Tag Archives: Volvo

Why BMW should look at Volvo to shape its future

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 13.20.29The furore over the looks of the BMW X7 concept car revealed at the Frankfurt motor show this month, which triggered criticism of the company’s entire presence at the show, was not, at its heart, about design or product.

The X7 betrays a BMW brand which has gradually been losing its sense of purpose. And now it appears to be forgetting what its values are, just when it needs to evolve them into a relevant proposition for a market undergoing massive change. There’s a cultural confusion infecting how it develops products which need to resonate with a changing marketplace yet still articulate the brand. This, then, is a brand issue.

tvh8tjgkxqplakwxhr28The current trajectory can be traced back to the early 2000s when BMW commoditised itself by selling the 3-Series heavily into the world of discounted business fleets and aggressively targeting the less brand-conscious private customer with cheap leasing deals. The 3-Series became the new Ford Mondeo. Its appeal was a prestigious badge but the trigger was affordability. The badge began to stand for driveway bragging rights, not engineering, and the ubiquity made it, well, common. And meantime BMW was becoming more a bank that sells cars than a car company. This was a big cultural shift.

More recently the company has, like its rivals, thrown itself onto the altar of the SUV. The problem for BMW was that it had no brand heritage in four-wheel drive vehicles. It bought Land Rover, absorbed the technical knowledge and promptly sold it off. But technical know-how is not the same as brand equity or fit; Mercedes-Benz and Audi, on the other hand, had history in proper off-roaders and performance-oriented 4WD systems respectively.

BMW merged its new-found 4WD knowledge with the chassis engineering for which it is rightly renowned to create the X5, the first SUV you could corner like a conventional car. An impressive engineering achievement, but one which summed up the coming confusion: the brand whose strapline was ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ was engaging its engineers in trying to make a car with a high ride-height, high centre of gravity and excessive weight from the 4WD system do things which a conventional car would do much more easily. The 4WD would probably never be used off-road and was not there to improve handling dynamics. It was work of inherent engineering compromise. And it compromised the brand.

BMW_X4_xDrive35d_M-Sportpaket_(F26)_–_Frontansicht,_11._April_2015,_DüsseldorfPorsche did the same with the Cayenne of course, but Porsche needed saving; BMW didn’t. Every third car made today by BMW is an SUV, and the production X7 will book-end the line-up with an X2 model to be launched in early 2018, both additions to the range. With the lust for SUV volumes came a dip in quality. And the compulsion to proliferate, to find niches nobody has asked for, led to cars like the dumpy and universally disliked 5-Series GT and, more recently, the X4 – a visibly confused creation which is neither fish nor fowl. Or perhaps it’s both.

BMW then brilliantly took the initiative on the first of the big new challenges facing the car industry – low carbon. It stole the electric vehicle high ground when it launched the i3 and i8, making EVs desirable and cool overnight. Yet one is an urban-centric EV solution, the other a £100k sports car halo product, with nothing in between and no longer-term narrative. And that was four years ago. Only in the past couple of weeks has it indicated its next move, in the form of the iVision concept, expected to go into production as the i5 – but not until 2021. Mercedes, Audi and VW have all articulated more coherent strategies and have already started to occupy the premium EV territory.

And now, of course, the low-carbon imperative has been joined in the list of key challenges by automation and the sharing economy. Automation squarely challenges BMW’s indelible mantra of ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ – how is this sustained when cars not only drive us, but when integrated mobility dictates that commoditised pods shuttle us around our cities in bland efficiency. Does BMW become merely the hardware provider? And car sharing is, by definition, a cultural shift where not only ownership but brand allegiance are secondary to the ideology, service and efficiencies on offer.

These challenges are the same for all carmakers of course. But they’re greater when your fundamental brand tenet has been about the pleasure of taking the wheel.

bmw_joyThis is why BMW shifted its emphasis away from ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ to ‘Joy’ a few years ago. Joy was still the core theme in a presentation given this summer at the Automotive News Congress in by BMW’s brand boss Hildegaard Wortmann. But it means nothing. It’s feel-good lifestyle marketing-speak which could be applied equally to SEAT. It’s not a principle or a solution.

