Consumers buy cars based on aesthetics, not features

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

When it comes to building cars and trucks that will inspire customer loyalty, it might be best for automotive companies to focus on what their products look like instead of how much horsepower they have, or how fuel-efficient they are, according to a new study.

In fact, researchers from San Francisco State University (SFSU) report in the Journal of Product Innovation Management that not even lower prices are as effective at inspiring consumer loyalty and passion for a particular automotive brand than a vehicle’s aesthetic value.

“In product design, if you focus more on the aesthetics of the product, the connections that you create with the consumer at the brand level will result in more loyalty and a more sustainable relationship,” explained co-author and SFSU associate professor of marketing Minu Kumar. “You might think that segment [of consumers] wants more functionality, more bang for their buck. That may not necessarily be true.”

“The customer might forget the functional attributes of the product over time, but they will love the brand if it has beautiful products,” he added. “The more you invest in aesthetics, the stronger the relationship outcome. If you invest more in the functionality – like providing extra buttons, another cup holder – the result is a more transactional relationship.”

Kumar and his colleagues examined data from over 700 consumers about their opinions of 30 small vehicles on a variety of factors, including styling, craftsmanship, cost and safety. While the general view is that consumers in the market for these types of products tend to have utilitarian priorities, the research indicates that social and emotional factors (including pride of ownership) is more important to them than price or gas mileage.

According to Kumar, this supports the idea that consumers tend to support name brands that have unique and pleasing designs, including Apple products, Dyson vacuums and the automobiles like the Volkswagen Beetle. He also noted that this type of thinking is likely diametrically opposed to what many designers believe, especially those that set out to create products that cost less.

Another interesting finding of the study, according to the authors, is that the altruistic value of a car – i.e. whether or not it was environmentally friendly – was not found to be a significant factor when it came to brand affection. In fact, Kumar said that the perception that a car was environmentally friendly ranked behind economic value, proving that people “don’t seem to give a lot of importance to sustainability” when it comes to purchasing a new set of wheels.

The purpose of the study, the SFSU professor said, it to help clarify what is most meaningful to consumers and to prevent disputes between marketers and designers in the automotive industry. “There is a classic fight” between these two different factions, he explained. “This research is part of a stream of literature… which is trying to bridge this gap.”

The paper, “Enhancing Consumers’ Affection for a Brand Using Product Design,” was written by Kumar and co-authors Janell D. Townsend and Douglas W. Vorhies, also from the SFSU College of Business. It was published in the online edition of the Journal of Product Innovation Management in October, and will appear in the print version sometime next year.

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