Why Conventional Automobile Styling Research May Become Obsolete

ABSTRACT - Styling research in the automobile industry is an important element in new product planning. Industry developments, however, are adding new dimensions to the styling task. These factors are changing the historical approaches to styling research.


Henry W. Wolpert (1980) ,"Why Conventional Automobile Styling Research May Become Obsolete", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 22-24.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 22-24


Henry W. Wolpert, Ford Motor Company


Styling research in the automobile industry is an important element in new product planning. Industry developments, however, are adding new dimensions to the styling task. These factors are changing the historical approaches to styling research.


Styling research in the automobile industry is in a state of transition. This review examines the possible effects of recent trends in the automobile industry on styling research as we know it today. These trends may make the comparative approach to styling research obsolete.

To fully understand the underpinnings of this prognosis and to appreciate its impact, it is necessary to briefly review the operational principles of current automotive styling research and identify its objectives.

Essentially, all automotive styling research involves some comparative measures, usually of static exhibits. Because automotive styling research is not only concerned with the exterior appearance (the shape of the sheetmetal), but also the functional shape and stylings' relationship to roominess, comfort, ease of entry and exit, the research properties can be exteriors, interiors or the combined exterior and interior of cars or trucks.

The exhibits may take the form of photographs, video tapes, full-scale vehicles made from clay or fiberglass, mockups of car interiors or metal prototype vehicles.

The properties are evaluated and compared by samples of respondents, usually selected by some screening process to fit pre-determined criteria. For example, if an advanced vehicle concept is targeted for the small car segment, the likely sample will be new car prospects for small cars as well as for compact cars. The former represent the current market, the latter potential down-traders.

Logistics usually require to bring the respondents to the properties, rather than the other way around. Thus respondents are invited to come at appointed times to a central location where the test properties are on display. There are some variations to this procedure, for example, displays in shopping centers and interviews with intercepted respondents. But this approach is usually not used for crucial up-front decisions; it is most suitable for research using a short questionnaire and where there is no longer a risk of the manufacturer tipping his hand to competition.

Once at the central location ("clinic") respondents usually complete self-administered questionnaires as they examine and compare the stationary vehicles on display. Questions deal with feature evaluations, imagery and utilitarian aspects of the vehicles, using verbal scales, quantitative scales, open-end reactions, etc. The detail of questioning depends on the purpose of the study and the number of properties to be evaluated. This number may range from two to twenty properties, again depending on the objectives of the research. Usually the central location interviewing session ends with a one-to-one debriefing conducted by interviewers, providing some rank-ordering of preferences among the styling or product concept alternatives.

Ford Motor Company has conducted extensive pre/post research to check out the predictive power of this basic research approach. The consistency of findings has been quite impressive in the past: If the research identified a styling weakness on an advance product, which -- for some reason -- was not corrected prior to new model introduction, subsequent styling research and market reactions usually confirmed this weakness. The company has also conducted conjoint analyses to predict beforehand which one of several properties a given respondent would subsequently choose in the clinic. The estimated and actual preference shares obtained were sufficiently consistent to give great confidence in the general styling research approach described above.

To fully appreciate the impact of the current changes in the marketplace and their effect on styling research as a management decision tool, it is also necessary to briefly review the objectives of styling research. Each objective aims at reducing the inherent risks at a given stage of the management decision process. These decisions commit great amounts of dollar and manpower investments. Styling decisions are made several years in advance of the actual product market introduction, for product cycles which often represent Company commitments for five or more years. This required lead time and the magnitude of investments do not give the manufacturer much of a margin for error.

Usually, styling research addresses itself to three objectives, roughly in this time sequence during the product development process:

1.  Help management to determine which of several possible future alternative styling and product concepts for a single new product have greatest consumer appeal.

2.  Assist in fitting this preferred styling/product concept into a marketing strategy that will be compatible with the prevailing market conditions and consumer needs.

3.  Assist in management decisions for arriving at derivating model offerings which promise to capture at least the minimum level of sales required to justify financially the new product launch.

With regard to research Objective 1: There are a number of constraints which determine the types of styling/ product alternatives research can serve up to respondents to evaluate. Some of these constraints are inherent in the type of vehicle the company wants to introduce -- will it be a small car or a large car? A basic transportation or a luxury car? While it is possible to make some compromises such as designing a small luxury car, there are limits of how many large car benefits designers can cram into the package or the mechanics of a small car. Other constraints on styling alternatives: The financial resources the company can put behind the new vehicle -- will it be all-new, with all this implies in required engineering talent and plant investments? Or will there be some degree of carry-over product content?

These and many other constraints have their impact on the design of a styling study. Will it suffice to run a contest between alternative exterior styling executions only, because the interior dimensions or hard points of the new vehicle are given and cannot be changed? Or will each styling concept carry its own implications of interior dimensions, requiring a research design which includes exterior and interior as well as functional assessments?

Generally, the #1 Research Objective -- assisting in ferreting out the preferred style which can be fitted into the product constraints -- involves some type of "Beauty Contest" between several alternative styling/product executions of a single product concept.

Research Objective 2: This phase of styling/product research tries to fit the preferred styling concept into the realities of the marketplace.

Usually, this research pits the new product against the competition it will face, to find out whether the product will fill the market niche envisioned for it and whether it will be competitive.