The vision of the brand she gave was strapline-centric – one where it’s hoped that customers will somehow absorb generic messaging and convert it subliminally into something meaningful, rather than one where the business’s culture, products and services define the brand, and where straplines are a consequence of demonstrable values and real assets.

There was little substance on how BMW would achieve relevance among an audience which does not want to own or lease a single car, and the impression given was that the company feels a need to outsource its brand articulation to Millenial-derived content generated by social media campaigns.

For BMW or any major carmaker to truly flourish in the new automotive market, they need clarity of vision and the courage to use their brand values as the foundations for addressing changing market needs.

volvo-xc40-care-by-volvo-13BMW doesn’t appear to be doing so. To see how to use existing brand values to reinvent a brand for the age of EVs, automation and sharing, it need only look at Volvo. If safety, practicality and family-friendliness can become cool, what can the can The Ultimate Driving Machine become?

There are no easy answers but BMW, surely, can find them. Meantime they can be confident about that Joy isn’t one of them.

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Lynk & Co goes back to the future

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The best-received presentation at last week’s Automotive News Europe Congress in Barcelona was by Alain Visser, Senior VP of LYNK & CO, Volvo’s sister brand conceived to meet new customer needs. It was rightly scheduled to kick off the event, underpinning the ongoing theme of inevitable change facing the industry, and was delivered with a delicious non-corporate directness.

The car industry business model is, as Visser commented, essentially the same as it was 100 years ago – build cars, sell them, build more. For all their technical wizardry, the carmakers are not innovative. They’re driven by volumes, legislation and necessity. As Visser also said, there’s plenty of discussion about new business models at events like the Congress, “But boardroom talk is only about tech – not services, customers, brands.”

When Volvo’s parent, Geely, asked him to set up LYNK he rightly questioned whether the world needs yet another car brand, and said he’d get on board only if he could do things differently: the customer of today has nothing to do with the customer a century ago.

The LYNK business model is driven by several key changes in consumer behavior. There’s the move away from ownership, not just to leasing but to sharing. Young people are engaging with and shaping trends, and spending their money on social experiences, not cars. And customers expect services to come to them and to be able to transact online. Visser claimed that research shows that people would rather visit the dentist than a car dealer.

So the philosophy behind LYNK’s offering is to start with the customer experience and work back. Three values therefore lie at the heart of the brand, positioning it as lifestyle rather than automotive. Connectivity is to LYNK what safety is to Volvo – think gigabytes, not bhp. Sharing – if people share their homes as on Airbnb model, why not their cars? A subscription model – LYNK sees itself as the Netflix of the car industry.

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To deliver these the business will have wholly-owned outlets located where people are and will allow end-to-end online purchasing. There will be a single set of prices, and no haggling. There will be a lean product range. LYNK will “kill traditional marketing”.

Yet this brave new world is essentially the same as one launched over 20 years ago, only without the benefit of an online world. I was part of the team which launched Daewoo in the UK in 1995. Like Visser, we knew there was no point launching just another car company. Like him we agreed to do it only if we could do it differently, focusing on the service rather than the vehicles. Like LYNK we tore up the distribution rulebook and set up direct outlets where people went – retail parks, supermarkets. Customers were advised, not sold to, and their kids could use play areas while they had a free coffee and got the information they needed from interactive touch-screen pods. There was no haggling and no commission. The result? Daewoo achieved record share for a new entrant in the UK market and became a benchmark for service across all retail sectors.

Daewoo Sign

The fact that, over two decades later, the LYNK pitch is seen as revolutionary, when it’s merely addressing inevitable shifts in customer dynamics, tells us how conservative the automotive industry is. It’s also ironic that tech, identified by Visser as a stale driver of boardroom decision-making, should now in its digital form in vabe the driver of change: connectivity, social media, virtual showrooms and sharing platforms. So the LYNK proposition is perhaps more interesting for the issues it raises about the industry.

