Small cars,big appeal : Branding lessons from the small car market

I could start this post by telling you that the Canadian consumer’s growing appetite for fuel economy and eco-consciousness has made the small car category the fastest growing segment this year. (44% ahead of where it was in 2011). But I don’t see you being impressed.

Sure, the 44% increase as compared to 2011 might sound intriguing, but a fuel-efficient ride and packed with all the goodness of a midsize, what’s not to like? Instead, I thought of looking at small car communication and previous learnings to explore what other factors are at work here.

My tryst with the automotive category goes back a few years. I was a planner with Law&Kenneth, the Indian agency that handled the Skoda (the Czech car company later bought over by VW) account. We were tasked with the launch strategy for the Skoda Fabia, a hatchback, that would be giving the Indian car market a new sub-category – ‘the luxury small car’Skoda had garnered a notable cachet among car enthusiasts for its previously launched sedans. It earned its reputation for quality engineering, a sturdy chassis and luxury cues.This offering of luxury in a hatchback however, was a new concept. We realised we were late to the ‘performance/mileage/speed’ party, and besides, the Fabia was a notch above its competition – in price especially. So we used an emotional hook – Feel Special

The market lapped it up after initial hesitation.

Car learning number one: Choosing a car is an emotional decision, backed by rationale. Rationale is used as post-purchase justification.

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Later at Miami Ad school, 2 out of the 12 case studies I worked on, were car brands…and coincidently, small cars – Smart Car and a student pitch for the yet to be launched, Chevy Sonic. (See cases here). I realised that small cars have a tendency to portray themselves in ways that are in stark contrast to the mother brand. Smart Car belonging to the Mercedes-Benz stable, for example. I think it’s beneficial; that way negative rub-offs from either end of the spectrum don’t affect the entire brand line. For that matter, even the Mini was deliberately encouraged to grow its own following and stand apart from the corporate culture of the BMW brand. That was probably BMW’s smartest move; and MINI ran with it, creating a cult following.

Car learning number two: Sometimes consciously letting a variant find its own niche can work in the best interest of the brand. 

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Compact car branding revolves around more fun-to-drive/relatable themes, like the Epic Reliability spot for the Toyota Yaris or the 2011 Chevy Cruze campaign that was plastered across the city.

There’s a certain chutzpah that small cars own; consumer-led possibly, but I think sedans and crossovers can learn something here.

Car learning number three:  Category codes can be inhibiting – it’s okay to switch it up. Being vibrant in communication does not have to be a small car-only cue and luxury does not have to mean pretentious. Beautiful example: The 2013 Dodge Dart. Sedan-sized car, but still calls itself a compact and advertises like one too. 

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While my final point is not specific to small cars, it’s a learning from the auto industry that I think CPG goods in particular,could take a hint from. The dealership experience.  Crucial part of the consumer journey for every car brand, and vital to every marketeer’s plan. In my opinion, the dealership are to cars what retail is for packaged goods. How can the experience be amped up? Can digital and the real world come together to cement the brand-consumer bond? I’ll let the futuristic Audi City dealership experience answer that one.

I’d like to hear your thoughts!

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4 thoughts on “Small cars,big appeal : Branding lessons from the small car market

  1. buying a car is an emotional and social decision, which brand is rational. This tendency defers across the different strata of society in India though.

  2. very interesting !!

  3. @mokxie: You’re right, the specs differs across strata of Indian society because of how radically different the consumer’s profile is across the nation. What I was getting at is how primal one’s car choices really are.
    If someone had to complete the sentence : “My favourite car is ____”, the answer would not be based on rationale. Give them time to think, and the justifying rationale will emerge,sure.

  4. Thanks Mihir, you’ve been a long-time follower of my blog!

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