A classic example of the outcome from this type of research is the Ford Granada as a Ford Maverick replacement. The original Ford Maverick concept was that of a basic transportation, stop-gap import fighter. From Phase 1 Maverick replacement styling research, the Granada emerged as the winning concept, very well liked by compact size prospects. This styling acceptance did not change when the Granada was shown in the Phase 2 research, in the market environment in which the car would be competing. But the compact prospects no longer perceived the Granada as basic transportation. "This is not my Maverick," "a Mercedes," "too fancy for my taste and pocketbook" were typical reactions. The subsequent management decision was to continue the Maverick as the basic transportation entry, and introduce the Granada as a swing car between an upscale compact and an intermediate size car.

Research Objective 3: Will the new vehicle reach the minimum sales objective to make it a financially viable proposition?

This research deals mostly with styling and product research on derivative models. For example, Phase 3 research showed conclusively that in order to reach its sales objective, the Mustang II had to be offered in a notchback and fastback version. Similarly, Phase 3 research indicated that in order to appeal to the youth market the Fairmont needed an additional, more stylish model. This resulted in the Fairmont Futura.

As stated earlier, the automobile industry's way of conducting styling and product research as described, may become obsolete; new or more sophisticated research techniques may be required to do the job. The reason is the fundamental changes in the car market brought on by government safety, environmental and noise reduction regulations, by recent gasoline shortages, higher fuel prices and people's desires for greater fuel economy.

It is important to note that the absolute importance of styling as a buying motive for consumers has not changed over the past five years. About the same proportion of new car prospects rate styling as important now as did then. But the relative importance has changed. While at one time styling ranked on par with gas mileage, now styling ranks below it. Nevertheless, if everything else if fairly equal -- and at times even if fuel economy, safety or quality are not all equal -- styling continues to be a major tiebreaker in the purchasing decision. This is why the manufacturers continue to do styling research.

The major change that is occurring in the market is in the nature of styling itself. Several things are happening, all at once:

- To increase fuel economy all cars are becoming lighter and smaller.

- As front loading of CAFE and consumer demand for fuel economy accelerates, so does this change to smaller cars.

- As cars are becoming smaller, interior space has to be optimized. This puts severe constraints on styling differentiation. To make the most efficient use of interior space, manufacturers are moving to front wheel drive, transverse engines, boxy styling with "a wheel rule at each corner." The results: Look-alike cars such as Rabbit, Horizon, Renault, Fiat.

- Once optimum space is obtained with/without front wheel drive, fuel efficiency can be further increased through reduced aerodynamic drag. This is an additional constraint on styling differentiation.

The other, more risky alternative for the stylist is to make radical departures from what was up to now accepted by consumers as "good styling." For example: The quickest way to increase rear seat legroom is to sit passengers more upright. Thus the new stiff rear window angle in GM cars.

The industry has been accused in the past of planned obsolescence through deliberate and unnecessary styling changes. What will be happening in the next five years, however, will be truly a process of obsolescence, but this will be mandated technical obsolescence, at a high price to the consumer. It will penalize the most those who can least afford to keep up with the purchase of ever more fuel efficient cars. They will be left with outdated vehicle concepts because they cannot afford to pay the step-up price between their trade-in and a technologically more advanced fuel-efficient car.

Without belaboring this point, the consequences for styling research which derive from these drastic changes in vehicle degree are apt to be twofold:

1. It may become increasingly difficult for conventional research tools to measure consumer perceptions of style, when styling differentiations or changes are minute.

2. In order to accommodate often contradictory demands of the laws of physics, drastic departures from what were accepted styling concepts may force researchers to seek new benchmarks as to what is "acceptable" styling. In the past, researchers were dealing with measuring the impact of styling evolution; researchers were quite sure of their judgment call when the product was better accepted than the benchmark products against which comparisons were made. From here on out, researchers may be trying to measure revolutionary styling departures, without comparative norms on "how good is good."

The answer may be more sophisticated segmentation of the people invited to judge the new vehicle styling. For example, there is research evidence that the market can be segmented by car buyers' preferences for types of styling. There is a segment that goes for conservative, functional styling, with a minimum of change. There is another segment which goes more for non-functional, "show" type styling.

Curiously enough, the former consumer group is just as aware of styling change, although this change may be very minor. They, too, are very self-conscious on whether this so called timeless styling of the car they drive really incorporates the latest changes which identifies it as the most recent model year. These people may be sensitive enough to give a reading on the relative appeal of different executions of minor styling changes. But they may be completely turned off by the drastic styling changes technology may force on the industry.

Conversely, the segment which goes for "show" styling may give a valid reading of revolutionary styling departures, but be useless for assessing minor changes.

Only time and experimentation will tell whether these assumptions may prove right.

In the meantime, there is a third consumer segment which has been identified in terms of its styling preference. Essentially, these are the "Followers": Whatever becomes accepted styling by the other two segments, "Followers" tend to adopt at a later date. This group is a crucial factor to success in the marketplace. The manufacturer who can set a revolutionary styling trend and stick it out until it "grows" on the first two groups will capture a good part of the "Followers." Thus, the biggest manufacturer may have an edge over the others. The sheer magnitude of his presence in the marketplace may make any styling he comes up with eventually the new styling standard for the market. In part, this may explain the market success of such controversial styling as that of the GM intermediates or Cadillac Seville, and the market failure of the equally controversial AMC Pacer and Gremlin styling.

It used to be an axiom in styling research that if a manufacturer had some aspect of controversial styling, and at lust half of the potential market liked it, chances were pretty good that this controversial feature gave the manufacturer a leg up in the market. This rule has probably gone by the wayside.

In the future, market researchers may be put into the position of counseling management on the likely success of the least distasteful among a variety of generally disliked styling alternatives. This is an entire new ballgame for styling researchers.



Henry W. Wolpert, Ford Motor Company


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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