How To – Understand Why Some Car Brands Have It And Some Don’t

Written on:March 8, 2012
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Have you ever wondered how Alfa Romeo manage to sell as many cars as they do in the UK? Or why customers are so loyal towards Porsche and Subaru? Or which marque on sale today is the envy of all others? Well, we have the answers to all these questions, and many more besides.

There has been significant research into why people behave in particular ways when they are considering which products to purchase, and much of this research has been commissioned by those who have things to sell. It’s a cliche, but a car is the second most expensive purchase that the majority of people will make, so car manufacturers need to understand why consumers behave as they do more than most; after all, no-one builds a bad car these days, so the final decision on which one to buy will be made on a variety of intangibles, few of which have anything to do with what it actually feels like to drive.Research suggests that the key to influencing buying behaviour can be explained by examining three distinct product attributes: Utilitarian – the way the product works; Sign-value – the status inferred or conferred by the product; and, Hedonic – how much pleasure it gives (Mittal and Lee, 1988). All very straightforward so far, and fairly uncontentious.

This idea was then built upon in the development of the Consumer Involvement Theory, which proposes that consumer desire, and hence purchasing decisions, can be further explained by whether a product appeals to a person’s rational or emotional side, or, of course, both, although this is rare. (I’ll give you a clue here: only one car brand appeals to both…)

The Subaru BRZ will appeal to their existing customers – and the emotional ones too

If you accept that this is true (and many do), then one of four decision-making processes will be followed when you buy a car:

High involvement/rational – or reason over impulse. Buyers in this category will spend a long time making sure that they buy the right car, ensuring that the build quality, economy, or performance meet their needs; aesthetics will play little part in their choice. Consumers in this category are likely to have relatively high levels of self-esteem and are confident in themselves.
High involvement/emotional – or desire over logic. People in this category are interested in what a car looks like and in the style of the brand. Buyers in this category tend to have low levels of self-esteem, and seek the approval of others to reinforce their buying decisions.
Low involvement/rational – or quick logic over desire. These consumers will probably buy the same brand time after time, but will consider changing if the reasons for doing so are clear and unambiguous.
Low involvement/emotional – or impulse over reason. These buyers will make a snap decision because they like a brand’s visual imagery or stimuli – but if they don’t buy it quickly their thoughts will move on to another car brand.

Skoda Octavia – a high involvement/rational purchase

This is all very interesting, I hear you say, but what does it all mean?

The recent Trend Tracker report Car Brands and Consumer Involvement Theory claims that the car brand that is most often bought with the consumer’s rational side is Hyundai, with 55 percent of buyers saying that they bought it for practical, clearly-defined reasons. Second place went to Skoda with 54 percent and Renault with 50 percent, and the three most popular reasons given for purchasing cars in this category were economy (44%), practicality (40%), and affordability (40%).

But what about those brands that are chosen for emotional reasons, rather than rational? Well, first place went to Porsche and Alfa Romeo, both of whom scored a solid 100 percent, closely followed by Subaru (91%) and Jaguar (90%). The most important factors given for buying brands like these were style (35%), quality (33%), and economy (29%). Interestingly, the car’s performance and driving experience were rated as being relatively unimportant to car buyers, and were placed in 9th and 10th spot respectively, with a score of 17 percent for each one. It’s all about how they look, the image they project, and the cool that they impart. People make assumptions about the drivers of these cars, and the people who buy them believe that those assumptions are wholly positive. After all, if you thought about it for more than about ten seconds you would never buy a new Alfa, would you? 

XKR-S is an emotional purchase, which is good news for Jaguar

If we look at the mainstream, mass-market manufacturers, then an interesting pattern reveals itself. By plotting rational behaviour along the X-axis, and emotional behaviour along the Y-axis we can see that that brands such as Peugeot, Fiat and, interestingly, Chevrolet score high for rational appeal – and have an above average emotional pull too. Others, including Chrysler, Volkswagen, and Toyota, are seen as being a sensible buy but not an exciting one. This all seems intuitive and sensible, and probably fits in with our own perceptions of the brands.

Where this gets even more interesting for car enthusiasts – and problematic for the manufacturer – is in the case of brands like Skoda, who score very badly for emotional appeal, largely because they are perceived as having “weak styling and design”. Yet their sales increased from 549,000 in 2006 to 762,600 in 2010; how can a 39 percent increase in sales be a problem?

It’s a problem because car brands that have high emotional appeal tend to do rather better in a recession, which explains why BMW, Porsche and other premium car brands have flourished in the past few years. Customers who consider whether to buy a car on purely rational grounds – price, economy, reliability – are far more likely to conclude that they should defer the purchase of a new model and hold onto their old car for a bit longer. Emotional purchases are more impulsive, so are more likely to be made no matter what the economy is doing.

How does a car manufacturer change their perception from worthy and dull to exciting and must-have? Well, extensive and consistent marketing might be one way, but sometimes it just takes one halo car to change a car manufacturer’s fortunes. Cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Mitsubishi Evo, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Fiat 500 and the Audi TT were pivotal in not only driving sales of those individual models, but sales of other cars within the brand too.

The 500 made Fiat cool again

The ideal position, of course, is to have a car that appeals to both markets, one that is seen as sensible and exciting – and there is only one brand that has this elusive quality. Have you guessed what it is yet? Well, according to Trend Tracker’s 2011 Car Buyer Brand Perceptions survey it is the MINI. Well done BMW!






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