What carmakers need to learn from Nokia’s failure

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What exactly is a connected car?

Is it a car that clumsily talks to your iPhone?

Is it a car that sends a stream of data to your insurance company, telling tales about your predilection for speeding on the A43?

Is it a car that talks thousands of times a second to satellites whizzing around the earth 12,550 miles above your head?

Is it a car that can play Netflix to your children through its headrests as you drive that unbearably long journey to your mother-in-law’s house?

Or is it a car that simply drives itself?

The Evolution of the Connected Car

10 years ago, the highest tech smartphone in the world was the upcoming Nokia N95… Apple was still a maker of iPods. Google was a search engine. Tesla had just produced its first prototype roadsters. They were made by Lotus. They didn’t go very far on a single charge. There was no autopilot mode.

But over the intervening 10 years, I have gone from swearing loudly at an ineffective 2006 infotainment system that refused to connect to my iPod to expecting the next car I buy to be some fantasy amalgam of butler, chauffeur, personal assistant, masseuse and pathfinder.

Our definition of ‘connected car’ continues to morph, shift and expand. And carmakers have had very little to do with this change. They have been passengers, dragged along in the wake of massively disruptive technologies that have appeared so quickly and changed our lives so much that their product development road maps and supply chains are only now beginning to catch up.

So, have our expectations of cars changed? Or have the changes wrought on other parts of our lives created a new set of expectations to add to the basic requirements?

To understand this, we have to go back to the beginning.

Learning from the Past

As originally imagined by Henry Ford, mass-produced motor vehicles were the democratisation of fast mass transport. From the 20s to Detroit’s heyday in the 50s and 60s, the car became simply a faster, more comfortable place to achieve the goal of getting from point A to point B, quickly. By the mid 1980s, Ford had turned this mass produced, lowest common denominator approach to motoring into an astonishingly profitable enterprise – but the product was fundamentally the same.

Ford’s European range in 1986:

  • The Ford Fiesta (the small one)
  • The Ford Escort/Orion (the medium one)
  • The Ford Sierra (the family one)
  • The Ford Granada/Scorpio (the large one)
  • The Ford Capri

The industry had matured. Growth became harder to come by – the 90s saw an array of poorly thought through mergers and acquisitions (BMW Rover anyone?) in the quest for growth through scale.

Once these either failed (or less frequently, succeeded), carmakers were left with innovation branding as their major route to growth. Like food and drink manufacturers, they found themselves singularly unable to grow sales of existing products any further – new products, based on existing architecture would have to do.

So, they ‘innovated’. The advent of the SUV was a lifeline that every single manufacturer (including, most famously, Porsche) grasped with both hands. In Europe, the MPV had a similar effect. And product planners, eager to wring every last cent or penny or pfennig from their major platform investments, pushed their marketing and vehicle branding teams to create ‘new’, clever ways of skinning the same basic platform. VW, famously, did this across four different brands that sold (and still sell) the same product.

None of this was or is actually that innovative.

Just two years before the iPhone, this prescient quote was included in an article published by the Open University:

“The car industry today is an industry that is piggy-backing off the type of innovation that is occurring in an industry that is still in the early phase of its life cycle. In fact an industry that looks a lot like the car industry looked 100 years ago – the IT industry. And that’s why you see these car firms like Peugeot, Jaguar, Mazda filling up their cars with all these IT gadgets because that’s the only way that they can appear innovative. (Dr Marina Mazzucato, 2005)

The recipe that worked so well in 80s was broadly the same in the noughties. A number of seats in a vehicle designed to transport you, more or less safely, from point A to point B. This reached its (il)logical end point in the execrable Mercedes GLC – a Frankenstein SUV Coupe designed to squeeze every last cent out of the product development budget.

But today’s consumer is outrageously well-informed. And, given a basic level of inquisitiveness, they can leverage the power of the combined knowledge of millions just by typing a question into their phone’s browser.

So how does that consumer buy a car today?

The Key Differentiators of Technology between Makes & Models

The core product is basically the same. Yes, it’s is safer. Perhaps not more economical but it’s more comfortable. It’s more powerful.

But it is also definitively more confusing. Its benefits are less clear cut. And the things that create additional value, that set a given car apart from its peers are increasingly created and owned by companies that are not carmakers.

