Focus groups. Styling clinics. The designs of tomorrow's vehicles are shaped in part by the opinions of today's consumers. But do these fact-finding missions give a glimpse of what customers will want in three, five or 10 years, or do they nip innovative styling in the bud? Tom Moulson spent 27 years at Ford Motor Co., most of them as a marketing research manager. He argues that styling research - if it takes into account how likely consumers are to adopt innovative styles - can be a useful and powerful tool for the auto industry.
Does styling research deliver? This is no idle question for carmakers. Millions are spent on it; billions ride on it. If accurate and predictive, styling research is invaluable; if not, it's a waste of time and money, or worse.
So it's necessary to ask, as Keith Crain did in his Automotive News column on June 8, 'When the product is going to be introduced four or five years from now, how important are customer opinions today?'
Much research is, indeed, idle chatter or data overkill. Take focus groups. These are very useful for uncovering issues and explaining findings. They enable company executives to see and hear the buying public. They stimulate ideas. They reveal what opinions are held, though not how widely.
They are popular with manufacturers because they are relatively cheap, entertaining and - perhaps not least of all - susceptible to many interpretations. However, they are subject to many biases, lack precision, and defy quantitative analysis. They can no more evaluate styles than counting cars in a parking lot can determine market shares.
Central-location clinics are the auto industry's method of choice for styling direction. Typically, design properties and production vehicles are flown or trucked across the country - sometimes overseas - to rented facilities, at which hundreds of carefully screened prospects answer thousands of questions.
These are fastidiously staged events, in which such care is taken that light meters ensure even illumination and vehicles' positions are rotated overnight to avoid bias. Everything about the process is right; it's the findings that are so often wrong.
The reason clinic research can lead to seriously flawed decisions is that consumers' opinions are inherently conservative. Really innovative themes generally earn poor likability ratings - the cardinal indicator of success. The more 'stretched' a style is, the worse it seems to fare.
Consumers are content with what they already have, yet we know this cannot make sense or we would never move beyond carryover.
Substituting other criteria for likability, such as whether a theme projects the images we think it should, is no solution. Likability is fundamental. If a style is to succeed in the market, it must be liked.
Surveys of customer opinion are valuable. Few people would question the broad validity of customer satisfaction and quality surveys. But counting product complaints is one thing, and predicting consumers' emotions is another.
People do not always know what they want, or tell us what they know. It can be a little like asking children what kind of person they want to marry when they grow up.
Such is the frustration caused when an innovative design ranks no higher than run-of-the-mill contemporaries that one of two things usually follows. Either the design is modified in a deadly compromise, or it is carried forward by faith rather than science - exactly the kind of risk-taking that styling research is supposed to minimize.
IMPACT OF REGIONALISM
The 1980s were a period of wrenching change for the U.S. industry, with downsizing, regulations and a flood of imported vehicles. Styles that were well liked in Los Angeles were found to do poorly in Dallas and Kansas City. This was not supposed to be possible; the notion of geographical differences ran counter to all previous evidence.
It also threatened research orthodoxy because, if true, it would render single-location clinics meaningless.
Analysis of sales during this period affords an explanation. If one takes models that had innovative styles strikingly different from their predecessors and compares those new models' first-year shares of segment to previous-year shares of their predecessors, by state - a method that cancels out changes in industry volume and segmentation - a strong geographical pattern emerges: high acceptance of the new styles on the West Coast, moderate acceptance on the East Coast and low acceptance in the middle of the country.
Since geographic differences can hardly be innate - taste in vehicle design is not genetic - what it must mean is that people were conditioned differently. In the 1980s, people living near ports of entry were more familiar with the rounded styles of foreign cars, incidentally contributing to the enduring myth that Californians are automotive trend setters.
Such geographic differences in styling taste probably did not exist before 1980, and have certainly diminished if not vanished since 1990 owing to buyers' widespread familiarity with a multitude of styling concepts.
The importance of taste differences based on what is familiar is that the introduction of a new style is itself a conditioning event. This can be verified by reinterviewing critical respondents from clinics in which a new style did poorly yet later became a market success.
Sure, they will say, they like the car - nothing wrong with it. Some may have even bought one. When shown their original questionnaire responses they will typically not remember having marked the car down or offer any reason for having done so.
LEGITIMIZING A STYLE
What so rapidly changes negative opinions is the legitimization of a style when it appears on the streets. So while it is true that most consumers like only what they know and 'go with the flow,' the flow is set in motion by the choices of a minority of buyers who know what they like and have the self-confidence to seek it out.
These early adopters have a personality quality undetectable by conventional analysis of age, income, etc. The propensity to adopt innovative vehicle styles is an expressive self-confidence that is distributed evenly across both genders, all ages and all demographic groups.
It does not necessarily apply to other products than autos - such as houses, furniture or art - and early adopters are on the surface no more distinguishable from late adopters than are Democrats from Republicans.
Determining consumers' propensities to adopt innovative styles adds a vital new dimension to styling research. Often, new and old styles tend to cluster together in likability, but beneath the surface innovative styles appeal far more to early adopters and older ones far more to late adopters. With this added dimension, consumers' preferences are no longer as frustrating as an unmarked street map.
MAPPING STYLING TRENDS
It is an easy matter, with this added dimension, to define the trend of a style at a point in time, just as one can tell the direction in which a car is traveling from a still photograph. Since late adopters follow early adopters, the style will strengthen in appeal if it is more liked by early adopters than by late adopters, and weaken if it is more liked by late adopters than by early. (Analysis has shown some new styles to be 'on the way out' at the time of their introduction).
Highly innovative styles will shock the market, but so also will the merely ugly, and it is important to recognize the difference. If early adopters like the style a lot more than targeted competitors, it has potential. If they like it less, it is a dog, no matter how strong the shock effect. The adoption curve of new vehicle styles resembles an air foil, with a very steep rise at launch, a period of stability, and finally a gradual decline.
To suppose, therefore, that buyers are not interested in stunning new styles just because we do not see surface evidence of this in clinics and focus groups would be a grave mistake. It is not what people like now that counts, but the thrill they will discover in falling in love with something new. It takes the legitimacy of the marketplace for this to happen.
Styling research can be an extraordinarily powerful tool. It can prevent colossal design failures and steer creative genius onto the paths of added value. It can sidestep the conservatism of today's buyers and interpret the shock of the new as potentiality. Hot styles it cannot guarantee - only designers design vehicles. But it can ensure that the best styles go forward. What designer would wish for more?