DownsideUpDesign

Musings of an Aussie design strategist gone North

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

Filed under: Advertising, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design Strategy, Premium, Sustainability, Things I like

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]

Filed under: Blog, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy, Social Media, Sustainability, Things I like, Web, , , , , , , , ,

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]

Filed under: Advertising, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design Strategy, Premium, , , , , , ,

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.)]

Filed under: Branding, Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Sustainability, , , , , , , , ,

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]

Filed under: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Car, Design Strategy, Quote of the Day

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 »

Filed under: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Premium, Sustainability, Things I Hate, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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]

Filed under: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Perceived Quality, Premium, Things I like, , , , , , , , ,

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 »

Filed under: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Perceived Quality, Premium, Things I Hate, , , , , , , ,

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]

Filed under: Branding, Car, Design, Design Strategy, Perceived Quality, Premium, Things I like, , , , , , ,

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]

Filed under: Branding, Car, Design, Design Strategy, Perceived Quality, Premium, , , , , , , , ,

About DownsideUpDesign

I'm Drew Smith and I'm a freelance design strategist and journalist for the automotive industry. DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. Get in touch at downsideupdesigner (at) me (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.