DownsideUpDesign

Icon

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).

edna_audi_s

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.

Audi-Q7_2010_1600x1200_wallpaper_31

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”.

e_tron

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.

bmw_7

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.

phaeton

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.

First Impressions: Lexus gets it’s guppy on

lfa_front_crop

In what seems to be a growing down-road-graphic trend (you’ve seen the Nissan Leaf, right?), the new £325, 000 Lexus LFA has splashed onto the intertubes wearing a face that would be right at home on the Great Barrier Reef.

First previewed as a concept a scarcely believable 4 years ago (that’s a long time from concept to production these days), the LFA represents the first foray into the supercar market for Toyota’s luxury brand. And to say that the collective reaction has been lukewarm would be an understatement of oceanic proportions.

From the ever-humourous @BreakingAuto‘s tweet that “CEO Akio Toyoda confirmed that the Lexus LFA’s ’45”-high-shoulder-line, 4″-tall-side-windows’ design theme won’t expand to other Toyotas.” to old aunty CAR coming right out and saying

“…this is not a £325k car. It doesn’t look like one, doesn’t accelerate like one and, whether Lexus likes it or not, it doesn’t have the badge or motorsport/supercar pedigree that many image-conscious supercar buyers demand.”

I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t the reception Toyota bosses were looking for. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick musings: BMW’s Open and Shutlines

effdy

Volkswagen-Golf_2004_1600x1200_wallpaper_17As any automotive designer will tell you, drawing shutlines on a car is black art unto itself. Get them right and you can hinge an marketing campaign on them or, indeed, an entire iconic design, like the VW Golf and it’s C Pillar. Get them wrong and you’ll have pedants like me gibbering like a junky as we try to right the wrongs in our head (I almost had an accident the other day while pondering a VZ Holden Commodore’s rear door…).

Graphic composition of panel gaps aside, it’s been generally accepted that the tighter the gap, the higher quality the vehicle (thus Lexus’ famed Ball Bearing campaign) and the better the aerodynamic performance (Series 1 Range Rovers, which have gaps so voluminous as to be able to accommodate whole fingers, have always provided an amusing counterpoint to this fact…)

BMW’s new concept, the Vision Efficient Dynamics, therefore, has me in a bit of a quandary. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

800x600_Taurus_ads_01

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]

Quick Thoughts: Does my D-Pillar look big in this?

2010jaguarxj_abh007-1

The embargo has finally lifted on the new Jaguar XJ and although I’ve just woken up and am still a little bleary eyed, the big Coventry cat has already made quite an impression.

Times are tough for luxury car makers and few have had it tougher for longer than Jaguar. As sales of traditional large saloons free-fall and the cost of running them continue to rise, any new entrant to the segment needs to offer distinction and at least a convincing veneer of making good financial and environmental sense. On the face of it, the new XJ seems to achieve all of this.

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_w copyWhile the family resemblance to the XF is clear, the design team’s approach to proportion and surface resolution has imbued a more relaxed feel to the XJ, swapping the XF’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed exuberance for the preening satisfaction of a large, not corpulent, cat enjoying a luxuriant stretch. From the front and side, there is an elongated, fluid elegance to the form that’s really quite beguiling.

2010jaguarxj_abh000The cavernous upright grille in concert with the shoulder line that plunges down to form a more sharply defined corner than on the XF  further bolster the transition of Jaguar from a brand that majored in horizontal down-road graphics (forgettable S-Type notwithstanding) to a new sort of butch, low-set verticality that’s quite distinct from the XF. In a market segment that’s dominated by kidneys, cheese-graters and  gaping maws, Jaguar has clearly been working hard to establish a new and distinctive facial identity. The satisfying head-lamp graphic, first seen on the C-XF concept and sadly missed on the XF, finally sees the light of day here although is seems that the detail resolution of the lamp-cans and LED integration may leave a little bit to be desired.

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_wallpaper_0d

Seen in profile, there’s a pleasingly discreet muscularity to the surfaces that, once again, differentiate the car from the XF by way of having a touch more fluidity about them. The overly balanced nature of the fade of the shoulder line does give me some cause for concern however. In profile it’s not so noticeable but in any of the three-quarter views I’ve ssen (and remember, I’m only going off the press shots) the decision to break the shoulder so emphatically and equally on either side of the B-Pillar leaves the car looking a bit too static and heavy set. It would have been nice to see the break occurring a little further rearward with a touch more flounce through the rear haunch. To my mind, doing so would lighten things up a bit and reference both the XK a little more strongly and acknowledge the marque’s past XJ glories.

2010jaguarxj_abh007-1It’s also in profile that the most controversial element of the design comes in to play. To black-out the D-Pillar is an astoundingly bold move and, to be frank, one I’m struggling to see the stylistic benefit of. Lacking any visual relationship to other features seen in profile and butting up against the chromed DLO (therefore denying it the chance to appear as a continuation of the glasshouse from front to rear), it seems controversial for the sake of being so and a little bit cheap as a consequence. Every so often I see Range Rovers of various vintages with body coloured D-Pillars (and indeed pre-production Series 1 cars were so afflicted. In the Range Rover’s case the functional and stylistic benefits of the black-out were clear) and I’m now wondering how many XJ owners will go down the same path of having the pillar painted to match. It’s also interesting to note that in some of the rear 3/4 press shots, the blacked-out section is obfuscated by some none-too-artfully applied lens flare… second thoughts on behalf of the press department?

