A ray of hope

January 28, 2022
Simon Callender
Chief Strategy Officer

Driven by COVID and latterly the global chip shortage, the UK automotive industry is having a torrid time. But even before the current crisis the car market was in trouble. 

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders recorded a fall in output in year to September 2021 of nearly 27%, which equates to over 100,000 fewer new cars joining the UK’s roads. 

In this article, we’ll explore why car brands are becoming indistinguishable from one another and what these brands can do to stand out from the crowd and drive a deeper emotional connection with customers. 

An increasing brand fog

It used to be true that certain marques were known for excelling in model sectors that offered a distinct flavour of car ownership. Alfa made spirited sporty cars, Ford made dependable run-abouts and rep mobiles, Volvo were boxy and safe, and VW made small cars that would never let you down.

Today, however, the situation is far more confusing since most cars are 4- or 5-star NCAP certified. Serious performance, once the preserve of uncomfortable two seaters is now available from nearly every maker across their entire model range.

Consequently, it’s become increasingly hard to discern what specific car brands offer and more importantly how the ownership experience make you feel and what it says about you the owner.

Let’s explore why this is occurring:

Market convergence

Many car brands have evolved their offerings beyond their original market roles to follow both volume and value. Once budget brands are now firmly part of the bloated mid-market firmament resulting in a hugely crowded landscape where model choice is baffling.

Platform convergence

As the automotive industry has matured, we’ve seen constant mergers take-overs and collaborations all pursuing economies of scale and the opportunity to split new model R&D costs over the largest number of unit sales. The result is often a muting of brand differentiation and character.

Sector convergence

The 60s and 70s were the era of the three-box sedan, then along came the hatchback followed swiftly by the one box people carrier of the 90s and 00s championed by the visionary French designer Partick Le Quement. Now the SUV rules the roost and every manufacturer from Lamborghini to Skoda has at least one model to serve up to a blinkered public.

Design convergence

In the late 90s the NCAP star scramble saw manufacturers up their game on the safety front. The knock-on effect of this pursuit of safety was a set of standards that homogenised many aspects of car design.

How to build deeper, emotional connections 

If car brands want to reap the rewards of deeper emotional connection and raise the fight above the margin eroding functional spiral, then what’s to be done? 

A recognition that brand nurturing is a long-term game and consumers need time to warm to and identify with a set of values. This flies in the face of the short termism that pervades modern marketing departments.

Then, brands must agree a consistent set of core values built from the marque’s historical truths. This will involve a search for fresh insight with an eye on future market development and bold decision making.

The next stage is the most critical – the will to live this ethos through consistent and demonstrable behaviour. Brands must convince consumers to care through actions, not just words, in every touchpoint from new model creation to social commentary.

Finally, brands need to be courageous and single minded. Standing for something invariably means making choices and being prepared to do what others won’t. Being distinctive and meaningful takes nerve.

A ray of hope 

The eventual move away from traditional car ownership will usher in the arrival of autonomous, on-demand transportation pods and occasion-based subscription mobility solutions, which further reduces the scope for brands differentiate. 

If every vehicle occupant is demoted from driver to passenger (in a world where speeds and routes are pre-regulated), then the power of brand is elevated once more. 

Thankfully, there are some rays of hope. 

Citroen is starting to return to its brand roots by issuing a rallying call to ‘battle against boring’ and looking for owners who ‘want to stand out’. New EV brands such as Polestar and Genesis have invested heavily in brand meaning knowing that an electric proposition alone isn’t enough to sustain a marque when in 15 years most of the market will be EV anyway. 

Here’s hoping that the rest of the market will heed the wake-up call.