Tag Archives: Mercedes

Geneva motor show – designers, driftwood, elephants and pods

gims17_poster_eng_1200A few days on from press days at the Geneva motor show the consensus is that essentially it’s been more of the same: yet more SUVs, some hyper-expensive hypercars, but little to shift things much further along the road to a future mobility landscape. That the Range Rover Velar and Volvo XC90 premium SUVs have been probably the most talked-about cars at the show says much about the industry right now. SUVs and premium-isation are where the volumes and money are.

But that misses the point: cars aren’t necessarily the stars at motor shows – even at Geneva, which uniquely among the major shows celebrates the car as fantastic beast rather than mere corporate cash cow or monthly registration fodder. The real story is what’s behind the cars on show, and even what’s not there.

Designers take centre stage

Car designers are the new focal points for the automotive brands. Ever since Peter Schreyer, originator of the original Audi TT, was poached from the German company by Hyundai-Kia and effected a transformation of the Koreans’ products, the stock of design bosses has risen sharply. The best designers are now part brand alchemist, part corporate talisman; they double as marketing tools, and are the ones who articulate the product philosophy.

Nowhere is this clearer at than at JLR and Volvo, whose stands always sit side-by-side at Geneva. Jaguar and Land Rover have their own internal design-chief arm wrestling match, Jaguar’s Ian Callum locking hands with Land Rover’s Gerry McGovern. Each led their respective brand’s press conference, Callum in a Brit-slick film showing him at the wheel of an F-Type on an ice circuit before driving onto the stand to finish the piece in person; JLR CEO Ralf Speth was merely a support act.

If Callum’s piece was a little over-produced it was to compensate for the fact that he had less to say than his Land Rover counterpart, Jaguar’s big news being that its previously-seen I-Pace EV concept has been painted a different colour.

gAtzr7KreKocCKwSfPqm08R3G5Ny495k_IV_Gerry_Mcgovern_Chief_Design_Officer_JLR_Geneva_Motor_Show_2017_mp4McGovern by contrast had the Range Rover Velar to launch. It’s curiously named after the very first 1960s Range Rover prototypes, which were go-anywhere, hose-down workhorses. The new car stretches the Range Rover ethos to the opposite extreme – it’s the sleekest, most dynamic, driver-focused car the brand has yet produced. It fills a hole between the Evoque and Sport – whose name it surely should have had – but when that car was named there wasn’t a Porsche Macan to take on. And that, fundamentally, is the Velar’s job.

The latest Jaguar and Land Rover/Range Rover models have excellent, progressive design which successfully transports heritage brand values into 21st-century packages, but if anything they’re engineering marvels, not design triumphs. Making a two-tonne, high-riding lump of SUV like the Velar go around corners on rails and emit as little as 142g/km CO2 is a major achievement.

Yet the engineering bosses were confined to the shadows at Geneva. But at least Range Rover wasn’t giving Victoria Beckham a design credit.

Automation – the elephant (not necessarily) in the room

The technology behind automated vehicles is already with us; automated vehicles are not. And, as if to underline the fact that the public and legislators are not yet ready for self-driving cars, VW Group unveiled the Sedric, a fully-automated pod-type vehicle, not at the show but the day before press day, off-site. Perhaps they expected it to make its own way to the show.

sedric-large_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqdODRziddS8JXpVz-XfUVR2LvJF5WfpqnBZShRL_tOZwSure, there was plenty of talk about autonomous vehicles on the stands. There should be – this technology will bring about seismic change for the carmakers and allow new players to enter the mix, grow quickly and reshape the industry. But VW didn’t want automation to gatecrash the party, and the nearest thing to a roll-out at Geneva was Nissan’s statement that its Leaf and Qashqai models will shortly be available with single-lane autonomous driving – commendable but something of a glorified adaptive cruise control with ancillary safety driver aids.

Industry executives spoke in reassuring terms to traditional car enthusiast media about using self-driving technology primarily to relieve the boredom of congested commutes in products which are otherwise still proper driving machines. Only Volvo seemed to have the courage to state upfront, via CEO Hakan Samuelsson’s press conference script, that automation’s number one benefit is safety. He outlined in convincing detail the efforts being put in at Volvo to make it happen, including an automation software JV with Autoliv, and even a program with Uber – a company representing as serious a perceived threat to the traditional carmakers as there is. Samuelsson also announced the world’s biggest autonomous vehicle testing program, DriveMe, using real roads and real car buyers in Sweden, the UK and China.

Even as it continues to develop a new generation of more dynamic cars to challenge the likes of driver-focused BMW, Volvo has the confidence to place automation front and centre as part of a core offering rather than in the form of a concept for an unspecified future. The company sees it not as a threat but a brand opportunity. And the fact that it talks so clearly and directly about automation only reinforces the brand by encouraging trust – a holy grail for any car brand in a post-dieselgate world on the cusp of change.

