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

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, , , , , , ,

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Filed under: Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Premium, Sustainability, Things I like, , , ,

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, , , , , , , ,

E is for “Eh?”

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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 »

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

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, , , , , , , , ,

BMW Project-i: Paradigm shifting for rich folk

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Car magazine is carrying a story regarding the development of the Project-i vehicles, BMW’s oft talked about but as yet unseen foray into the future of urban transportation.

That BMW is putting it’s weight behind such a programme is laudable. As I’ve often remarked on these pages, a radical shift in thinking regarding how we move about our urban centres will be vital to the return to good health of the automotive industry. It’s just a little galling that BMW is sticking to the notion that these vehicles must be “premium”.

Dr. Ulrich Kranz, the leader of Project-i, even goes so far as to say “They will not be Tata Nano rivals – no way! We can and will only build premium cars”. Wanting to distance his project from any associations with the tiny tot from India is understandable, having seen just how rudimentary it is (Euro facelift notwithstanding), but to stick to the concept that BMW will “…only build premium cars” seems a little short sighted.

Car also cites Shanghai and Mexico City, among others, as targets for the vehicles. Last time I checked Mexico City and Shanghai were flush with the cheapest wheels available, Beetles and bicycles respectively. These are not markets ripe for the introduction of premium urban mobility. They just need urban mobility full stop.

It’s been regularly discussed in the motoring press over the past year or two, and I see fit to bring it up again here: BMW is sitting on the perfect brand for reaching down out of their ivory tower and providing intelligent mobility for the masses. It’s called Isetta.

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Sure, it may not be terribly well known by name outside of Europe and groupings of predominantly old men who worship at the alter of slow, smelly and insane microcars of the mid-20th century. But nobody knew of Lexus when it launched, and it has done a passable job of establishing a presence for itself, answering a question nobody asked.

Crucially, Isetta has the all-important story behind it: it produced highly efficient, intelligent cars that intended to mobilise the masses. And as I’ve mentioned previously, having a great story is half the battle in getting people to fall in love with a new product.

Story aside, if BMW managed to nail a suite of solutions to urban mobility, no body would give a damn what it was called and whether it was “premium” or not. Our predicament is far more serious than that.

You can counter that the big changes in technology always start at the top of the market and work their way down (I remember when my first iPod cost €400 and held 500 more songs than the Shuffle that launched this week for €75. The thought of using it as a tie-clip was also a non-starter…). I honestly feel, however, that should we not work towards far-ranging, cross-market changes to the car industry, our recovery is going to be even more painful and protracted than we’re currently predicting.

According to Kranz it will be 2015 before we see the first fruit of his Project-i labour. From where I stand, we have until 2015 to convince him to spread the love.

[Source: Car Magazine][Images: Wiki Commons]

Filed under: Apple, Branding, Car, Design Strategy, Premium, Technology, , , ,

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.