LYNK illustrates the need to not only change but to hedge – no one knows precisely how the complex matrix of connectivity, mobility, electrification, urbanization and environmental imperatives will play out. But Geely – with Volvo as the traditional core brand, LYNK as the first-move disruptor and now Polestar as an EV-only brand – has a hedging model other OEMs might note. Yes, Geely has the advantage of being smaller, more agile. But, as Visser said, the likes of General Motors have a massive advantage in spite of their bulk – it’s far easier for a GM to add connectivity than it is for an Apple to become a carmaker.

LYNK’s lean product offer is another issue. If this helps makes LYNK a profitable success then it threatens to take the car retail business in the opposite direction from the premiumisation model where vast product ranges with endless specification options promise a near-personalised product with dramatic up-sell margins. Great brands are simple, and if simplicity becomes a driver of consumer engagement then LYNK can play a bigger part in setting the new paradigm.

Will it succeed? Some say LYNK’s first car, the 01, could and should look more interesting. The fact is that it’s neither fish nor foul – LYNK’s own hedge is to launch with a car which was conceived to take either an internal combustion engine or an electric/hybrid powertrain. So it hasn’t been able to reinvent the form of the traditional car around batteries and motors in the same as it’s trying to reinvent its consumption.

0_lynkco_shanghaiBut that, as the LYNK & CO website says, is “Almost beside the point.” The service is the product.

Armed with the power of an internet-enabled world and a customer base nurtured by Apple – unlike the fax and Nokia world of the 1990s Daewoo inhabited – LYNK can certainly make a mark. It has the remarkable opportunity to be a first-mover while being far from ahead of its time. We won’t all be driving LYNK cars – customer inertia and passive loyalty to existing, conservative but powerfully crafted brands will see to that.

But one of those brands is Volvo, and success for the LYNK will surely be serving as a bellwether and feeder for its well-established and relatively agile stablemate. If it does that, and grabs a good share of online voice and a slice of China’s growing aspirational middle class market it will have served Geely – and the automotive industry – very well indeed.

Automotive News Europe Congress – how are the industry’s leaders facing up to unprecedented change?

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Four weeks today I’ll be at the Automotive News Europe Congress in Barcelona. It always attracts senior executives from across an ever-broadening industry, and now is a better time than ever to be part of it – the industry is on the cusp of dramatic structural and cultural upheaval.

POSCO_main_1300x550_170407The excellent speaker line-up reflects those changes. With SEAT, Lamborghini and Italdesign all on the speaker’s podium, VW Group is somewhat over-represented – that’s because SEAT’s the Host Sponsor, but it also means we get to hang out in Barcelona. And the line-up does reflect many of the changes facing the industry.

This is what I want to hear from them.

Luca de Meo – President, SEAT:

How is he intending to give Spain’s national brand sustainable relevance? They tried to become an Alfa-Romeo-esque sport-driven brand, and now they’re committing heavily to SUVs, but so has most of the competition already. Aren’t SEAT’s differentiators of small/compact cars and a weighting towards southern Europe also its weaknesses? How will SEAT integrate the VW brand’s surging EV technology into its own offering? And what’s the dynamic within the bulging VW group brand portfolio, especially the no-longer budget Skoda brand? As keynote speaker, de Meo’s positive claims for SEAT will be under close scrutiny.

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Brigitte Courtehoux – Head of Mobility Services, PSA:

More than one OEM has now publicly stated that they’re transitioning from manufacturer and retailer to mobility provider, but what’s the substance behind this? Nissan and Volvo have extensive ongoing consumer trials of autonomous vehicles; what is PSA doing? How is it approaching the potentially seismic consumer shift from purchase and conventional leasing to flexible and ultra short-term leasing, on-demand usage, and personal mobility platforms encompassing public transport, Uber and growing non-driver urban populations? And where does the Opel brand fit into this scenario?

Jim Farley – Executive Vice President, Global Markets, Ford:

With Mark Fields having vacated the top seat at Ford Motor Co this is interesting timing. Ford has lacked focus globally since Alan Mulally departed in 2014. In Europe the company has made money when others haven’t, and GM Europe has thrown in the towel. But Ford is still part of that squeezed middle – mainstream brands which cannot become premium but are not value brands or challengers. What is the global vision? The company could – should – be leading the world in mobility, just as it did with the Model T a century ago. And what is its future in a fracturing Europe? With profits in the region down could it even follow GM to the exit door? Farley, newly promoted to a global role but with European oversight, is touted as a future global Ford chief so his view will be fascinating.