Clarity, driftwood and roots – how to identify the best brands

Taking a look around the Geneva show should leave you in no doubt about the value of brand. Some of the carmakers’ stands are downright confused. Some are trying rather too hard. Others seem effortlessly at ease with themselves. These are the ones which know what they stand for and their place in the world – today and tomorrow. They’re the ones with strong brands.

amggt4-geneva-096Mercedes has the most confident outlook of any Geneva exhibitor. Its model proliferation has taken it dangerously close to commoditisation, and it’s grown a little too fond of chrome. But the quality of the products, the way they’re displayed, the technology, the references to its F1 domination, and the interaction with the business both on-stand and digitally mean that it’s the most compelling of the behemoth brands at the show. The elegant and perfectly proportioned AMG GT concept is an admirably unostentatious statement of its assuredness.

But no-one better illustrates brand clarity than Volvo. It’s a brand which is evolving and growing in aspirational appeal but rooted in its historical values of safety, understated quality and its Swedish homeland, which it’s used to develop a Scandinavian design aesthetic. The product range is progressively and logically being renewed along these lines, with each core line articulating the brief slightly differently according to price point and target customer.

IMG_3931The contrast with JLR was marked. Both are effectively challenger brands to the German premium marques. Both are already producing vehicles of the same quality as Audi, BMW and Mercedes, but Volvo’s launch of the new XC60 was very different from that of the Range Rover Velar.

Those watching the Velar presentation had only to turn around to see the XC90 reveal, which immediately followed. Half a dozen XC90s sat concealed underneath cocoon-like pods. The video backdrop showed images of Scandinavian coastal scenes to a chillout soundtrack. And on came Volvo design boss Thomas Ingenlath, who unveiled…a piece of driftwood.

It’s fashioned by nature, timeless and sculptural. It made a point, and forms not totally unlike driftwood feature prominently in the new XC60’s interior. The Velar’s interior, in comparison, looked like a bachelor-pad fantasy. Ingenlath’s script had little hyperbole and self-congratulation and was the better for it. He really was speaking for the brand, as did the pods, which parted to reveal the new car as though giving birth to a hybrid of technology and nature.

Volvo is probably the truest car brand there is. Both Volvo and JLR, mutually orphaned by Ford, have thrived under new, enlightened owners. They’ve had fresh starts, helped by having limited and focused product ranges, which have enabled them to redefine themselves for a changing market while remaining connected to their provenance and values. And they’re able to re-shape their brands according to changing market needs in a way which the powerhouse OEMs like Mercedes can’t match, no matter how confident. It’s a real advantage at a time when upheaval is coming.

PSA-Opel – safety in numbers but how will it look in 2027?

You may have gone to Geneva secretly wanting only to gawp at the Ferrari 812, McLaren 720S or Aston Martin Valkyrie. But to get to any of those you had to wade through an undercurrent of PSA-Opel takeover talk.

Although GM’s rationale for leaving Europe is clear, if almost shockingly brave, the benefits for PSA are much less clear, with huge model range overlap and the addition of a languishing Opel brand to a portfolio of French brands which struggle outside their native France.

The announcement confirming the deal was made on the eve of the first press day but was light on detail. None of the brands involved – Peugeot, Citroen, DS and Opel – made more than passing mentions of it in their show press conferences so it was interesting to see how they articulated themselves in the new context.

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As though to reassure analysts that PSA has the wherewithal to nurture Opel better than GM, CEO Carlos Tavares headlined with Peugeot’s financial performance. Opel seemed at pains to make the point that the brand has real value, reminding people that the company has a very long history and that, being German, offers precision engineering. It also made the unlikely claim that the PSA deal is one of equals.

Ironically, what the discarded Opel did have was a pair of completely new models – the upper-medium Insignia replacement and a new SUV, the Crossland X. They’re important cars, the one because it’s in the increasingly critical compact SUV/crossover segment, and the other because it’s in the upper-medium segment where Opel and its UK offshoot Vauxhall still have to be credible for business sales. Both look competitive. And we were told that they’re part of a tsunami of 29 new models in a four-year period. But how will that fit with PSA’s model plans? The two companies have already been collaborating, including on the Crossland, but significant rationalisation will surely be essential. It’s a numbers game.

No doubt Carlos Tavares is a talented man, but you can’t help thinking that the additional scale Opel offers PSA is the opposite of the corporate nimbleness, lean product offering and crystal-clear brand thinking which gives Volvo and JLR such a great strategic opportunity in an industry facing inevitable and large-scale disruption over the next decade.

