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Let’s all design a car together

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. recently invited me to make design suggestions for the next Camry. Not because I’m qualified to do so, but because I happen to be a Camry-owning household.

I and a million or so people just like me, who no doubt received the same survey.

“Toyota needs your help,” the e-mail claimed.

“Your responses to this survey will help guide the development of the next-generation Camry, and we would greatly appreciate it if you could tell us what you want from your Camry so that we can not only meet, but exceed your expectations,” the appeal read.

By some coincidence, Nissan North America is planning to begin reaching out to its million or so Facebook friends and inviting them to make suggestions for future products, too. Little suggestions at first, but then maybe bigger ones later.

What’s going on here?

An exercise in crowd-sourced product design? Have two global auto giants run dry on product ideas?

No one is seriously going to build a car that has been designed by a committee of thousands. And rest assured Toyota’s r&d legions don’t actually need my help on the 2016 Camry. (Which I declined to give them anyway.)

What’s really happening is free communications.

Automakers like to know what customers are thinking. And the customary practice of conducting focus groups is time-consuming and expensive, shuttling marketing groups from city to city. What if instead you could simply post a question on your Facebook page: “Hey, what do you think of these headlights?”

Not that a manufacturer is necessarily going to use the feedback it gets. But they like the back-and-forth conversation.

Which is really what this is about. Being invited to talk seriously to the people who designed and built your car and probably financed your purchase probably makes you feel a little closer to them -- as opposed to being ignored and taken for granted. Having a conduit of free communications with consumers -- through Facebook or by e-mail -- creates a human connection, regardless of whether your suggestion for torpedo-shaped headlights ever makes it into production.

As car salesmen always point out, strike up a friendly conversation with a showroom customer and the odds of selling them a car begin to rise.

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