Didier Leroy – Executive VP, Chief Competitive Officer & President, Business Planning & Operation, Toyota Motor:

Toyota’s first foreign executive VP, Leroy provides a uniquely European focus for the Japanese giant. From a European point of view Toyota is nowhere near its global standing – 10th in volume terms, behind Skoda – and Lexus has simply never taken off. Globally it has never owned the EV and hybrid territory the way it should have done as the pioneer, which has clouded its brand purpose and allowed the likes of Skoda, Hyundai and Kia to steal hard-earned European market share, and the current uncertain next-generation technology strategy isn’t helping. Now there’s a global profits crisis, so how will this affect Europe operations? The man with the longest job title in the industry in uniquely placed to make the company’s case.

Hakan Samuelsson – President & CEO, Volvo Car:

As a challenger brand Volvo has the agility to reinvent itself and shift to meet changing market needs. And, sure enough, it has just announced that it will stop making diesels altogether, admitting that meeting emissions targets is too expensive. Other than VW’s virtue-out-of-necessity move to EVs, the bigger players have too much invested in existing technologies to be as bold, but Volvo’s move to EV and hybrid power brings the tipping point into view. The company is also at the forefront of automation, with its brand imperative of safety meaning that Volvo automation systems will effectively become the industry benchmark. Can this small OEM be the catalyst to both the demise of the internal combustion engine and the mass adoption of automated cars?

Alain Visser – Senior VP, LYNK & CO:

As the face of LYNK & CO, Alain Visser is fronting a company embodying many of the challengers facing existing OEMs. It’s not only offering cars designed for electric powertrains and connectivity, it’s challenging the whole existing business model by designing one around emerging market expectations. Direct, online sales, fixed pricing, home delivery and a subscription model for the app generation. “The word doesn’t need another car brand,”, Visser said. No existing OEM would establish itself now using the archaic distribution models they’re tied to, but LYNK & CO is part of Geely and was dreamed up at Volvo labs, so can the company make it work and head off the Teslas, Ubers and as-yet-unknown disruptors who come in totally fresh, with no automotive background?

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Hildegard Wortmann – Senior VP, Brand, BMW:

For me BMW is in some ways the most interesting OEM represented in the speaker line-up. Recently replaced by a resurgent Mercedes as the number one premium brand globally, it has lost its way a little: a commoditised 3-Series, bland and questionable styling, not enough true SUVs, an i-Series low-emissions sub-brand which has stagnated with just two, polarised products book-ending a product void. And now it faces a fundamental challenge to its very purpose – the Ultimate Driving Machine – in the shape of automated mobility. What will BMW’s place be in the future automotive landscape, and how will it get there? As the brand chief, Wortmann should provide a clear insight.

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I’m a little biased as I worked with ANE for several years in the 2000s, partly on this event, but for me the Congress is the best automotive trade event in Europe. Readers wanting to register can get a €100 discount by visiting the link below and quoting the code LONGSHORE. It can be used for either the Congress/Rising Stars combo or the Congress only.

Hope to see you there.

https://www.regonline.com/registration/Checkin.aspx?EventID=1934274 

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.

Changing attitudes to mobility: the hidden factor in the PSA-Opel deal

RNPS IMAGES OF THE YEAR - GERMANYThe likely takeover of GM’s European unit Opel by PSA isn’t all to do with economics. It’s also about changing attitudes to mobility and transportation.

Although fully autonomous passenger cars are still some way off, the technology is well advanced. And connectivity is already becoming a must-have, so the way we access mobility can change very quickly once legislation and a wider offering from the OEMs and new entrants are in place. Together these things promise to turn the automotive industry upside down. That OEMs must adapt to changing market needs is clear.

Yet the OEMs aren’t impatiently waiting for legislation and market demand; they like the status quo. Their existing, set-in-stone business model is based on customers paying a premium for a brand and owning the asset or leasing it long-term. The OEMs build a car, send it from the factory gates to a dealer and see it again in three years’ time. That’s how they like it. They react to change; they don’t drive it.