When I look for GPS accuracy I think Garmin or TomTom. When I look for excellence in audio, I think Meridian or B&O. When I want a car to connect to my wider lifestyle, I look for CarPlay or Android Auto. When I want better brakes, I seek out Brembo or AP.

These elements are all ingredients. But more importantly, their technology branding is simple. It is clear. It is unadulterated.

Faced with the rise of ingredient brands as differentiators (and Tesla’s pesky electric autonomy), traditional carmakers have responded in time-honoured fashion.

They’ve doubled-down on extending their feature sets, creating a mind-boggling array of complex, impenetrable descriptors to attach to their confusing, multi-tiered, endlessly body-styled ranges.

But underneath, there’s very little innovation.

Whilst it seems like they’re being innovative by delivering all these new models and options for their consumers, the reality is they’re just playing catch up.

So now every carmaker needs a PHEV. They need some weird SUV/Coupe thing. They need to be seen to invest heavily in long-range electric. They need an autonomy division. They’re copying, not leading.

As we buy fewer and fewer vehicles, and lease, or rent, or even hire more and more frequently, will anyone actually care that BMW has this many models?

  • BMW 1 series
  • BMW X1
  • BMW 2 series
  • BMW X2 (due in 2017)
  • BMW M2
  • BMW 3 series
  • BMW M3
  • BMW X3
  • BMW 4 series
  • BMW M4
  • BMW X4
  • BMW 5 series
  • BMW M5
  • BMW X5
  • BMW X5M
  • BMW 6 Series
  • BMW M6
  • BMW X6
  • BMW X6M
  • BMW 7 Series

And dear god, can anyone honestly tell me how you pick the right one of 446 model variants on the BMW configurator. Who has the time to get it right? Surely every BMW owner in the country suffers terribly with FOMO?

Audi are no better. They take the opposite approach – they assume such a low level of knowledge and care in the mind of the consumer that they offered exactly the same ‘suggested configuration’ of A4 saloon to a selection of my colleagues using their configurator. It suggests a level of personalisation that is in actual fact not supported. They ask no questions about what you’re looking for. They assume.

But Audi and BMW are not alone. I know from personal experience that this malaise is present in almost every single automotive brand to a greater or lesser extent. Complexity has become commonplace – and rather than fixing the root cause, technology branding is used to paper over the cracks.

Embracing Simplicity for a Personalized Vehicle Branding

In a world of shared data, massively heightened consumer expectations regarding what companies should be doing with that data and an expectation that the trade off for sharing your every online (and offline) move is a personalised service, both of these (and many other) manufacturers fall woefully short.

Where we seek simpler, clearer, more personal choices, we’re confronted with complexity, or false, shallow understanding.

Vorsprung durch technik it is not.

In a world where fewer young consumers in the West are buying cars, where megacities will suck in populations, where resources are scarce and in which cars drive themselves, who needs to waste time deciding between feature sets and taglines created in the 1980s?

As we move to shared access to self-driving vehicles, to ultra-flexible rental models and to an increasingly experience driven set of consumer expectations, is there the room for so many confusing and competing models?

Whisper it, but do we need so many car brands?

Faced with this stark challenge, embodied by Uber, by Tesla, by the rumoured Apple iCar, the traditional carmakers could do worse than look to simplicity.

It’s manifestly clear that their quest for differentiation and innovation has had the opposite effect. Their model ranges are weighty, difficult to navigate and rely on collective brand muscle memory to retain market share. Their product is a refined version of the same thing they sold in 1969.

Porsche are taking some sensible steps – but they have a small range, with clearly defined roles. Instead, Ford, BMW and others should perhaps look to brands like Help Remedies – brands who have remembered to focus on the simple consumer need at the heart of the purchase decision.

And they should embrace the data made available by the very same connected cars and sales funnels they manage to create a truly refined and personal brand experience. One that focuses on what we want from our future transportation experience. Not on how to squeeze the most profit from a given platform.

In my lifetime, the car market will change beyond all recognition.

But it won’t be electrification or autonomy that helps brands to thrive and survive – these features will be table stakes. Instead, it will be the brands that understand their customers needs and that create flexible, simple and straightforward mobility services that will win.

The problem is – it might be a brand that doesn’t make cars that recognises this first.

There has never been a better time for carmakers to embrace simplicity in their vehicle branding strategy. No one wants to be the next Nokia.

Geraint Jones is business development director at Siegel+Gale. Follow Geraint on Twitter: @gvlj

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