DOUGLAS A. BOLDUC

Why Europe's car buyer categories need a shake-up

Douglas A. Bolduc is Managing Editor at Automotive News Europe.
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What do Young Climbers, Beauty Enthusiasts, Connoisseurs of Cool and the Bobo Family have in common? No, they aren’t the names of new rock bands, they are the purposely provocative categories that Johnson Controls Automotive Seating has given to today’s car buyers in Europe. Why? Because it argues that the segment classifications aren’t telling the full story.

Johnson Controls is deeply involved in identifying and responding to customer trends so that it has solutions that help automakers respond to increasingly diverse customer needs and much shorter model cycles. The supplier also wants to be ready to act when an automaker asks it to integrate the latest must-have feature into the car.

This is why the supplier spent two years working with researchers from the Concept M institute for market psychology to really drill down into the true needs and wants of car buyers.

After nearly 400 interviews of people ages 18 to 80 in Germany, France, Great Britain and Poland Johnson Controls created 15 buyer groups. 

The supplier has provided deep background on six of the 15 groups. Along with the four above there are: Re-adjusting Empty Nesters and Late Family Prioritizers.

Gabriele Lehmann, who is Johnson Controls’ manager of consumer and market research for Europe, gave a detailed breakdown of two categories to a small group of journalists last week in Berlin. The box below provides some key characteristics of the Connoisseurs of Cool.

Similar studies will be conducted the U.S. and Asia within the next two years, a Johnson Controls spokesman said.

When asked why the seating specialist spent so much time on this deeply personal look into car buyers' passions and contradictions (such as Connoisseurs of Cool needing more support in their seats -- but never admitting it to others), Lehmann said that it was because the current collection of data is misleading.

Lehmann, who worked for consumer giants such as Sara Lee before joining Johnson Controls, has been told more than once by auto engineers that customers would not need or desire a particular feature.

Now she has the research to back up what she has been lobbying for. Whenever she has presented the data to automakers the prevailing response has been: “That is what we need.”

Internet influence & touchscreen lessons

When I asked about the biggest catalyst for change inside the vehicle Andreas Maashoff, who is director of industrial design & craftsmanship, consumer & market research in Europe for Johnson Controls, said it is the overwhelming desire in people for connectivity and the power of the Internet.

“People already are very knowledgeable about new trends in communications, fashion and more. They know they want it,” he said.

That is why Johnson Controls is trying to be more proactive in identifying the trends.

Sometimes, however, this can backfire.

Maashoff said Johnson Control had concepts interiors that included touchscreens in the center stack for automakers to assess in the early 2000s.

Let's just say that automakers were not ready to make the change.

“We were totally beaten up by the OEMs when we presented our touchscreens," Maashoff said. "We heard every argument possible. We were told that people didn’t want this because it would get dirty and smudged. We were told that people would always want buttons and haptic feedback. Then Apple came out with the first iPhone.”

Within a year Johnson Controls was overrun with inquires from automakers asking how they could get touchscreens into their cars.

Connoisseurs of Cool
• Predominately hip and stylish 45- to 55-year-old males who work in interesting fields such as media, fashion, advertising and consumer electronics.
• They usually start with a small, inexpensive car but by their 20s or 30s they have purchased a statement car. Even if it is a used VW Polo or Golf it will have a unique color or something that makes it stand out. If they drive a BMW i3 it will be orange.
• The brands they choose must be desired by others.
• They are like classic cars; a vintage Porsche 911 or Jaguar is often their dream car.
• They are extroverted; being seen is important so they are fans of convertibles, and if they can't drive a cabriolet a sunroof is a must.
• They really enjoy driving.
• When it comes to the seats in a car they look for design details such as fine stitching; they also like a seat that is comfortable and provides extra support for their backs (but they don't talk about that openly).

You can reach Douglas A. Bolduc at dbolduc@crain.com.

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