What is it that motivates people to stay with their current brand or move on to others? What do carmakers need to do to captivate buyers and keep them loyal over time? The answer is…love. Brands that make love are brands that care enough to keep customers happy by delivering on their needs and wants better than competitors.
In the past few years, research suggest that the gap between the very best and worst quality cars has narrowed. Indeed, the 2014 J.D. Power Initial Quality study indicates that the once huge gap between domestic and foreign brands, as was the case in the 80’s and 90’s, is now comparatively miniscule. What’s more, the margin from the best cars to average and below average has diminished dramatically and it’s pretty hard to find a poor quality car nowadays. But still, some brands are exceeding others by creating rational and even more powerful emotional connections to their brands. Here’s our take on the look of love…
Love is Dependable
Like a relationship, we rarely fall in love with things we don’t trust. As most any buyer study will tell you, quality, reliability, dependability and re-sale are generally the top buyer wants in core volume segments. Not everyone wants a car with super sleek styling and autobahn performance. But nobody tells you they want a car with mediocre reliability. And that’s because cars (and repairs) are big ticket items and nothing’s worse than a bad and costly surprise and the hassle of a car lost for a few days in the service bay. Looks might attract us to a person or a brand at first, but trust is what matters in the long haul. A couple brands today are still suffering from quality perception issues and there are no styling fixes, nor hip advertising, that can make up for the importance of a solid quality reputation. Despite the fact that the quality difference between a Chevrolet and Toyota can be as little as one percent, the perceived gap is often far greater based on brand perception. Trust is the powerful foundation of love. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry still stand as the textbook examples of the rational and emotional power of getting quality right. And Accord and Camry owners have powered word-of-mouth advocacy over time.
Like a marriage that remains strong after 25 or 50 years, many argue that long term durability (over 3 years) and re-sale, is the best measure of quality and brand strength. And the truth is, most new cars today will perform with good reliability (won’t break down) for over 100,000-150,000 miles. But what separates some brands from others is how that car feels and performs over time. Is it solid and rattle free? Do the seats and stitching look new or rumpled and worn out over the years of wear and tear? Does the paint and plastic still look shiny and deep at 60,000 miles? Is it possible for a car to look and smell new after 70,000 miles? For some brands that invest in long-term durability the answer is yes. That leads to higher satisfaction and higher resale.
Love Is Simple
The findings of recent quality studies show a key trend that when carmakers get too tricky or precious with technology they upset customers and risk loyalty. Complicated navigation and infotainment systems have sent some makers quality rankings from first to worst. What’s more, chasing innovation imagery and the higher margin contributions from complicated technology has created incredible frustration for car owners and lost loyalty for carmakers. For example, the inability for voice recognition to understand simple commands like entering a destination address is a maddening problem. Car journalists have told stories of needing to read a phone book size owners manual to run the navigation and entertainment system on a German luxury brand.Insane. I’ll use the map app on my iPhone thanks. And please, don’t spare the old fashion knobs for heater controls.
Let’s face it, for most folks, styling is still a real big deal. Cars are an extension of who we are. They make a statement about how we want to project an image and how we want others to perceive us. The same can be said about performance and handling. A lot of people like the sense of command, control and fun from a well-sorted car. Cars need to fulfill a rational function, but for most folks the inward emotional and outward social component (how we look to others) are just as important. A good car should invite a look back as you walk away from it. Many cars don’t though. In turn, brands like BMW have nailed the passionate part of car love for years. Look at a 3 series and you see why. The styling is fighter jet clean as are the straightforward instruments in the cockpit. The stance and tire to fender clearance are just tight and right. And when you fire up one of their legendary inline 6 engines it’s like Bono nailing the chorus in the Name of Love anthem. You’re hooked.
Love Is Different
People spend years looking for that one special person in their life. The search for the right car is the same way for some people. Cars that provide that Goldilocks blend of a unique personality and the right stuff are rare and bring fierce loyalty. These characteristics are inherent in cult brands. Like Mini and their owners. To them, no other car hits the sweet spot of iconic syling, social “go-my-own-way statement making” and go-kart-like driving fun. Mini scores high on emotional brand measures and the sales and service experience year after year. Mini is different and their owners love them for it.
Love Is Caring
As the gaps with initial vehicle quality continue to close, expect automakers to put more emphasis on the sales and service experience as points of difference and loyalty retention. Beyond the free maintenance programs we’ve seen from some luxury brands, expect non-luxury brands to make announcements of their own to keep owners happy and in the fold. Re-inventing customer care is an area that is ripe for innovation and fueled by the connected car and consumer.
In the end, good cars, like good people, earn a following because they’re solid, unique and built from love. They care a little more about people and sweat the details to keep their business. And those are the brands we are most likely to come back to.
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