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_w copysiderear

Having been a one-time owner of a Citroen CX, I never thought I’d see the day when another manufacturer would so whole-heatedly embrace the large fast-back saloon. Yet the XJ sees Jaguar strengthening it’s affinity for the body-style, having shocked me senseless with the similarly fast-backed XF. Playing up to the current vogue for coupe-esque 4-doors, there’s an elegance to the fall of the XJ’s roof line over the rear-seats into a bone-line that runs through the trunk lid. If only my eye didn’t have to do a double take every time it hit that damned D-Pillar!

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_wallpaper_13The rear of the car, like the front, trades the horizontal, Aston-esque feel of the XF for a more formal vertical arrangement and, to be frank, none of the press shots seem to capture a particularly flattering view of it. The shallow, high-set appearance of the glass leads to a very deep trunk-lid and a deep, pouty bumper that all conspire to make the rear 3/4 heavy and  block-like. It’s an effect not dissimilar to the similarly heavy-handed treatment that blighted the otherwise lovely XK8.

I can’t help thinking that the rear screen shouldn’t have been pulled further down, either through a larger aperture or by masking, as Citroen did with the CX and, more recently, Volkswagen with the Passat CC, to reduce the height of the body section. Indeed, pulling the base of the rear screen lower would also allow it to key with the waist line and enable a somewhat more satisfying resolution of the D-Pillar to boot. The inward flow of the tall rear lamps also make the whole composition feel a little bit narrow from some angles.

2010jaguarxj_abh022

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_wint copyThe interior is yet another handsome departure from Jaguars past and there are some truly lovely details to be found. Favourite of these would have to be the wood or carbon fibre waist rail that encircles the cockpit, a conscious nod to sports cruiser boats like the Riva says chief designer Ian Callum. Indeed the whole leather-trimmed IP structure is a refreshing repost to the dull, high-hooded monoliths we’ve seen in recent years from BMW and Mercedes with the cowled centre vents and jewel-like clock looking particularly rakish.

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_wdial copyOn the technology front it’s noteworthy that Jaguar has joined with Land Rover in being the first to market with a completely TFT-based instrument display allowing for customisation and on-the-fly re-configurability. Given the inherent flexibility of the system, it would be nice to see Jaguar offering customers a choice of dial face as the one depicted in the press shots seems just a little heavy-handed and overly analogue in style for the underlying technology.

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_w copybleurghGiven that so much of the story of a car’s interior is told through the details, I’m reluctant to go further until I actually sit in the car and can have a good feel, but I will say this: i thought the neon blue ambient lighting in the XF was a little below a Jaguar’s station in life. Here it seems inappropriately cheap and overly cold, especially against the warmer trim choices available. Neon blue against tobacco tan? No thanks.

On an environmental note, I was astonished to learn that the aluminium (50% of which is post-recycled) XJ weighs slightly less than the XF and anywhere up to an amazing 220 Kg less that the German competition. Combined with Jag’s phenomenal diesels, never mind the green-washing hybrid, we should expect a combination of performance and parsimoniousness never before seen in this segment of the market. The green argument is also helped by the car being 85% recyclable come the end of it’s (hopefully) long life.

The proof of a new car is always in the metal and it may be some time before I can get my hands -and eyes- on the real thing, but on the whole my first impression is a positive one. The XJ can’t fail to cut a distinctive swathe through the throngs of 3-box luxury saloons -more awkward design elements aside- and the interior marks a refreshing change both from the cloyingly retro feel of the previous car and the considered averageness of it’s competitors. As with Jags past, it may well be the detailing that lets it down but on first impressions the new XJ is well placed to steal the thunder of the luxury saloon market as the first green shoots of financial recovery begin to appear.

Brand Capital and How Not to Spend It

Picture 4

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.

3092250606_f9a2445072

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.

3092250606_f9a2445072

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 »

E is for "Eh?"

689622_1243151_7216_5412_08C971_017

There was a time when Mercedes-Benz built the ultimate premium (not luxury, old Mercs could never be considered luxurious) cars. They were engineered to a standard and the price was set accordingly.

PorschebenzfrontMy client’s neighbour is the proud owner of an early 90s 500E, a performance saloon (again, old Mercs, no matter how powerful, were never sports cars) produced at the peak in Mercedes’ unwavering dedication to excellence in the automotive art.

The price of entry was a staggering DM134,000, or around €100,000 today, taking into account inflation. Yet because of the design and engineering integrity that all that cash purchased , after more than 20 years and 300,000 kilometres the only major work that needs doing is a reconditioning of the gearbox.

That Mercedes’ determination to build the world’s best cars was so dogged that it lead them to the brink of bankruptcy cannot be ignored. Yet the subsequent, wholesale dilution of their core value of integrity in the chase for bigger margins exacted a heavy toll on their brand image.

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 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!

Want DownsideUpdates sent to your email address? Click here:

Latest Tweets

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Archives

Legal-schmegal

© 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.