DE­SIGN TRENDS

‘The Ed­sel was an im­por­tant les­son in put­ting too much faith in raw data and in over­es­ti­mat­ing the pub­lic’s abil­ity to ac­cu­rately ex­press their cur­rent needs, never mind their fu­ture dreams and as­pi­ra­tions’. De­sign guru Glynn Kerr dis­cusses mar­ket­ing-led

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Back in the mid-1950s, the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany de­cided their mar­ket po­si­tion­ing needed a shake-up in or­der to com­pete more suc­cess­fully against ri­val brands, in par­tic­u­lar those op­er­ated by Gen­eral Mo­tors. So, Ford planned to move their Mer­cury and Lin­coln di­vi­sions up­mar­ket to com­pete with Pon­tiac and Cadil­lac, leav­ing a gap in their line-up for an en­tirely new mid-priced brand. The brand was named Ed­sel, af­ter com­pany founder Henry Ford’s son.

The de­sign phase was pre­ceded by one of the most ex­ten­sive mar­ket­ing sur­veys ever un­der­taken in the au­to­mo­tive world. Huge stud­ies were car­ried out to un­der­stand ex­actly what the cus­tomer wanted, with the goal of com­bin­ing all their re­quire­ments into the per­fect car. But when it was fi­nally launched, the cus­tomers re­jected it en

masse, the whole ven­ture end­ing as a com­plete flop. It was an ex­pen­sive one, too; the en­tire de­vel­op­ment phase hav­ing set Ford back by a quar­ter of a billion dol­lars at the time. That’s a lot of money for a cor­po­ra­tion to­day, so you can ap­pre­ci­ate how dis­as­trous it must have been in the 1950s.

For both car and mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers, the cost of de­vel­op­ment and tool­ing for a new model to­day is ex­po­nen­tially higher than it was back then, so it’s un­der­stand­able they want as­sur­ances the de­sign will sell be­fore they

in­vest too much. How­ever, the Ed­sel was an im­por­tant les­son in put­ting too much faith in raw data and in over­es­ti­mat­ing the pub­lic’s abil­ity to ac­cu­rately ex­press their cur­rent needs, never mind their fu­ture dreams and as­pi­ra­tions. Peo­ple want to be in­spired, not in­ter­ro­gated. But even Fer­rari, a man­u­fac­turer that de­lib­er­ately builds fewer cars than it can sell, em­barked on his­tor­i­cally ex­ten­sive (for Fer­rari) mar­ket re­search for their new Portofino. So, clearly, cus­tomer and dealer sur­veys are still con­sid­ered to be vi­tal to en­sure strong sales.

Hav­ing at­tended many such re­search meet­ings on the in­for­ma­tion-gath­er­ing side of the table, I can con­firm that it is an ex­tremely long and bor­ing process, which I am happy to del­e­gate to the peo­ple with clip­boards. Maybe, the mar­ket­ing folk are pick­ing up some­thing I’m not, but much of the in­for­ma­tion gleaned al­ways seems glar­ingly ob­vi­ous and the most in­ter­est­ing part of the day is in­vari­ably lunch. As a counter ar­gu­ment, I have heard some com­plaints, mainly from mar­ket­ing peo­ple, that my own de­signs are led by gut in­stinct rather than hard re­search — an ac­cu­sa­tion I have no prob­lem with. Gut in­stinct is sim­ply the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of a life­time of knowl­edge, ap­plied to the sub­ject from the heart. If you have the knowl­edge but lack the pas­sion, noth­ing ex­cit­ing is ever go­ing to come of it. And build­ing ex­cite­ment is a big part of this in­dus­try.

Taken more ob­jec­tively, that gutin­stinct ob­ser­va­tion could be adapted to con­sider whether a par­tic­u­lar brand or model is ei­ther data or de­sign led. Some­how, I can’t imag­ine the Pani­gale V4 de­vel­op­ment team lost much sleep wor­ry­ing about pub­lic ac­cep­tance. Be­fore start­ing the project, a few ex­ist­ing Pani­gale twin own­ers may have been asked, over an espresso or two, as to what they would like to see im­proved, but that would prob­a­bly have been the ex­tent of it. The brief was sim­ply to make a bet­ter Pani­gale. The team knew in­stinc­tively what was needed and I’m sure they also knew when they’d achieved it, with­out the need for too many cus­tomer clin­ics to ver­ify the re­sults. If you make a strong enough state­ment, the world will fol­low you. Pro­vided, of course, you get it right.

But Du­cati is a sin­gle-fo­cused brand, which makes that task so much eas­ier. Yes, there has been some di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion in re­cent years into cruis­ers, ad­ven­ture tour­ers and scram­blers, but the es­sen­tial DNA of the brand is still sports bikes, and with a bona fide rac­ing pedi­gree. That core im­age sells all the other stuff.

