Musings of an Aussie design strategist gone North

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 »


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

E is for “Eh?”


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


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, , , , , , ,

Sexy Old Mercs, Brand Building and Platform 21’s Repair Manifesto

The recent news that Mercedes – Benz is starting a German pilot programme to resell what are known in Germany as Youngtimers (cars too young to be considered bona fide classics, but too old to be uninteresting) was music to my ears. That they would be selling cars from the hey day of Mercedes engineering and build quality, the years 1970 to 1990, only turned up the volume.

I immediately started compiling an imaginary list of what I would buy if my pockets contained anything more than lint. On it you would have found the following:

  1. A ’79 500 SLC, a little known rally homologation special with a lightened body and a wonderfully rumbly V8 under the bonnet
  2. An ’88 190E 2.5-16 Cosworth, the less chavvy alternative to an E30 BMW M3
  3. Two W124 E-Classes, a 300CE-24 Sportline (the discreet alternative to AMG) and a 500E sedan, built by hand at Porsche’s Zuffenhausen plant
  4. A W114 450 SEL 6.9… Ok, you get the point, I have an unhealthy obsession with a certain era of Mercs.

Once I got my daydreaming out of the way I realised what a canny move this is. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Turn on the light: Merc-AMG to Stop Producing ICBMs


I’ve long been an advocate of the less-is-more maxim when it comes to sports cars and AMG-fettled Mercs have always been the antithesis of this approach. Big cars, massive power, massive weight. I’ve only once driven one, an SLK 55 (1500 Kg, 360 HP and 0-60 in 4.9 seconds). It was like the scene in Dr. Stranglove where Major Kong rides a nuke to his spectacular demise: epic power but not a jot of delicacy. While the car was highly capable, I always felt I was fighting a losing battle against the massive lump of an engine over the front wheels.

So the news that AMG is dropping out of the power wars and is going to focus on reducing weight, emissions and fuel consumption made me very pleased. There just isn’t room for cars like the manic SL 65 Black (1900kg, 661bhp and 0-60 in 3.8 seconds) any more although they serve as a pretty fabulous swan song. We’re going to have to relearn to appreciate the more delicate pleasures of light weight and lower power outputs.

I don’t expect AMG to start producing German Elises over night, but there’s hope that a more subtle type of fun might be possible in the merga-Mercs of the future. The latest Lotus Elise SC, incidentally, achieves the same 0-60 time as the SLK 55 but with only 190bhp. Must have something to do with weiging only 910Kgs…

What say you? Are you happy to see the age of 500HP family wagons pass? Or will their absence leave a 7.0l hole in your soul?


Autocar – AMG ends horsepower war  found via Autoblog

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

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.