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To boldly grow: car makers seek out new life and new civilisations with alien products

Performance Communications Author Image Performance Communications | November 8, 2013

A sci-fi analogy works well when discussing automotive industry expansion.

Cars are quite scientific and sci-fi is known for becoming sci-fact. Think Tricorder, think iPhone.

The big difference between Starfleet and the likes of Hyundai, Mercedes or Bugatti, is that the car makers have thrown the Prime Directive straight out the nearest docking bay. They are colonising a civilisation of alien products with a continuing mission to attract new customers to their brand.

Here’s a look at how they are doing this, and some reasons why.

It’s not sci-fi. Motoring is becoming too expensive. Young drivers in particular are less interested in car ownership now than they have been for decades.  Last year, Alix Partners’ report on global motor industry growth highlighted that, if people were still getting driving licenses at the same rate as they were in 2000, we’d have five million more people on the road. That’s a lot of missed sales.

Car companies keep their brands alive in the face of such changes by presenting consumers with something new and unorthodox – an unrelated product offering that stands alone to target conquest customers not only from other brands, but from outside the automotive world.

This is not so much the Rolls Royce-SUV-style of growth i.e. automakers creating products to compete in an automotive segment other than the one they are traditionally associated with. They’re thinking outside the car industry box.

Moving into motorsport is a borderline example. VW has shown how successful this transition can be by winning the WRC Manufacturers and Drivers titles in its debut season.  Hyundai is also tipped to be moving into WRC for 2014 with their i20 model.

Caterham and Mercedes-Benz’s Smart car sub-brand have expanded into the bicycle and motorcycle markets recently. Mercedes Smart e-bike has been popular; at least according to 166,421 people who liked it on Facebook.  Fan engagement data is becoming as valuable as sales figures, particularly with regards to brand perception.

Meanwhile, Caterham, the sportscar brand that offers ‘accessible fun’, has recently announced that it will also be expanding, producing its new Carbon and Classic E-bike product lines, as well as its Brutus concept, dubbed the ‘SUV of Motorcycles’.

I wonder when we may see Mercedes-Benz expanding into motorcycles, taking the fight to its arch-rival over at BMW’s Motorrad?

Mercedes has recently launched itself into the London Taxi market with the Vito. Nissan has also entered the competition, with the NV200 Taxi taking it to LTI.

Other manufacturers have been even bolder with their brands (if less so with their products) by expanding their merchandise divisions to take themselves into the fashion and home retail industries.

For example, Bugatti and Bentley have their own luxury handbag ranges, with prices starting from $5,500. Porsche offers car silhouette paper clips for a tenner.

Attempts to colonise the fashion and retail industries are nothing new – witness Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week or Victoria Beckham’s Range Rover Evoque special edition.
The trend for brands to step outside their traditional comfort zones is only set to increase. Beer makers will make more ciders; car makers will build bicycles.
But what do car makers gain from this type of expansion, what’s the big motivation?
The economics of modern mobility says that cycles, public transport and lifestyle products are more important to ‘Generation Y’ than owning a vehicle from a heritage brand or one that’s pushing the boundaries of science, design and technology.
Accessible fun springs to mind again. I think Caterham are on to something with this. Is this what car makers are missing out on? When aiming these non-traditional products at the 16-34 year old neutral, credit crunch generation, it’s all about Facebook, Primark and Starbucks.  It’s cheap, readily available, and tastes or looks okay.
There’s a tipping point that all manufacturers embarking on these kinds of colonial missions must consider. It’s an Emotional-Rational dichotomy.
A quick look at the roots of the words ‘automotive’ and ‘emotive’ goes right to the core of how car manufacturers should be positioning themselves to appeal to ‘Generation Y’. We already know that buying a car is one of the more emotionally-driven purchases you ever make, so play on it.
Car companies use these new products as an opportunity to pull on the heart strings of potential consumers, get them hooked on the brand and hopefully sell them a car one day.
Some people might not think it’s important for a car to make them feel good, so long as it gets them from A-to-B. But I do. It’s a balancing act.
Car makers are on a continuing mission to explore strange new worlds. But with all this choice on offer, all I really want to know is, how much longer will we have to wait until we can get teleporters in our garages?
*Rebecca would like it known that she doesn’t consider herself to be a geek – We leave it to the readers discretion to decide…

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