When, as with many other brands, the mar­ket seg­ment is broader, then projects be­come mar­ket­ing-led, and the de­sign­ers do what they are told. Mostly. But that’s un­der­stand­able. The greater the pro­duc­tion num­bers, the more likely the com­pany will need to spread the

If you make a strong enough state­ment, the world will fol­low you. Pro­vided, of course, you get it right

ap­peal across a wide band of cus­tomers, usu­ally over mul­ti­ple coun­tries. Cre­at­ing a global prod­uct that will sell equally well in Eu­rope, the Amer­i­cas, Aus­tralia and Asia, each of which will have wildly vary­ing re­quire­ments and pre­con­cep­tions, will re­quire plenty of ground­work to en­sure the fi­nal prod­uct has global ap­peal. Here, prod­uct plan­ning plays a piv­otal role.

Like­wise, in the des­per­ate strug­gle to find new vari­a­tions of two wheels and an en­gine, plan­ners have taken the lead in merg­ing dif­fer­ent mo­tor­cy­cle cat­e­gories in the hope of cre­at­ing new di­rec­tions. Once again, the two-wheel in­dus­try is fol­low­ing four, where the in­fin­i­tes­i­mal vari­a­tions in the fam­ily-car-cum-SUVcum-sports-hatch niche have be­come truly mind-bog­gling. Mo­tor­cy­cles have tried to fol­low, but with less suc­cess. Honda’s X-ADV looks fun and ro­bust, but who re­ally needs an off-road scooter? I’ll bet that 90 per cent never leave the pave­ment. I smell a prod­uct plan­ning brief that the de­sign­ers re­sponded well to, if some­what pre­dictably. Gotta sell more bikes. Gotta find new mar­kets, even if we have to in­vent them out of thin air.

By con­trast, some ad­vanced de­sign stud­ies, in­tended pri­mar­ily to wow fans at the ma­jor shows, gen­er­ate enough pub­lic in­ter­est to per­suade man­age­ment to turn them into pro­duc­tion mod­els. Bikes like the Husq­varna Vitpilen, Suzuki B-King, and even the Suzuki Katana all started life as show bikes, although it’s al­ways hard to know if they are truly ad­vanced con­cepts or just teasers ahead of the pro­duc­tion ver­sion which is al­ready pre­pared for launch. Ei­ther way, com­pany in­sid­ers are usu­ally in­ter­spersed in the crowd, care­fully not­ing the pub­lic’s com­ments for later di­ges­tion in mar­ket­ing con­fer­ences.

KTM give the im­pres­sion of be­ing a de­sign-led com­pany; due, per­haps, to the de­sign du­ties be­ing del­e­gated to an out­side com­pany, Kiska. In­de­pen­dence from the in­ter­nal cor­po­rate pol­i­tics can help keep in­spi­ra­tion un­fil­tered, although it’s not en­tirely with­out pres­sure. Since their very be­gin­nings, Yamaha, too, have del­e­gated most of their styling work to G K Dy­nam­ics, the re­sults of which can, per­haps, best be seen in the var­i­ous de­sign stud­ies over the years. Mod­els such as the MT-01 and MT-06 also started life as show con­cepts.

While I can’t imag­ine Philip Vin­cent send­ing out squads of fact-find­ing scouts to gather data on pub­lic ac­cep­tance trends be­fore build­ing the Rapide or Ed­ward Turner in­dulging in colour and graph­ics re­search, there is clearly a place for pre­dict­ing mar­ket ac­cep­tance ahead of ma­jor in­vest­ment. The essence is to ask the right ques­tions and ver­ify the re­sults ahead of pro­duc­tion.

The Ed­sel didn’t fail be­cause of mar­ket re­search. It failed be­cause the re­sults were in­ter­preted wrongly, the pric­ing was so close to Mer­cury that cus­tomers were left con­fused about the im­age and the econ­omy fell into a short re­ces­sion around the time of its launch, lead­ing to the rapid ex­pan­sion of mid­sized ve­hi­cles and eco­nom­i­cal im­ports such as the Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. Most im­por­tantly, no­body both­ered to check with the cus­tomers that the fi­nal de­sign, which was con­sid­ered frumpy but with an odd grille, matched up to their ex­pec­ta­tions. The Ed­sel was pro­duced for just three years be­fore the en­tire ven­ture was ter­mi­nated.

Mar­ket data are vi­tally im­por­tant, but com­pa­nies need to be cau­tious as to how they are used. If de­sign by com­mit­tee is a bad idea, then de­sign by the en­tire pub­lic could be dis­as­trous. Gut in­stinct seemed to work pretty well for Vin­cent.

The last 40 years have seen mo­tor­cy­cles change more in width than in pro­file

The Ed­sel’s frontal de­sign was not well re­ceived

De­spite ex­ten­sive mar­ket re­search, the pub­lic was not con­vinced by the Ed­sel

Ed­sel Ford’s three sons (on the right, Com­pany Pres­i­dent Henry Ford II) with an Ed­sel con­vert­ible

It seems un­likely Du­cati needed pub­lic opin­ion to help cre­ate the Pani­gale V4

Pro­duc­tion Honda X-ADV re­mained close to the con­cept

Many con­cept stud­ies be­come pro­duc­tion mod­els, while oth­ers are just teasers for an im­mi­nent launch

Honda X-ADV con­cept at the 2015 Mi­lan EICMA

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