The future of automotive branding is a car crash waiting to happen

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Branding the auto industry. Where next?

Altogether now: Vorsprung durch Technik. Audi’s mantra since the 80s. It doesn’t matter what it means, it’s mainly meant to sound German and cool – but it does have a meaning: progress through technology. The funny thing is, it’s in danger of looking bitterly ironic. Audi, and other large automakers like them, are at risk of being left out in the cold, and precisely because of technology. So, what will it mean to be a car brand in a world where people don’t drive anymore?

According to J.G. Ballard, renowned car enthusiast (and author of Crash), “the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car”. Fast forward to the 21st, and that image is probably the man on the curbside, flicking between his phone and the road ahead to see if his Uber is arriving as promised. Fast forward another five years, and the image will be different again, probably one that nobody has managed to fully predict.

Driving has changed, and car brands must change with it. For over a century, cars have not only shaped our landscape, but the way we talk about brands. The brevity of thought that is now second nature in advertising arguably started with the emergence of the car. When people are speeding past, you can’t hit them with a twenty-word slogan. So, the snappy brand line was born, along with the marketing portmanteau (‘Shellubrication’, ‘motel’), and of course, the immersive world of Burma-Shave.

Once again, the car is going to change the way we live and the way we advertise. In the course of our work helping to establish the UK as a global hub for connected and autonomous vehicles, we’ve been wrestling with some of these problems.

For manufacturers, the scramble to remain relevant has resulted in an incestuous web of alliances, takeovers and ‘strategic partnerships’. Companies are set to become both partners and competitors at the same time. Take GM; they’ve partnered with Uber and Lyft, who are competitors to each other, the latter also having a partnership with Jaguar Land Rover – GM’s competitor. Both services depend on data from Google, who they are at the same time up against in the form of the new Waze function, and GM is directly competing with Google’s Waymo arm in the race to get a viable autonomous vehicle on the road. Heed that old adage: ‘my frenemy’s frenemy is my frenemy’. These large, lumbering manufacturers are gobbling up startups like it’s going out of style, but they don’t have the wherewithal to scale them fast enough, not to mention the culture clash when 57-year-old engineer Kenneth from the factory in Coventry tries to have a working partnership with a twentysomething coder who thinks courgetti is a food group.

People say autonomous cars will make us safer – apparently 90% of accidents on the road are caused by human error. But for a long while autonomous cars will have to co-exist with pesky human drivers, and vehicles of different brands or levels of autonomy. How will AI determine the hierarchy of who they swerve? And remember, AI is not morally incorruptible: it takes on the biases of the data it feeds off. After less than a day, Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot Tay became a racist, Holocaust-denying jerk. Be thankful it only had the capability to tweet and not any real-world power. Anyway, at least at first, this new cartopia will probably only extend to urban areas and major motorways. Anywhere else, and you’ll have about as much luck trying to join in with this new wave of progress as trying to stream a video in rural Wales. Not to mention the question of data storage, legal frameworks, cybersecurity – you can even hack a toaster these days. As a wise person once said (and I misquote): “to err is human, but if you really want to f*ck things up, you need a computer.”

Things, in short, are about to get interesting.

What will happen when we stop driving cars, and cars start driving us? In the future, people won’t drive cars, and companies like Ford and GM probably won’t make them. People, especially younger generations, just don’t like owning shit anymore – and if you needed proof, it’s the third month in a row of falling car sales worldwide. Some will still own cars, but it will be a quaint anachronism like taxidermy, smoking or riding a horse. Cars will still exist, but driving will be dead. And a car manufacturer’s entire brand equity – freedom, manliness, the power of the self – things that are so tied up with the act of driving – will stop being relevant. When we relinquish our own autonomy to that of the machine, the great automotive narrative dies with it. Imagine the movie Drive set five years in the future: Ryan Gosling flicks an invisible piece of dust from his bomber jacket, lights up a cigarette and speeds away in a… BlaBlaCar?