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Why Audi’s fall to 3rd place premium brand is a good thing – it’s simple

audi-logoAudi, the recent king of volume growth among premium brands, is about to be overtaken by Mercedes and slip to third in global premium-car sales.

It will be a big change from just a few years back. Mercedes was overtaken as number one by BMW in 2005, and was replaced as number two by Audi in 2011.

And last year, in Europe, ended with Audi as Europe’s number one premium brand. But Mercedes, with a dramatic product offensive, industry-leading quality, a turnaround in China, punchy marketing, domination of Formula 1, steadily growing profits and record sales, is on its way back to number one here too, quite possibly by the end of the year.

So this is a significant moment.

Paradoxically, it may be Audi’s very drive for volumes that’s seeing it slip behind Mercedes and BMW. Last year it was the 6th-highest selling brand in Europe overall, and fifth in the UK, where its volumes approach twice that of Toyota. It’s done this by storming into new segments, fuelling new niches, and aggressively invading mainstream territory.

It has trumpeted the number of models and derivatives it offers, talking of an extraordinary 60-plus model lines. So there’ something for absolutely everyone, and ultra-low interest rates have meant that anyone can get into an Audi, including people who may have only ever had cars from mainstream brands. If you can lease one for the same as a Nissan, Toyota, Renault or Ford, why wouldn’t you?

So how can all this lead to a slowing of sales growth? It has unavoidably become commoditised, but more importantly it has become complicated.

With such a vast product range, what’s needed is simplicity. Audi has a wonderfully simple and recognisable graphic identity, and product design which shows a confident simplicity. Design and engineering teams across all car manufacturers are engaged in delivering a sea change in how we interact with our cars, through the integration of connectivity and the emergence of autonomous driving systems. The human-machine interface is having to be transformed in order to deliver such complex technology seamlessly and intuitively.

But the same drive towards a necessary simplification of these for the user has not been applied to distribution and retail operations, and how the car manufacturers present their products.

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SUV? Low-riding SUV? Crossover? Coupe? Sportback?

Is there anything less intuitive than navigating vast product ranges of SUVs, crossovers, off-roaders, soft roaders, sportbacks, liftbacks, hatchbacks, high-riding hatchbacks, low-riding SUVs, SUV coupes, people carriers, sports tourers, sportswagons and estates? This doesn’t help the consumer. And in this respect the premium brands are failing delivering an appropriate brand experience at a critical point in the customer journey.

In brand consultancy Siegel+Gale’s last Global Brand Simplicity Index, Audi, Mercedes and BMW were all categorised as ‘low score/high premium’, meaning that “They need to simplify their brand experiences, and they’ll be able to reap significant rewards if they do”, according to the report. Tellingly, only Ford – a mainstream brand which has simplified its product portfolio – was in the ‘high score/low premium’ category, for brands already seen as simple and needing instead to focus more on showing the value of the simplicity they offer. Ford was also the only car brand to make it into the world’s top 40 brands across all sectors, in an impressive 17th place.

It’s clear: by expanding their product ranges so fast and so far, the German premium brands have made a rod for their own backs. Mercedes, in 44th spot, is doing better than BMW and Audi, in 65th and 66th places. But it’s humble Ford which leads the way, and ironic that Audi’s mainstream VW parent brand beats it in all the key markets.

It’s a picture reflected in how these brands fare in the UK. Ford is streets ahead at number 19 in the list, with Mercedes at 59, BMW at 81 and Audi at 89. And in the USA, not one of the German brands makes it into the listing of 125 brands, while Ford is at 24.

Look more closely and you see that, in the UK, Audi is the only car brand classified as ‘low score/high premium’, emphasising the gap between where it is an where it could be. But you’ll also see that BMW dropped 15 places in the latest GBSI. That followed another nosedive of 23 places the previous year in the global rankings, and a remarkable fall of 35 places in the listings for Germany, where the native car brands normally perform far better than they do elsewhere.

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Two different models from two completely separate model lines – apparently

So BMW, right now still the highest-selling premium car brand around the world, tumbling down the order. An anomaly, surely? I don’t think so. Audi has been the most aggressive of the three German premium car brands, but BMW was first to attack the mainstream when it pushed the 3-Series hard into fleets in the last decade, effectively making it an upmarket Ford Mondeo. Mercedes followed, with extremely aggressive lease pricing, and paid for it; Audi has merely taken it to the next level with its model proliferation, while BMW has tried to do the same, but has introduced a number of unloved, neither-fish-nor-foul models for tenuous niches. It has lost brand focus and the GBSI reflects that.

And this is the real significance of the current shift among the German premium brands: Audi and BMW may come to be glad of their soon-to-be status as numbers two and three in the premium sales charts. They could focus more on other ways of achieving success, like customer retention, car-sharing and on-demand mobility, to better fit consumer needs in a world where Apple, Netflix and Uber have set new paradigms for consumption.