What they do like is the fact that barriers to entry for new carmakers are significant. Designing and building cars is extremely complex and difficult, and it’s even harder to make money out of them. Tesla is an exception to an extent, but it is not fundamentally different or disruptive, and it still doesn’t make money. It makes conventional looking cars with battery packs and motors and sells them to mainstream customers. It hasn’t reinvented the form of the product or the business model, and automation is a feature on its cars, not a purpose.

56b8575825067Effectively Tesla wants to join the establishment but doing it with a bit of chutzpah; it’s not establishing a new paradigm. But that’s what new entrants should be doing and existing players need to move towards. The likes of Google and Apple have wisely stepped out of the shadows to think very carefully about what their place in the mobility landscape should be. In a decade or less the power may well be at the other end of the value chain from the traditional business model, with Uber-type autonomous taxi brands and ultra-short-term leasing.

The barriers to entry here are far lower, and this is what the established OEMs have to be ready to be a part of.

So in the next few years they ought to be redefining themselves – moving away from the selling and ownership model, not trying to please everyone everywhere and instead focusing on the specific areas where they can offer real value and relevance. This was implicit in GM president Dan Ammann recently saying, “…we need to decide what we’re not going to do.”

It’s through this lens that we should view GM’s offloading of Opel. Leaving Europe is a big move for a company which has previously tried to be a leader in all markets, and no carmaker has ever walked away from a big share in Europe. But these are times which require clear sight and strong action. Yes, there are the financial imperatives – it hasn’t made money in Europe this century and, the last time it did, Clinton was in power: the world is has changed massively since then.

Being prepared to abandon declining markets and profits means that it can focus more on new technologies and new revenue streams. That’s the consequence of what Amman was saying.

2016102001a_link_co_geelySome of the other major OEMs are showing evidence that they’re beginning to think about how they can fit into a world of disruptive change – Volvo for example has established a new shared mobility unit and its parent Geely has recently launched the Lynk and Co brand, founded on the trend towards ad hoc usership.

But among the biggest players any new mindset is a consequence of necessity. VW is reinventing itself as an EV and mobility provider – forced into faster, more fundamental change by the diesel scandal – yet as part of that process is having to ask fundamental questions of itself: what is it, what is its purpose, what must it and can it become for the future? These are questions which, when answered, define a brand.

And ultimately this is a question brand – of purpose, relevance, engagement, vand culture. All the OEMs must start focusing on the shift from being a manufacturer of products – autonomous pods will inevitably commoditise a brand – to being a deliverer of a service and an experience creator. The existing OEM brands and new entrants all have to forge a positioning and offering which will allow them to prosper in the 2020s and 2030s, when the marketplace will look very different from today.

GM, for all the unsentimental expedience of its farewell to Europe, may have taken the first steps towards that.

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.

 

New Volvo XC90 – not close enough to the edge?

That design is increasingly a core brand communicator for car companies is underlined by Volvo’s new XC90, revealed this week.

2015-Volvo-XC90-First-Edition-GrilleThe XC90 has become the car which underpins Volvo’s brand. The concept of an SUV sits more comfortably with Volvo than with any other company: good SUVs should be true lifestyle vehicles, where substance is never beaten by style, and in which everything serves a purpose – one of which is, simply, making your life better. For the inventors of the well-made, classless, intelligently designed and extremely safe family box on wheels, the XC90 articulates the brand better than any other model could.

05-volvo-xc90So the XC90 is the right vehicle to be leading with as Volvo effectively relaunches itself with a wave of new models. But the exterior design of the car, so vital to making a big brand statement, is not quite as well resolved as it should be, given the car’s ambassadorial role. Head-on and tail-on it does the job. In a nod to the past, it’s boxy, yet unlike previous Volvos it’s relatively cluttered. But more toyota-land-cruiser-v8-03importantly it’s a tall car and looks it: the beltline is low and flat, with almost no rake. And there’s little tension in the surfacing. The effect is that in profile and front-three-quarter views it lacks forward motion and dynamism. It’s reminiscent of the utilitarian Toyota Landcruiser V8. Which isn’t where Volvo needs to be.