Car companies, like pretty much everything else, could be forced to become service or ideas industries. Now, think about the first car you ever owned. You probably still remember the make, the colour, where you went, what you did in it (yeah that too). You’ve probably had a deep, emotional relationship with every car you’ve ever owned, and the brand has been an immense part of that, but it’s also because you drove it. You can’t have the same kind of relationship with a car sharing club, or a big box that drives you around while you sit there like you’re in the film Wall-E. Well, not yet you can’t.

We can see this playing out in the latest big idea to blow through automotive branding: the narrative of convenience. Take Uber’s first TV ad, a vision of the evening from hell featuring Marge Simpson’s ill-fated prom date, Artie Ziff. Uber is effortless. So effortless in fact that its accompanying print ads don’t feature a car at all, merely a zipwire from A to B rendered in Sims-esque graphics – which is interesting considering that the ‘car pool’ on the Sims was the first introduction for many of us to the notion of a ride sharing service. Not turned on yet? It’s a long way from Matthew McConaughy telling us he drives a Lincoln because ‘I just liked it’ through two inches of solid cheek bone. In fact, it’s a long way from pretty much any auto-based marketing since Winton Motors told us to “dispense with a horse”. Even a promo video for cool kid on the block Tesla can only half-heartedly claim that the car parks on your command. Your one-tonne ball of ‘eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama’, to quote J.G. again, “has about all the sex appeal of a dog that will sit up and beg when you tell it.”

This doesn’t bode well for traditional auto-manufacturers. These brands need to look very hard at themselves, and figure out the emotional tug beyond the driving itself. I don’t want to live in a world where Mercedes’ strapline is something along the lines of ‘the personal mobility solution of tomorrow, today!’ They can’t sell the product, because no one will be buying it – they’ll have to sell the experience. And once we stop driving, that experience will be everything else we do inside the vehicle: the only tangible canvas left for brands to play with.

One of Volvo’s latest ‘concept cars’ is ‘Concept 26’, a car so focused on the in-vehicle experience, they didn’t bother designing the actual car at all. A clever sleight of hand tells us that it’s actually just bad traffic that’s been muscling in on our freedom, and the fact that autonomous cars will allow you to nap, work or eat a four-course dinner while on the road will actually ‘recapture’ the freedom we’ve lost. Volvo is clearly fearing the knock on the door in the middle of the night – so much so they’ve said that all their new vehicles will be at least partly electric by 2019, and not even 2020 when every other company’s objectives are definitely going to be achieved by. The race is on.

However, the autonomous car will also provide new opportunities for the way in which we advertise. Take what we now pallidly call ‘targeted advertising’. As we move towards a world in which everything we come into contact with will be gathering data on us, ads are going to feel less and less like ads than ever before. Now, autonomous cars eat data like a drunken fridge raider – estimates say they’ll get through 4,000 gigabytes a day. So of course it won’t take a lot for them to begin feasting on what’s going on inside the car as well. Your car, unlike your home (yet), is a branded environment, but now that information flow will work two ways. No need for the car to suggest that new burrito place you might like, you’ll already be on your way. People say that Facebook showing you stuff you’re already interested in creates an echo chamber, but imagine when your external environment is completely responsive to your internal one. Throw in some super-ergonomic furniture (I’m imagining an interior that changes shape in-line with your thoughts), and we’re very close to closing the loop. Introducing the BMW Recursion...

Ballard again, folks: “The ultimate concept car will move so fast, even at rest, as to be invisible.” Better get a shift on. We should embrace the incredible opportunities that this new world is offering us, but as advertising becomes even more interwoven with our daily experience, so much more is at stake. We can’t afford to sacrifice the rich mental landscape that the act of driving has cultivated for us for over a century. We need new, compelling stories, and fast. If brands don’t act to keep the mythology of the car alive, we don’t just lose a branding opportunity, we lose a part of our heart. Now step on it.

Ben Callis is executive creative director of Aesop.

This article was originally published in The Drum Network's Auto Special. Please contact naomi.taylor@thedrum.com for more details or to receive a copy.

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