Volume for volume’s sake is the enemy of the premium brand. Simplicity, clarity, vision and a better brand experience are its friend. Achieve that and the volumes will follow.

Cars drive Brand UK around in a vicious circle

Clydebank-Used-Car-Sales-Finance-GlasgowIt’s often said that car sales are a barometer of the economic climate. But, in the UK at least, they’re not – the booming market of the last five years has been way sunnier than our overcast economic conditions.

However, with a turnover of more than £70bn the retail motor industry is unarguably an indicator of national sentiment – even of our character and values. It’s one of the core elements of UK plc. And in a post-referendum landscape where the nation is redefining itself that makes it important.

The car sales figures for the first half of year show the market at an all-time high. Registrations were a record for any six-month period, up 3.2% on the same period last year, the previous best. March was the biggest ever month since the introduction of the bi-annual plate change. Last year was the best ever. And even post-referendum the indications are that 2016 could still beat it.

If we’re doing these numbers we must be in a pretty good place as we prepare to head up the slip road and off the EU highway – right? Well, no.

The extraordinary, counter-economic motor retail success story is really about the way car companies make their money – and in particular the British attitude to credit.

In the first quarter of this year the growth rate of UK consumer credit stood at almost 10%, Borrow-Money-to-Investthe highest since the banking crisis. Car dealer finance is a big part of this, accounting for £28bn in 2015 – twice what it was just four years earlier. Four out of five new cars are bought using borrowing, and today the car companies are effectively banks which sell cars. Finance is a core profit centre, and the PCP loans which the majority of customers take out to gain usership – not ownership – a brilliant retention tool.

The ultra-low interest rates enjoyed by consumers since 2008 also mean that almost anybody has been able get behind the wheel of a nice new car. Forget the £30,000+ sticker price – £195+vat a month for a Mercedes C Class, anyone? How about a Nissan Micra for £85+vat a month? That’s what you’d spend in a five-minute shop at Waitrose on the way home from work.

With PCPs, customers are becoming used to the notion of cars as mobile phones – something you get on a pay-monthly contract and replace every couple of years or so. When you do that, the man in the dealership will strongly resist any efforts on the customer’s part to pay cash. Even if you take out finance for a 48-month term he’ll be on the phone after 24 months offering something better, with no cost of change.

Some analysts are forecasting that sales could fall by over 5% next year as the UK adjusts to its new economic realities. However, with the near-certainty of even lower interest rates in the coming months, the appetite for new cars in the UK is likely grow – probably most among those who can least afford it.

And if the referendum fallout creates a drop in demand in the second half of 2016 then expect incentives to kick in swiftly to clear stock which was ordered for a market in economic status quo, not shock. The car industry will distress-sell. And the vicious circle keeps turning.

So while we like to view the Eurozone as a basket case, it’s the UK which has raced headlong back to the very conditions which characterised the economy at the time of the 2008 crash, and will probably continue to do so.

Let’s compare ourselves with Germany. While UK car sales rose by 37% between 2011 and 2015, the German market grew by just 1%. The German economy is humming along nicely, but when it does, the Germans don’t reach for their credit cards.

companybannerThe difference between the UK and most European countries is that we’re a finance-driven economy and they’re not. What does that say about Brand UK, our character and values? That we’re a nation of borrowers. That we’re no longer creators but consumers (preferably of German cars – VW, Audi, Mercedes and BMW alone account for almost 30% of the market). That we support our financial services industry more than we do our domestic car industry. That we see our cars, like our homes, as a measure of our success, yet we usually own neither. We just own the debt.

If the UK is redefining itself, this should not be part of our DNA. The EU may not have a clearly defined brand, but the UK’s is in danger of being devalued. British business culture should contain an element of daring, even risk. But not a lack of self-awareness or foresight.

 

Where is BMW’s Vision at Geneva?

IMG_0025The traditional positioning of Mercedes and BMW next to one another at the Geneva motor show provides a neat and obvious chance for comparing Germany’s two traditional powerhouses. And as a show of brand strength Mercedes squashes BMW this year.

Yes, Mercedes is a little brash these days. Chrome and polished surfaces are so ubiquitous that they’re in danger of undermining the quality of the fit-and-finish and engineering.

But being Geneva show neighbours does BMW no favours. It looks reticent by comparison. Understatement is a good thing – and BMW has traditionally been a master of managing and exceeding expectations – but the Bavarian company’s stand gives the distinct sense of a lack of new product and vision.

When BMW introduces new generations of it core models it starts with the 7-Series, followed by the smaller 5-Series and then the 3-Series. The 7 has just been launched, and we’re currently awaiting the 5. With the 7 being a notoriously slow-seller against the Mercedes S-Class, and the 5 replacement set to be revealed later this year, BMW is in limbo.

