“Make sure the customer is totally happy” is the mantra ingrained in all of today’s large manufacturers, and that is wise and virtuous. So why do market research and focus groups produce many vehicles that fail in the marketplace?
(This story originally appeared in the November, 2017 issue of Road & Track - Ed.)
Why, in particular, do some vehicles do worse than their predecessors, despite addressing the complaints of existing customers? It’s because the market research folks, at the behest of product planners, ask all the right questions about the wrong attributes. Ask the owner of a subcompact what she dislikes about her Fiesta or Sonic, and the answer will be, “I wish it was bigger.” So, often, the next one is bigger, but it’s also heavier, less fuel-efficient, more costly. It has moved out of its category, and sales disappoint. (“We can’t understand it; we gave them what they wanted.”)
A classic case is the original two-seat Ford Thunderbird. Queried, the owners said, “I love it, but I wish it had a back seat.” Brilliant insight, and thus was born the four-passenger Thunderbird: nice, but large, heavy, and no longer nimble. As a midmarket specialty car, it did reasonably well, but it was no longer what it had been. More research revealed that it would be nice to have doors for the rear-seat passengers, a gem of market intelligence that for 1967 birthed the soon-to-be-forgotten four-door Thunderbird, the kosher pork chop of the automotive world. It was a tragic flop, discontinued after only two unsuccessful years on the market. One can imagine the confused protests of product planners: “But we gave them what they said they wanted!”
Two-seat roadsters are deficient in space and comfort. The owners knew that when they bought them. Yes, more space and added trunk capacity would be nice, but accommodating customers’ requests makes the car different from what they selected in the first place.
Cadillac’s Seville STS of the early Nineties was a shocker: wide, low, powered by a dual-overhead cam Northstar V8. It had a broad stance, large C-pillars, and a sharply raked windshield. It had great “presence,” that indefinable quality that makes a car look good and desirable. It sold astonishingly well. But happy owners, when questioned, said that visibility could be better out of the windshield, sides, and back. Armed with this useful feedback, product planners guided designers into the 1998 Seville STS. More upright windshield. Less tumblehome. Wider roof. Thinner C-pillars. Cadillac had checked all the “dissatisfiers.” The car was mechanically better but got a disappointing reception. The reason: Customers just didn’t like the way it looked.
Failure to grasp the importance of a car’s original appeal—the reason for the initial passion—has produced a prodigious number of products that are improved greatly, but in areas of no concern to the buyer of that product. “I wish it was smaller and easier to park,” is probably a common complaint among owners of full-size SUVs. Making an Escalade or Expedition smaller to “please” such a customer would be foolish. But don’t bet against it happening!
Bob Lutz has been The Man at several car companies. Ask him about cars, the auto industry, or life in general.
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