Putting brand in the driver’s seat

Years ago when I was growing up in Melbourne, I used to watch keenly as my dad started our Peugeot 504 family wagon on frosty, winter mornings. Back then cars had a “choke,” and it was an art to put it in the right position so the car would start the first time. The process did not stop there. Once the car was running, my dad would idle it in neutral for about a minute before manipulating the choke to a lower setting. This allowed the engine block to warm up and the oil to reach optimum viscosity.

Techniques for starting vehicles have evolved considerably since my childhood. That said, even with all the advances, one thing hasn’t changed: the configuration of the driver’s seat. Steering wheel, brake, throttle…they’re all still there! This leads one to question how much things will really change in the next 20 years. How agile do car brands actually need to be to adapt to a future when the emphasis may no longer be on the driver?

Tesla is making lots of noise about driverless cars, with the concept featuring prominently in its latest master plan. Similarly—not one to be left behind—General Motors (GM) is experimenting with its own car-sharing service: Maven. Like many car manufacturers, GM is pondering how a driverless option will fit in its portfolio.

GM Maven car sharing
Image courtesy of GM.

Recently, the Mini brand shared a vision of the automotive future entitled “Mini vision next 100: Personalized and shared mobility.” This engaging perspective states that “car ownership will become obsolete in the future,” with cars “owned by everyone at anytime and anywhere.” From a ride-sharing perspective, self-driving cars make tremendous sense. In a world of seamlessly connected devices, it is completely plausible that commuters would rather check in with their friends on Snapchat, catch up on news, or even flick through pesky work emails while making their daily commute instead of focusing on driving. Given this, it’s interesting that the conversation around self-driving cars still feels overtly functional. Perhaps it’s because we’re still a long way away from it becoming a reality. For all the rational talk on how much easier it will make things, I can’t help wondering where branding will feature in a driverless future.

Let’s explore Mini’s vision for the future a bit further. Here’s a brand that has always been about unique driver experience, stemming from its heritage at the World Rally Championships. However, somewhere in twenty-first century rhetoric Mini Cooper’s story was conveniently pushed aside, with the topic of self-driving cars (it sounds so much safer than “driverless cars,” doesn’t it?) potentially opening up a brave new world of sharing.

Consider this: When did you last request an Uber or hail a cab and find yourself opting for a specific car brand? Most people are so focused on getting from A to B, or just getting a car to actually show up, that the vehicle providing the transfer is a low-order consideration. In this framework, it’s difficult to see certain experience-centric or high-end car brands surviving if car sharing becomes the norm. This is further compounded if you factor in that, in the future, it’s possible no one is driving the car. Quite simply, emotion-free, driverless commuting does not augur well for heart-throbbing, performance vehicle brands.

In recent years, BMW has begun relying on the tagline Sheer driving pleasure. Chrysler meanwhile is using Drive = love. Mitsubishi: Wake up and drive. Hyundai: Driving is believing. Jaguar: Don’t dream it. Drive it. Volkswagen: Drivers wanted. And Nissan: Just wait till you drive it. Not sure if you’re spotting the trend here, folks, but “drive” seems to be a fairly consistent theme—and it should be! For all the palaver about peak-period traffic, gridlock, and a dearth of parking spots, the truth is this: Many drivers still select a car brand on what the vehicle feels like to—wait for it—DRIVE! How will this sizable chunk of the driving public feel once they’re ferried around in driverless vehicles, with passenger-facing seats, no steering wheel, no throttle, and no brake to be seen in the cabin?

Enhance your commute with Autopilot

Proponents of new automotive technology tell us that driver-driven cars and self-driving cars will be able to coexist, but no one has yet articulated just how this will happen. Quite recently a Tesla on autopilot mode had a major collision with a van in the United States. The matter is still under investigation, but one thing is clear: Integrating computers and humans in an uncontrolled environment is unchartered water for legislators and insurers. Even if the driver-driven/driverless car conundrum can be overcome, questions still exist around how driverless cars will fare in a pedestrian-packed central business district on a rainy, Friday afternoon.

The Audi Q7 I drive today has an automatic choke, and its lightweight engine block is designed to create instant oil viscosity. I can just start it and go, regardless of the temperature outside. Interestingly though, my son observes me similarly to how I once watched my dad when he was starting our Peugeot. And, given half a chance, my eight-year-old son always tries to slip into the driver’s seat when I’m not in it. This behavior is far from rational, but that’s the thing about great brands—it’s the emotion that drives you.


This piece was originally published in Branding in Asia (August 2016).

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