this film clip and tell me that a design project based around these guys wouldn’t be absurd fun.

They’re a little bit macho, a little bit fem, a little bit psycho and yet oddly controlled. Overlay this on Japanese car culture and I have a feeling that there’s creative space for some suitably bonkers vehicles.

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.