Does this matter? After all, shouldn’t a Volvo should be happily understated, not shouty? Even coolly smug that it’s not a be-chromed Mercedes M-Class, an aggressively squat BMW X5 or a blacked-out Audi Q7?

Yes. But Volvo is talking about taking on the big premium brands. And it’s opening the order books with a limited edition version at a price of £68,000 (Euros 85,500), ahead of sales of a range starting at £45,000. Compare those figures with BMW’s brand new X5, which starts at £43,000 and tops out at £64,000 for a 402bhp petrol M sport derivative as opposed to the limited-edition Volvo’s 225bhp diesel engine. And the range-topping hybrid XC90 will push the ceiling higher. Leading with a loaded limited edition is a clear strategic move to establish Volvo in consumers’ minds as a confident, premium, aspirational brand. However, in doing that it’s trying to leap from sub-premium – an uncomfortable place where the brand has been locked into for years – to super-premium in a single move.

The issue here is not so much the size of the leap but that it’s not necessarily in the right direction. Volvo shouldn’t be trying to take on the German establishment directly. Its brand relevance is that it’s different and occupies a lateral space; a sudden vertical move undermines this uniqueness. At these price levels people buy on what a brand says about them, and a Volvo should say independent thinking and practical luxury for real, smart people at sensible prices. Not necessarily a 1400-Watt audio system and a crystal glass gear shifter.

Volvo has said that the exterior design of the next new model, the S90 executive car, will be edgier. It will need to be. Because while the brand should remain authentic and eschew ostentation, it needs a 100% confident design language to support a more aspirational price and brand positioning. That will help it take on the establishment from a position of difference and greater strength.

There’s not much amiss with the new XC90. But unlike Mercedes, BMW and Audi, with their huge model ranges, every new Volvo has to be bang-on and express the brand perfectly.

Volvo has shown how to combine practicality, cutting-edge technology, uncluttered design and Scandinavian character into interiors which are perfectly resolved. They’re not only a welcome change from those of the German brands but are world-leading. If it can make its cars as confident and satisfying to behold from outside as to sit in and to use, then it will be able to compete better emotionally as well as rationally.

Geneva brand digest #3: Volvo talks the talk but the party’s over at SEAT

Despite the fact that motor shows are a paradox – where technically cutting-edge and brilliantly designed machines which move us physically and emotionally are parked up in large, soulless indoor exhibition spaces – you can often tell as much about a car brand from its stand design and execution as you can from the models on display.

imagesAt the Geneva show Volvo demonstrated its brand transformation not so much in the Concept Estate car (despite the fact that it elicited more “I want one” comments than any other car at the event – yes, for a Volvo estate) as in the design and atmosphere of its stand.

After years of being sub-premium, a sort of no-man’s brand, the XC90 SUV gave it relevance once more, and the confidence to become not so much premium as Scadinavian. The brand now sits in its own space, transcending the stiff aspirational appeal of the big boys, and genuine practicality and cool Scandinavian design principles combine with a sense of enlightened independence to define the new Volvo.

This is now built into its crisply designed show stands not only through clean lines, neutral tones and contemporary materials, but by creating a guest area drawing its influences from a stylish Scandinavian home, with an informal mix of modern decor and design classics. items. The range of reference implies that the brand values are embedded in the culture of the business. So few brands do it.

4833836_930d7939c8e6ce19afb64b9cca352915_wmBut the stand-out feature was that Volvo used Swedes to serve the coffees – not people hired in locally, not traditional motor show smile-and-move-on hospitality people; these were young, relaxed, confident men and women who didn’t talk to you about the company or its products, but talked to you as they would in a Stockholm bar or Apple outlet. It’s hardly radical – after all, a business’s culture should always start with the staff. But it’s human, and it’s real – exactly where Volvo should be. And it works.

