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Traditional car brands under threat in the age of automated driving?

Could the classic image of driving become a thing of the past? (Photo: Adobe Stock/EpicStockMedia)

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Kate Mann
Kate Mann
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Driverless technology challenges a number of fundamental values in the auto industry – from what it means to drive to what it means to own a car. We spoke to automotive mobility expert Dr Wolfgang Bernhart, Senior Partner at consultancy firm Roland Berger to find out more about the issues facing traditional branding and the measures being taken to address them.

If you think of a car advert, you most likely picture an open road, a car cruising through traffic-free streets and a driver enjoying his or her time behind the wheel. But could this traditional image of driving be about to come to a screeching halt? Fast forward ten, twenty, fifty years, and these ads may no longer be relevant – as the arrival of driverless technology and alternative mobility schemes starts to challenge the core brand values of today’s auto industry.   

The emotional element of driving and individual mobility – such as feelings of freedom, joy, flexibility and control – have long been central to OEM branding, particularly luxury or sports lines. However, if drivers are to become passengers in automated or semi-automated vehicles, with the prime aim being to get from A to B, such emotions may no longer take front seat.

An increase in regulations could reduce the appeal of driving (Photo: Adobe Stock/fazon)

Interestingly, according to Dr Bernhart, it is not only automated driving that is putting the emotive element of driving to the test. “For many people, driving is not the same as it used to be and will not be the same in the future,” he says. “The increasing volume of vehicles on the roads is causing more traffic jams, increasing parking problems and growing frustration – particularly in cities.” Combine this with a likely increase in regulations with regard to speed, emissions and safety, and driving becomes less attractive, he adds.

Another key emotion connected to driving is the status associated with car ownership: in other words, the vehicle you drive says something about you. Changing opinions about driving also have the potential to change ideas about ownership. Although, as Dr Bernhart points out, the direction of the impact could vary greatly according to different social and economic factors. Whilst in Europe, the appeal of car ownership is said to be on the decline; “in developing economies, such as India or China, car ownership is still highly desirable,” he explains. Another influential factor is age: for the younger generation, alternative (smart and digital) possessions are providing new ways to express identity and status – often for a much lower price than owning a car.

A new focus for branding

“Over time, factors such as reduced stress, comfort and relaxation could become more important when talking about road transport,” suggests Dr Bernhart. If car users are no longer drivers, vehicles will need to offer a different kind of experience in order to remain an attractive transport option (compared to trains for example). A key way to do this would be to concentrate on the use of time in automated vehicles – from productive work to entertainment. “Obviously, focusing on such experiences would represent a significant shift away from current car brand DNA,” he points out.

In a driverless future, car companies might put gained time at the forefront of branding (Photo: Adobe/rh2010)

Another key element will be service. For many consumers, the first choice they’ll make regarding driverless technology will involve new mobility schemes such as automated car sharing or shuttles. Here, consumer impressions are likely to be driven less by exterior design and more by the quality of service available – similar to an Uber ride, car rental, or even air and train travel, where opinions on reliability and communication are far more common than the machine itself.  

Certain studies have suggested that should car-sharing services become the principal way of getting from A to B, then certain companies could be at an advantage given their existing branding: Bentley as the luxury chauffeur brand or Volvo with their focus on safety could be seen to align more closely with the messaging surrounding automated vehicles than Lamborghini or Porsche for example. Interestingly, according to Dr Bernhart, you could also look at this another way: if daily mobility is covered by driverless mobility services, then car ownership will no longer be guided by practical concerns such as trunk size or number of seats. Instead, the one vehicle people do still invest in could be one that is simply fun to drive. In this scenario, luxury or sports brands would have the upper hand.

Of course, the level and scope of vehicle automation will play a key role in the way in which current brands are affected. “If all vehicles become solely linked to mobility services, then the impact on branding will be huge,” Dr Bernhart says. Automation could potentially create a new primary function for vehicles (mobility services) – and thus a new primary selling point. A useful comparison here is the smart phone. Until very recently, the core function of a telephone was to make a call; today for many people, especially the younger generation, phones are primarily a camera or a device for surfing the internet.

Matching customer expectations

Ultimately, target customer groups will govern the direction branding takes. This in turn will be influenced by the pace at which automated driving arrives. “People have to experience the technology for themselves to understand it,” Dr Bernhart explains. The industry therefore needs to anticipate customer expectation as the availability, acceptance and frequency of the technology evolves – not to mention the way their own products develop.

After all, fully or semi-automated vehicles aren’t going to appear on our roads overnight. It will be a process. While we could eventually reach a point where society no longer considers manual vehicles to be safe in comparison to automated systems – thus rendering traditional car brand values completely irrelevant – for now, a mix of privately owned cars (with varying degrees of automation) and driverless mobility services is more likely. This gradual transition to automation will also result in a gradual change in branding.

Several car brands have started to broaden their horizons when it comes to mobility (Photo: AdobeStock/zapp2photo)

“The auto industry should adapt their brands slowly,” says Dr Bernhart. One helpful approach could be to develop sub-brands or schemes that put the focus on new possibilities, such as BMW’s European car-sharing initiative DriveNow (ReachNow in North America). Elsewhere, other companies have started repositioning themselves as “mobility” companies and have bought start-ups or formed alliances focusing on transportation as a service. Ford has acquired a private, crowdsourced shuttle service based in San Francisco known as Chariot, for example. They have also invested in the largest operator of bike-share programs (Motivate) in the US. Another approach could be to focus on certain product features, allowing a company to introduce new technology without needing to rethink their entire image.

As with any rebranding, the process should be subtle and managed carefully. “Sudden changes to messaging will be counterproductive and not seen as authentic,” Dr Bernhart points out. It is essential for companies to maintain trust. “Building a new image or changing an existing one takes time – but when it comes to automated driving, it is something that needs to start now.”

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Kate Mann
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