It’s a position made more uncomfortable by the fact that, in the real world, a new, larger 5-Series routinely makes the 7-Series seem rather redundant. When the latest 3-Series is launched it has the same effect on the 5.

The most significant car on BMW’s stand this year is the 330e, a plug-in hybrid offering the same performance as a petrol 330 for the same money. But it’s there only as a single four-door variant, untrumpeted and barely noticed alongside the i3 and i8. It’s also very clear that BMW is painfully aware of the car’s biggest limitation – reduced boot space because of the battery pack – as there are no standard four-door 3-Series models to provide an unfavourable boot capacity comparison.

The i3 and i8, beautifully marketed though they are, pose another issue: what are the next i cars? BMW leaped ahead of the market when it launched these, making EVs desirable and cool. But they’re bookends, one a true EV solution, the other a £100k sports car halo product. Where’s the middle ground, and what is the technical solution? For a company so brilliant at brand-building and engineering, the lack of narrative is puzzling.

IMG_0028Butting right up against the BMW stand is Mercedes’ vision of the future, a concept car with an interior rethought around the autonomous driving capability. It’s backed up by a plethora of plug-in hybrids, a new E-Class (5-Series competitor) and new variants of the C-Class (3-Series competitor).

BMW is celebrating its centenary this month but Mercedes has trumped it even there, with the deliciously poisonous public statement, “We warmly congratulate the globally renowned company BMW on its anniversary and invite all employees of BMW AG to discover the complete history of the automobile at the Mercedes-Benz Museum.”

p90212587-highres-1A week after the Geneva show opened, BMW marked its centenary by announcing the Vision Next 100 autonomous-driving concept car – a step on from the autonomous Mercedes at Geneva. How the Geneva stand could have done with that. BMW should hold the high ground in engineering for the future. If the Vision had been at Europe’s most important motor show it could rightly have claimed that territory. Far better that than a longer history.

F1 – Manor more important than Mercedes

Formula 1 is in trouble – not because of the quality of the racing but because of its extraordinary ability to shoot itself, and its stakeholders, in the foot.

456910034Amid the inquest into the meaningless parade around the streets of Melbourne last weekend, out came Bernie Ecclestone to declare that the beleaguered Manor team would pay dearly for getting to the event but not making it out onto the track. Manor, a victim of the massive and escalating costs of competing in F1, collapsed at the end of last year along with the Caterham team, but was rescued late on and faced a race against time to be ready for the Australian race. By going there the team would become eligible for a £30m prize-money payout; Ecclestone suspects that it knew it wouldn’t be ready to compete and turned up only to collect the cash.

11015058_794633723925784_4037542306530199874_nBut the details aren’t important. The issue is that F1 needs tail-enders, and it needs Manor even more now that the other tail-end team, Caterham, has gone. Without these outfits, major teams with the backing of major car brands come last. To not win in the global spotlight of F1 is hard one thing; to come last is another, and not acceptable. Put in this position, the big stakeholders will leave, and others will not replace them.

It’s hard enough when the times are good. BMW, Toyota, Renault and Honda have all retired hurt from running factory teams in the last few years.

And now the times are hard. As well as Manor and Caterham’s problems, Force India, Lotus and Sauber face possible extinction, and were reportedly advanced the start money so they could make it to Melbourne. Take away those teams and you’re left with Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, McLaren (which thanks to the lack of tail-enders came last on the debut of its new relationship with Honda), Red Bull and its junior team, Torro Rosso. That’s just 12 cars, four of which come courtesy of Red Bull, which is threatening to leave F1.

Sauber’s lack of budget meant that it also nearly failed to make it onto the track in Melbourne. Having agreed to give 2015 a race seat to one driver, it had subsequently signed another two with bigger bundles of cash, so the first driver had them in court until well into the Grand Prix weekend.

A last-minute agreement saw Sauber make it onto the circuit, but there were just 15 starters – the lowest in a season-opener for over 50 years – and only two possible winners: the Mercedes cars, which are so dominant that they cruised to take the flag 40 seconds ahead of Ferrari.

In the same way that this paucity of competition diminishes the achievements of the championship-winning driver – the more he wins, the more, paradoxically, it devalues those wins – the corporations involved need competition. I launched Michelin back into F1 in 2001, and we only did it because there was another tyre manufacturer to beat.

Lewis-Hamilton-Mercedes-F1-2015-Australian-Grand-PRixMercedes is now the sole car manufacturer team apart from Ferrari. For Mercedes, it’s better to win with a fight. For Ferrari and the engine suppliers, Renault and Honda, they can’t be seen to be among the tail-end. F1 is still watched by millions, and these brands need to have private teams finishing behind them if they’re to remain in it.

