‘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
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