It’s ironic that as Volvo has passed into Chinese ownership it’s rediscovered its inner Scandi. If Geneva was anything to go by, VW’s Spanish value brand SEAT is going the opposite way. Some desperate recent years saw SEAT slip from aspiring to be a Spanish Alfa Romeo to the bottom of the VW pile, way behind the ex-communist Skoda. It’s made losses of Euros 1.5 bn since 2005. But it maxresdefaultpersevered with its Spanish party-time image, and late on motor show press days would always bring out the tapas and Rioja and turn the music up. Club music, one time with Ibiza DJ and Cafe del Mar creator Jose Padilla on the decks, another time young F1 driver Jaime Algersuari. The rest of the VW brands could only look on jealously from their corporate car parks.

The stand party didn’t happen at Geneva 2014. The last 12 months has seen SEAT rebuild its sales, and its new Leon lower-medium car is being praised as a genuine alternative to the market leaders. European sales were up over 10% in 2013, including 22% growth in Germany. There’s a new boss, and he’s German. Things are looking good. But they’re also looking less Spanish, less distinctive, and every other brand out there has good products.

You hope that this is more down to VW’s group cost-cutting than a brand repositioning. Because buying habits are changing, and there won’t be enough room in the VW portfolio for four serious but identikit mainstream car brands indefinitely.

Volvo – more upright, less up tight

13195_10151460597409489_20262807_n-1I’ve just been reading about the new Volvo ad campaign running in the USA. It seems Volvo is now nailing its identity, how it differs and how it’s relevant. And the economic conditions of the last few years mean it’s more relevant than it’s ever been.  In a world where culture is moving away from flashy displays of wealth and towards authenticity, the market has come towards Volvo.

The company has traditionally struggled to get a seat at the premium table. It’s been sub-premium, which is a mighty difficult position to communicate as a virtue, especially to potential new customers. So Volvo became stuck, and with the premium German brands entering lower-priced market segments its task became a lot more difficult. Over the past few years, however, it has realised that trying to compete on exactly the same terms with BMW, Audi and Mercedes is futile, and that it has more relevance as a brand whose products transcend traditional aspiration and perception – occupying its own lateral space, outside the vertical hierarchy. And its hands-off owner, Geely, is giving a great example of brand stewardship by allowing this to be articulated.

Today’s teaser shots of a new concept, a coupe which is exciting but retains Volvo’s solid design language courtesy of new chief designer Thomas Ingenlath, shows Volvo can be taken to new levels of desirability. And Volvo is about to become a leader brand with the launch at the Frankfurt motor show of a cutting-edge new engine family and platform. Yet for all the new sleekness and new-tech, the car which Volvo4has been the catalyst to Volvo’s recent brand journey is the decade-old XC90 SUV. It’s become the default family transport – even Jeremy Clarkson has owned them. As nicely executed as an Audi Q7 and more practical than even a  Discovery. The German brands have massively expanded their product ranges in recent years, inevitably going into SUVs, but range diversification works best if it’s based on real brand values, and the XC90 was an extension of Volvo’s undisputed practical-box-on-wheels principle, reinvented as a lifestyle package.

Volvo is a genuine lifestyle brand. The cars are a pleasure to use and to own, for real people – they’re even more usable than its estate cars of 25 years ago, but now in an aesthetically pleasing form with an increasingly authoritative use of Scandinavian design principles applied to comfortable, well equipped and well-made interiors, with cossetting safety. A Volvo is good place to be – like your living room on wheels, with everything just where you want it. It’s about practical style.

And there’s a kind of luxury in that, never mind just premium value – like a hotel which discreetly anticipates your needs rather than welcoming you with a magnum of Cristal. The cars are understated, work well and are satisfying to use, rather like Apple products. You may not have heard these two brands in the same sentence before, but Volvo, like Apple, is a classless brand. Drive one and you could be a business executive, architect, antique dealer, writer, farmer or housewife. Nobody will judge you and nobody will dislike you.

This is the point of the new ad campaign – http://youtu.be/umzNMC13QEk. A Volvo is less shouty than a Mercedes. A Merc announces itself loudly these days, with its body bulges and creases and its cabin-full of buttons and chrome. Volvo has become the antithesis of this. Ironically it’s now not that far from where Mercedes used be – well made cars with integrity and clean, modern design which become a friend to the owner. Volvo is The Killing, Mercedes more like a Jon Woo film.

Cars say a lot about their owners. But for Volvo what’s important is what they don’t say.