The race for a cleaner conscience
“I'll be your saviour, steadfast and true, I'll come to your emotional rescue” - M. Jagger/K. Richards
What Mick and Keith have long known, neuroscientists have confirmed in recent years: emotions guide our behaviour. This isn’t to say that a ‘reasonable’ argument can’t be persuasive. It’s to say that logic and information make us feel smart. Or, as David Brooks, author and columnist for the NY Times has recently said, “Reason and emotion are not separate and opposed. Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it.”
In the realm of premium automotive brands, two manufacturers – BMW and Audi – are driving high VIBE by appealing to our emotions in a Bold and Exciting way, placing the brands in the Top Ten of our global brands. Both show strong commitment to engineering innovation — not just to be “new” in the soap powder sense of promoting novelty — but to position themselves as leaders and pioneers, in ways that balance reason with desire.
As befits a luxury mode of transport, these brands are always on the move. The automotive sector, particularly the premium segment, invests heavily in research & development and relies on constant innovation to stay ahead of the competition. And people have learned that innovations made by premium brands trickle down to mass-market models eventually.
But in the midst of a global economic crisis that has cast a pall since 2008, and against the backdrop of a European car market in the doldrums, these VIBE scores may come as a surprise. In an age when high fuel costs are putting far more emphasis on energy efficiency and carbon reduction, one might expect gas guzzling premium cars – paeans to the internal combustion engine – to be losing their appeal.
So how have they bucked the trend? We often find objects desirable on an individual level, while knowing they may be undesirable societally. A premium car represents pleasure, freedom, status and power. It makes sense as a purchase on a selfish, ego-enhancing basis. But premium brands are now also successfully managing to appeal to our eco-sensitive consciences, helping the upwardly-mobile justify their purchase decisions. A premium car does not have to be inimical to the natural world or socially insensitive. Performance and pleasure do not have to be sacrificed to the new gods of eco-efficiency.
It also helps immensely that cars are quickly becoming the ‘4th screen’ in our lives – literally providing mobility within mobility – by connecting us to apps, smartphones, tablets and the technology world at large.
BMW received lots of attention for its BMWi eco concept, showing that energy efficiency and environmental sustainability are not at odds with performance. It aims to bring the concept, encapsulated by its heavily-advertised “Efficient Dynamics” philosophy, to market by the end of 2013. Efficiency – the idea of doing things better, more economically with less waste – appeals to our reason and practicality. It is also a business ideal, particularly in economically tough times. Technological innovation solves problems; there is satisfaction to be found in doing things well. Knowing that we are driving more efficiently and therefore in a less costly and environmentally harmful way, mitigates any guilt we may feel at the pure pleasure of driving a high-performance, high status, aesthetically pleasing car.
Audi’s journey to becoming a premium global brand began 30 years ago with its commitment to progressive technology, represented by its famous slogan: “Vorsprung durch Technik,” usually translated as “progress through technology.” Vorsprung more accurately conveys a sense of “leaping ahead” of the competition. Commitment to technology gives it – and by association, its customers – an edge. Indeed, there is beauty in precision engineering and sleek design. German minimalist designer Dieter Rams, of early Braun fame, was a big influence on Apple’s Sir Jonathan Ive, designer of the iMac, the iPhone and iPad. The same design aesthetic could be said to resonate through Audi’s taut, spare machines.
The brand’s impressive VIBE is reflected in its market performance. Audi has rocketed up the charts, thanks in part to a particularly strong demand in China. Of note, in the USA, the brand’s VIBE is lower than in most other parts of the world. But this is likely to change soon, as Leading Edge Americans are far ahead of the mainstream in their appreciation of Audi’s cultural vibrancy. There are no signs of Audi’s advancement coming to a halt any time soon, according to our data and its own sales figures. Audi showed the strongest volume growth of all four brands in 2012.
The global VIBE for Mercedes-Benz is a bit less impressive. Is the famous Mercedes star losing its lustre? While global sales grew at roughly 4% in 2012, this is way below the double-digit growth of its competitors. The brand seems to have lost some of its swagger.
Mercedes is seen less as “Bold” and “Exciting” in its VIBE profile, perhaps tied to its reputation for manufacturing large, comfortable, reliable cars aimed at the business elite. Luxury and comfort, while desirable attributes, are not typically associated with courageous, disruptive innovation. Mercedes seems more about slowing the pulse rate, not exciting it. It may have a whole heap of cutting-edge computer wizardry under the bonnet, but the design aesthetic packaging the cleverness is understated, smooth and conservative. Perhaps this leads to less active engagement with the brand.
So what is Mercedes doing to address this? Its claim: “The best or nothing” does not address the fundamental issue of emotional detachment. Luxury and technological excellence are not exciting in themselves without a visionary philosophy to underpin them. Sure, they innovate, but they don’t trumpet this as a core brand value; there is no innovation narrative; no exciting and bold design aesthetic.
Jaguar’s VIBE is lower than the other three but surprisingly strong given the brand’s comparatively niche global market share. Sales rose about 6% in 2012 to record numbers, with particularly strong demand coming from the Far East.
The big weakness in Jag’s VIBE is “Exciting.” Is Jaguar’s pedigree and history, its association with a particularly British automotive tradition, undermining its credentials as a disruptive, innovator perhaps? If it is, at least the brand seems to recognize that fact and is taking steps to address it with dynamic brand campaigns featuring new models and the strapline: “How alive are you?” In contrast to Mercedes, Jaguar’s brand values are all about pleasure, seduction and an active participation in the sensuous driving experience. Reason takes a back seat, which may explain the brand’s appeal in rapid-growth, aspirational economies indulging a new-found taste for luxury and leisure.
Although Jaguar has produced a concept eco-sports car, the brand is not known for its environmental sensibilities. The brand is more about the pleasure principle – driving along an open country road with the wind in your hair. But this is a curiously old-fashioned concept these days. There are few roads where this is actually possible. The image is nostalgic, looking back romantically to a by-gone age. Jaguar drivers buy a slice of automotive history, not a slice of high-tech, sustainable future.
But as Jaguar is a comparative niche player, does this matter? Yes, if the brand wants to appeal to a younger demographic and not just to middle-aged romantics. Its VIBE age-split reveals a worryingly low score in the 16 – 34 bracket compared to the other premium brands.
Jaguar needs to present a vision of a technologically superior future – sustainable, eco-friendly but still pleasurable and exciting.