If not, they will copy BMW and Toyota and withdraw completely. Perhaps move into sports car racing alongside Toyota, Porsche, Audi, Bentley, Aston Martin and Nissan – a place where the carmakers compete among themselves and a large, healthy entry of private teams.

One final thing: right now it seems that the German GP will be scrubbed from this year’s calendar, and the Italian GP is in danger. F1 needs car manufacturer involvement, Germany is Europe’s biggest car market, Italy the home of the sports car, and F1’s only two manufacturer teams are Mercedes and Ferrari. How on earth can the people who run F1 allow these two companies’ home races to be replaced by automotive nonentity nations?

If I were in charge of a car manufacturer brand I’d be doing my best to protect that brand. Which currently means not being part of F1.

Large MPVs – the next big thing?

Renault-Espace-0Large, stylish MPVs could be making a comeback. At the recent Paris motor show Renault relaunched the Espace as a bold, well designed MPV-cum-crossover, and Ford showed the latest S-Max, which will be a recipient of the company’s new Vignale luxury trim and concierge service.

The premium brands are making moves too: Paris saw the launch of the production BMW 2-Series Active Tourer, a compact MPV, while Mercedes – which replace the MPV-style A-Class with a conventional hatchback a couple of years ago – reaffirmed its interest in that segment by revealing a new B-Class.

That the two German premium brands are investing effort into MPVs is significant, but they may be missing an opportunity beyond the compact, higher-volume segments. Large MPVs are a neglected niche: after Toyota introduced the innovative and stylish Previa in the mid-1990s, the territory was commoditised by the mainstream brands, with utilitarian van-based models and products marketed as bland school-run devices offering space but no character and a mediocre driving experience. MPVs had become merely ‘people carriers’.

SUVs then entered the marketed. They were premium. They needed to be, because of the cost of the four-wheel-drive technology and – starting with the first BMW X5 – the additional cost of engineering decent handling into a heavy, high-centre-of-gravity lump. But more importantly the SUV concept was American, so they were marketed as lifestyle vehicles, recreational tools. They enhanced your life rather than announcing to the word your grim acceptance of its responsibilities.

Of the premium brands only Mercedes persevered with the large MPV, but its products have remained van-based. So Renault may have hit on something with the new Espace. Not everyone wants an SUV – Audi Q7s, BMW X5s and Mercedes MLs have begun to symbolise some of the less appealing characteristics of the monied middle-classes. And very few need off-road capability.

2015-volvo-xc90-steering-wheelI was with a Volvo strategy guy at Paris and it got me thinking. I’d probably buy an S-Max if it had a different badge. I’d almost certainly buy the Espace if they produce it in right-hand drive. But I’d far prefer it with a Volvo badge.

Volvo can carry off a contemporary interpretation of a large, MPV. It has the brand-width to do it (unlike Jaguar, another near-premium brand, which can stretching itself to SUVs but no further). An MPV would suit Volvo’s brand values and its design aesthetic. Volvo is about stylish functionality – vehicles with a purpose but also a personality, confident but classless, luxurious but life-2015-Volvo-XC90-interior-controls-press-imageenhancing. And its products are increasingly about cabin design – supremely comfortable but understated, ergonomically intelligent, with natural materials, authenticity and the influence of Scandinavian home interior trends. What better medium to express this than an inherently spacious, light and flexible MPV cabin?

Volvo’s boss recently said that until 2020 it will only replace existing models. That’s a pity, because there’s a gap in the market and a brand fit. And if Volvo were to fill that gap it would challenge the German big three by setting a trend rather than merely offering an alternative to a product type already offered by the competitors. Which would make the brand far stronger.

 

More Discovery, less Land Rover

The replacement for Land Rover’s compact, family-friendly model, the Freelander, was announced this week with a new name – the Discovery Sport.

lr_ds_statics_07Pulling the Freelander into the Discovery range is a sensible move for the Land Rover/Range Rover brands. It rationalises the model ranges, and it co-opts a name which has assumed sub-brand status thanks to the Discovery’s combination of modern but uniquely Land Rover looks and unbeatable functionality. The intention is clear from the oversized ‘Discovery’ bonnet badging where ‘Land Rover’ used to sit.

The new Discovery Sport has been engineered and packaged to provide more space than the outgoing Freelander, including a third row of seats, in a barely-bigger footptint. That’s clever. And it manages it while looking sleeker, more premium and completely contemporary.

But in doing so it leaves behind the Land Rover design language which has helped make the existing Discovery a brand icon and a statement of resolute differentiation from SUVs produced by other brands, which are mass-adopting a lower, less utilitarian look. The exterior styling also has a lot in common with Range Rover’s urban, fashion-oriented Evoque model, and plenty of similarities with the Evoques’ big brother.

