GAC Moca interior

Finding a Balance: Self-Expression vs Maintaining Brand Values

Self-expression is an essential commodity for consumers. In the future, car companies will have to work very hard to help users have a voice while deciding how much control of brand values they want to keep.

In the early part of the 20th Century, collaborations between luxury manufacturers and coachbuilders allowed customers to have a lot of control over the messages they sent out. This is because owners had a great deal of influence over how their vehicles looked. In its early days, Rolls-Royce supplied the chassis and coachbuilders like H.J Mulliner & Co. or James Young manufactured the vehicle to specifications set by wealthy customers.

Rolls-Royce 20/25 (1935)
Rolls-Royce 20/25 H.P, constructed by R.W Osbourne in 1935 (via Classic Driver)

The cost of coachbuilding is prohibitive at the more mainstream end of the market. Spotting an opportunity, in the 1950s General Motors began providing lower net worth customers with more avenues for self-expression. The 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air model range, for example, included two and four-door sedans, sports sedans, a cabriolet and station wagons.

Variants essentially shared sheet metal from the A-pillar onwards, but the body styles were different enough to provide customers with a voice, allowing them ways to signal their values and lifestyles to other road users. Unlike the coachbuilding approach, customers could not directly influence the design of their chosen body style; Chevrolet kept tight control of its brand values. In turn, the opportunity for self-expression was relatively limited for customers.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Nomad Station Wagon
1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Nomad Station Wagon (Image: General Motors)

General Motors’ approach is an early precursor of the platform sharing that we are familiar with today. Volkswagen’s MQB platform is famously used across the Group’s brands. The A0 variant supports the current Audi A1, Seat Arona along with the Skoda Kamiq and Scala as well as the VW Polo and T-Cross. These brands all have different values and say different things about the people driving them. The platform, therefore, gives owners a lot of opportunity to express themselves in their choice of vehicle, while allowing the VW group to maintain control of the aesthetics and image of each brand.

Currently, high-end customers are given the most opportunity to express themselves. Over 100 years after its inception, Rolls-Royce still lets owners customize cars to suit their specifications. Owners can select bespoke paint colors and interior trims; Phantom customers are able to curate an image of their choosing to adorn the interior Gallery. Features like these help high-end customers to have finite control over the messages they relay. Rolls-Royce, therefore, gives owners a relatively open opportunity to express themselves.

Advances in technology have made it very easy for customers to express themselves. Phones, tablets and smart watches are, to some extent, a blank canvas on which to do just that. Social media has given people the unprecedented ability to voice opinions and join communities.

Being a forward-thinking company, Tesla allows users to express themselves by drawing on the dashboard touchscreen; wonderfully, Honda allows owners of the ‘E’ to choose fish to populate a digital aquarium. Many other brands limit the opportunity to providing perfumes and mood lighting. In the mainstream, the advances in self-expression afforded by social media companies make the options available to car customers seem antiquated and sadly lacking.

Recently though, a handful of manufacturers have experimented with ways to change the status quo. The fascinating Mini Vision Urbanaut concept builds on the trend for creating vehicles that are inspired by living spaces.

Outlining the aims of the concept, Oliver Heilmer, Mini’s Head of Design, says his team began by trying to understand how people want to spend their time. The resulting interior is multifunctional and adaptable depending on what users wish to do. In one scenario, the Urbanaut functions as a lounge.

“It’s a space where you can relax, read a book, have a long conversation with your best friend”

Oliver Heilmer, Mini Head of Design, on the Urbanaut concept

Users can also express themselves in the form and color that the exterior lighting elements take. According to Heilmer: “[The wheels] are inspired by skateboards, sparkle or glow in different patterns, depending on the moment you have been selecting. And the same for sure goes for the front and the rear lights.”

This level of self-expression is surely very exciting for users. On the flip-side, a range of lighting signatures may potentially confuse other road users—how will they know that they are looking at a Mini? The potential danger of handing over a great deal of freedom in the form of self-expression is the dilution of Mini, a long-established heritage brand.

With its latest concept, Moca (short for ‘modular car’), Chinese manufacturer GAC has proposed the most forward-thinking avenue for self-expression yet in vehicle design. All the interior components of the Moca are customizable in accordance with the owner’s wishes, and the exterior features large, full-width screens at either end.

Digital displays potentially afford users a practically inexhaustible amount of self-expression. With the Moca, GAC has given users an unprecedented level of control over the aesthetics and identity of the brand. The result is that owners and passengers will be able to design the car they are driving, a brave move to attract a new generation of customers whose reference point is the mobile phone.

The social media revolution has made self-expression an essential commodity for consumers—we expect our vehicles to give us a voice too. Advances in lighting, screen technology and 3D printing will continue to provide additional avenues for vehicle owners and users to express themselves. In the years to come, car companies will have to work hard to provide users with their individual expression while also deciding how much control of brand values they need to keep. It will be interesting to see how different brands tackle this issue.


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