Think about the tear-stained debates about whether Jaguar should offer a diesel. Or the debate as to whether BMW and Co. should sell hatchbacks. Or the switch to front drive (and back).
What these discussions have in common is that they relate to the “tension between consistency and relevance”. That is the title of a paper from the J. Acad. Mark. Sci which I have been reading. The authors are Beverland, M. et al who relate design thinking and brand ambidexterity as a means to allow companies to strike a balance between on the one hand providing customers with what they expect from a brand and on the other hand, changing enough to keep up with the market and changes in society.
Strong brands, they write, deliver many valuable outcomes for firms such as price premiums, loyal customers and sales. Defending the brand means not confusing customers with sudden or unsettling changes. And this was the dichotomy faced in particular at the dawn of the diesel age. I can recall angry journalists and readers horrified by the possibility of diesel Alfas and diesel Jaguars. The debate over whether RR should make an SUV are in the same vein.
Beverland et al. cite the case of the Premier Automotive Group as being one where brand stability came at the expense of innovation. That’s actually questionable: Jaguar switched to aluminium and Volvo’s range of cars was extended. Or do they have in mind only aesthetic stability?
At present the biggest challenge being faced by the industry is electrification. Having seen that diesel engines did not kill BMW or Jaguar and that BMW buyers can accept front-wheel-drive too, I feel that any anxiety over electric Ferraris and electric Mazdas are unwarranted. The real question is can they go electric fast enough.
Beverland et al layout a matrix for change. On one axis is high/low consistency and on the left right axis is low/high relevance. High consistency and low relevance is what we know as business as usual. BMW have been doing this for years with some exceptions such as the i3 and i8. Thirty years ago the estate version of the 5-series was a mild version of disruptive brand extension. You could say that Citroen in its glory days (and the French in general) favoured disruptive brand extension – that their brand was about disruption.
Today, if we consider that matrix, the switch to electric is one the kind of disruptive brand extension that any serious car maker needs to be considering. That or radical brand innovation (bottom left) which is where GM decides to get out of making cars and turn into a health care company or Porsche reinvents itself as a maker of wind turbines and solar panels.
Pretty much all the agonised discussions in the evolution of the car have been about this tension between the need to protect brand value and the need to follow the market. What might be interesting to consider today is examples where high relevance and high consistency change did not work.