It even shares that Range Rover’s Sport tag. This merges and confuses the two brands. But, more importantly, sportiness has little if any relevance to Land Rover. It’s diffuses the brand.

So what makes the Discovery Sport a Land Rover? And what will make the Discovery replacement a Land Rover? It’s no longer the styling – if anything, Range Rovers now have the more utilitarian body shapes. And it’s not the core value of functionality – after all, the Range Rover Sport also offers seven seats.

The increasingly high price point for Land Rovers doesn’t help. At launch – with only one engine, taken from the existing car – the Discovery Sport will cost from £32,000 to £43,000. A few options and the price will creep towards £50,000. That’s well into Porsche Macan territory – an SUV which is sporty because the brand dictates it.

Compare Land Rover’s price positioning with, say Audi’s. Equivalent versions of its Q5 SUV range top out at £37,500. OK, it’s not a Land Rover – but if the unique identity of the Land Rover brand is diluted then so is the emotional appeal of its products. Which is where Audi, BMW and Mercedes come in. They’ve aggressively targeted every market segment, especially SUVs. They’re premium but they’ve opened themselves up to everyone rather than adopt exclusive pricing. They’re a threat, the more so as Land Rover becomes more premium and less obviously functional.

Land Rover makes excellent cars. Sales will continue to grow in the short-to-medium term. But it has serious brand challenges. It should ensure that sales ambitions don’t shape the brand, and that Land Rover’s brand differentiation, achieved over decades of leadership, is both preciously preserved and clearly stated. That starts with the design of the product, but with the Discovery Sport it has become more generic. In the long term that’s going to help Audi, BMW and Mercedes more than Land Rover.

 

 

Bentley, Beijing and the hybrid halo

Mercedes recently said that the combustion engine is with us for at least 20 more years. No doubt that’s right, but it has a particular interest. The fact that it still produces a V12 is a badge of honour for the brand. And no doubt a purchase trigger for Asian plutocrats who absolutely must have the highest in perceived luxury.

bentley-mulsanne-hybrid-concept-2014-beijing-auto-show_100463149_lContrast that with last week’s debut of a hybrid Bentley. It’s an important moment, the more so because it was at the Beijing auto show – a place where the brands don’t normally make concessions to the distinctly Western concept of sustainable luxury. The Bentley is officially a concept car, but significantly it’s a version of the Mulsanne, a production model and the brand’s flagship: if hybrid technology it can be accepted at the pinnacle of traditional, conservative luxury, it can fit with any brand.

With the Bentley, and the simultaneous Beijing launch of a production long-wheelbase hybrid Range Rover, the time when luxury and premium car buyers will want to know why they haven’t got hybrid power is surely approaching. Hybrid systems are at the apex of powertrain technology right now, and if seen as such customers will demand them.

Bentley’s VW Group sister brand Porsche already offers a hybrid Cayenne and Panamera, but they don’t sell. Same for Range Rover’s standard-wheelbase hybrid Range Rover: they’re not proper Porsches or real Range Rovers. But the Bentley and the LWB Range Rover can change this. If the idea of a hybrid Bentley goes down well with Chinese luxury car buyers, it will gain acceptance for Porsche’s hybrids. And if hybrid power is accepted in the limousine version of the Range Rover it won’t be perceived as a dilution of the brand in the standard car.

Creating hybrid versions of range-topping cars enables VW Group and Jaguar Land Rover to exploit the higher margins of big-ticket products and, in time, as the halo effect occurs, to sell hybrid versions of lower-price, higher volume products at a profit. Larger volumes will in turn reduce the cost of hybrid technology.

China is key to widespread adoption of future electric vehicle technologies: as a growing car market with vast volume potential it makes no sense to continue building only a combustion-engine infrastructure to meet the needs of the emerging motorised masses. Last month the premier declared a war on air pollution, yet the country still lacks a vehicle charging infrastructure. Hybrids are therefore the catalyst. It’s good strategy for the carmakers to push hybrid products in China, and to do so top-down, using halo brands and models as cultural influencers. Plug-in hybrids and battery-only vehicles will follow when the infrastructure is there.

So the challenge for global mass-adoption is one of communications, and the audience it needs to communicate with is as likely to read Wired as Forbes. Hybrid systems need to be positioned not so much as a means to supplemental performance or a cleaner, greener conscience as simply the latest and best technology, a must-have.

A premium car without sat nav? No chance. The same surely applies to the technology which is the beating heart of a car.

Jaguar – the power to change the world?

jaguar-teaser-hed-2014_0Jaguar is going for it. And, you have to say, doing great things with how it’s communicating the brand. British, edgy, daring, contemporary, it’s making the most of the freedom it has compared with the premium-brand grandees Audi, BMW and Mercedes. It’s Paul Smith to Hugo Boss, Arts and Crafts to Bauhaus, Virgin to Lufthansa, The Who to the Scorpions. It’s punk premium.

