Vehicle Product Planning Needs to Adapt to Meet the Demands of a New Era

“Let’s review the business case”, says the vice president of Vehicle Manufacturer.  The business development person opens an Excel spreadsheet with 14 tabs and reviews the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and PEST (Political, Economic, Social and Technological) analysis.  Armed with a commerce degree and an MBA from Prestige University, they worry that the Mean Forecast Error on sheet 3 may be off by -1.5, which could screw up the MSE (Mean Squared Error)…

In that same meeting, a senior engineer who grew up hot-rodding cars tunes out, a junior marketing leader starts flipping through emails on their phone, and a designer begins doodling in a notebook.  The meeting ends with a detailed plan for a five city, three country tour of customer clinics, and a trend study visit to CES in Las Vegas.  The business development person smiles thinking about the breakfast buffet at the hotel and shopping they’ll get done in Vegas…

Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas

This is how product planning is done at most companies, and it’s not helpful if the goal is to grow new markets or create innovative vehicles.  For most people, a car is a commodity, and they can be easily persuaded by price or feature offerings.  But if the goal of a vehicle manufacturer is to lead or innovate, then the traditional product planning process does more harm than good.  For motorcycles, the traditional benchmarking process is virtually meaningless.

Benchmarking vehicles is different than product planning for other consumer goods like electronics or software because while the mechanics of business are universal, the emotional connection between people and products is not.  Vehicle use and ownership strongly reflect the values and deep-seated needs of people, and not just the happy, positive values marketing tends to focus on.  Vehicle customers want freedom, just not the kind seen in marketing.  They want freedom from fear.  Fear of losing money.  Fear of making the wrong choice.  Fear of judgment.  And in the case of motorcycles, fear of injury and death.

While fashion brands or digital products may superficially reflect where consumers are on a QFD (Quality Function Deployment) matrix, vehicles publicly telegraph where individuals’ deepest fears lie, and those feelings cannot be quantified by a number.  For example, when an office-working, middle-class Generation X dad buys a $65,000 crew cab pickup truck despite not having any savings or any desire to tow, how much of that is to measure up to his Boomer father who at the same point in life had a BMW 3-series, a family station wagon, and no mortgage?  Where do you input the effect of intergenerational inadequacy in the Tracking Signals equation TS: (Dt- Ft) / ABS (Dt – Ft)

Crew Cab Ford F-150 Limited

Traditional product planning depends on reviewing past and present sales data to observe the delta, on broad macro assumptions like interest rates and demographics, and making quantitative forecasts from there.  While this can create useful generalized benchmarks, it produces a present-day snapshot of objective reality without human context.  It also funnels vehicle programs towards sanitized, familiar commodity products that protect customers only from fear of standing out.

For innovation to occur, vehicle product planning needs to ditch the doctrinaire questions handed out at customer clinics and pay attention to what isn’t being said by the audience you want to sell to.  Most people care about being liked, and focus groups lie, not because they are inherently dishonest, but because being consulted by brands they already like for their personal opinions inflates their egos.  As a result, they exaggerate while also omitting information they feel may reflect badly on them. 

Like comments on internet articles, the loudest voices are outliers and do not represent mainstream thinking.  They consider themselves experts, crave the attention being given to them, and speak in absolutes.   Do they like the current product?  Absolutely.  Do they think more range is worth paying extra for?  Of course!  Time to break for coffee and snacks while they regale you with stories of adventures and share their insight. 

Designers review sketches and rendering of the C8 Corvette interior (June 2016)
Sketch review for C8 Corvette

Negative inquiry is a common part of traditional benchmarking, asking customers what they hate, but that too is rarely honest.  Even in a blind questionnaire, most people will avoid admitting to purchasing mistakes or share their negative vehicle experiences openly for fear of being judged or appearing foolish.  The MBA approach is to apply a mathematical formula to correct for this, derived from psychological studies by consulting firms and elite universities.

If real-world vehicle purchasing decisions are largely driven by powerful human feelings like fear and anxiety, and most people don’t confide their truth to strangers, then what is the value of gathering product planning information in this way?  The clinical methodology of the past made sense when the number of cars and motorcycles was limited to relatively few well-recognized legacy brands and market segments that rarely changed.  With limited choices, consumer focus could be rationalized into formulaic analysis with surprisingly good results.

But no more.  Product planning needs to change and adapt to a fractured brand and segment landscape, to a marketplace where legacy brands have diminished value, where consumer expertise is more common, and where car and motorcycle capability is so advanced that often the only differentiating factor is purely subjective.  What is the numeric value assigned to the joy a design provides by reminding some people of their childhood?  Is that customer even aware of that nostalgic connection, and if they were, how would they rate it on a scale of 1 to 10?  Is a low score negative, or merely weak?  No business tool exists to peel that onion, because correlation is not causation.

Nostalgia plays a big part in purchasing decisions

The product planning cycle of today is trapped, like many aspects of the vehicle industry, in the successes of the past.  Decades of post-war academic study commodified business practices just as it commoditized products themselves, reducing the work of invention into a spreadsheet.  While this is efficient, it will never foster innovation.  Real insight comes from reflection and finding the alignment of objective facts and human needs.  Not the aspirational needs, but authentic feelings that are actually present in real people on the ground, for good or ill.

In a world flooded with an overwhelming choice of brands, vehicles and undergoing the sea-change of electrification, the standout feature is human context.  Afraid of abrupt change and driven by a desire to avoid fear, people will seek out vehicles that speak to their anxieties and serve their deep-seated needs. If product planners want to succeed in this reality, they should ditch the mathematical equations, skip the business hotels and embed themselves into the lives of their audiences to discover customer hidden truths.  Not just the super fans of extroverted, easily defined enthusiasts safely inside their tribal communities, but the quiet majority living complex lives that don’t fit into neat categories.

Product planning needs to find its humanity again, and create strategies driven by genuine empathy, and a desire to use the awesome power of design, modern engineering and manufacturing to make great products that solve real problems and that provide long-term joy and satisfaction.  Anything else is just predatory opportunism, and ultimately self-defeating.


Founded in 2012, Form Trends tirelessly covers the automotive design industry in all corners of the globe to bring you exclusive content about cars, design, and the people behind the products.