The German carmakers can’t reinvent themselves like Jaguar’s doing. They’ve got solid-core brands and big market shares to protect, and are now mainstream players. They sell in every segment of the market, including to fleet managers and folk who would have been driving Fords and Peugeots until a few years ago, whereas no matter how successful Jaguar becomes it’s going to remain a relatively small-volume player. But unlike the other small premium brands, Lexus and Infiniti, it has heritage, so it can communicate like a niche brand, in a confident and exclusive way. It simply doesn’t need to appeal to everyone.

So it’s pushing the boundaries, and the high-profile Good to be Bad campaign works well, at least for the USA. The ad has been well cast with alternatives to the mainstream: Tom Hiddleston isn’t yet stereotyped, and Mark Strong, essentially a supporting actor, makes for a believable villain. Yes, since playing the terrifying Don Logan, in Sexy Beast, Ben Kingsley exudes barely contained psychosis – someone Ray Winstone wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. And yet he’s suitably ambiguous, a richly spiced mix of Gandhi, RSC and Iron Man. This is a sharp selection of bad boys for the new brand.

But the use of actors and celebrities, no matter how carefully chosen, is a well-worn route and a rather prescriptive brand tool. We don’t really think that the good-to-be-baddies drive Jaguars.

Jaguar is cooler than this. Earlier this month, somewhat more quietly, it launched the ‘100 Most Connected’ list with GQ, first F-Type customer Jose Mourinho and the very now Editorial Intelligence organisation, which connects the UK’s most influential people and curates relaxed meeting-of-minds get-togethers. The next one is at Aldeburgh, the Victorian Suffolk coastal town. True, it now serves as a seaside London suburb, but it’s very deliberately not Davos.

In engaging with this community Jaguar is aligning itself with state-of-the-art thinking: we’re now in a networked world, where who you know means what you know. Where top-down power is beginning to be unseated by a free flow of information. Where companies are beginning to value knowledge and thinking as much as revenues and profit. Where CSR is beginning to be questioned by a genuine desire to improve the quality of people’s lives. Where we need companies, brands and politicians to believe in what they’re doing.

So here we have Alain de Botton and David Beckham, Peter Fincham and Lionel Barber, Idris Elba and Andrew Neil holding hands in the Most Connected list, gazing out at the sea and feeling the sand between their toes. With Jaguar in amongst it. The message is that the company is progressive enough to embrace the new, post-recession world – one in which failure of the financial system, the need for sustainability and the growth of digital interaction have created a real shift in the way people think and communicate. Jaguar is absorbing influences from the varied spheres which a company providing something as vital as mobility should do.

In an essentially conservative, old-fashioned motor industry driven by the imperative to sell and month-end figures, Jaguar is probably the only brand which can do this. It has an extraordinary opportunity – to demonstrate an understanding that, in future, brands will be shaped not so much by traditional marketing messages as by changes in corporate thinking and behaviour. By actions rather than words. By engaging with people. By doing good.

Utopian vision? It’s happened before. As Henry Ford, the man who mass-mobilised the world, said: “To do more for the world than the world does for you – that is success.”

Note: Go to http://www.citizenrenaissance.com for more about progressive communications from the UK’s leading exponent Robert Philips, ex-Edelman EMEA President & CEO and founder of http://www.jerichochambers.com

Frankfurt reflection #2: no escaping Mercedes

Frankfurt - MB confFrankfurt is a show of strength for the German motor industry: the local car companies have their own halls, each of which would accommodate an entire regional motor show.

For the last couple of events BMW has had a driving circuit in its hall, snaking around above the floor displays. Audi had one at the last Frankfurt event too, so this time it went for an upside-down night-time metropolis hanging from the ceiling. Why? No idea. But as VW Group’s premium volume brand, which has overtaken both BMW and Mercedes, it gets its own hall, separate from VW’s other seven car brands, and has to do something different.

But it’s still Mercedes which dominates. In the domed Festhalle building, opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1909, it creates an extravagant world over three floors which is impossible to ignore and equally difficult to escape. Its press conference, allocated 45 minutes – longer than any other – attracts most of the 10,000 attending media. Almost no-one can see anything but, more important, once in you can’t leave.

Take the escalators and you’re on the top level and can descend only floor-by-floor, looping past endless displays like a nightmare vision of an automotive supermarket. But when there are 10,000-plus people standing, waiting for a press conference, unwilling to move an inch, you’re stuck. No chance of going down the stairs, and one lift for staff only.

I’m not sure what German Health and Safety’s like, but if there had been a fire or a security alert you may as well have reclined a seat in one of the new S-Classes, turned on the back massager and hoped for the best.