Thursday, March 13, 2008

Volume and Great Design: Strange Bedfellows...for some

Alfred Sloan is widely credited with changing the styles of GM's car models on an annual basis. This seemed like a great idea, and it was. In fact, it still is. Unfortunately, over time, as volume has grown, cars have become more feature driven and governed by economies of scale and union agreements, and meaningful annual body style changes have morphed into bi-annual, then tri-annual, and up to seven-year events. The desire for style change has been trumped by cost advantages of high-volume.

Were Alfred Sloan and the GM Machine correct in their read of the customer, but incorrect in their assumptions about the market capability of design to manufacturing?

Whichever way you look at it, something has gone wrong because Great Design has suffered under the pressures of our present day notions of Volume. This is our position.

To further explain, this evolution from "rapid design at small volume" to "fewer design changes at large volume" would be sustainable if the customer had evolved in the same way, but we do not believe that they have. In the world of automotive enthusiasts, Great Design is the holy grail of ownership, and design attraction is affected by the prevalence of the model. Have you ever wondered why a Ferrari Daytona grabs your eyeballs every time you see one on the street, whereas a Cooper Mini barely earns a second look these days. There was a day when they both got the same treatment and the Mini turned heads too, but today we have reached the Mini-breaking point. Is it really because the Ferrari design is that much better? Really? Or does it have to do with perceived scarcity?

And, of course, there is the other end of the spectrum where one-of-a-kind cars (home built or commissioned) also do not command a large fascination from customers because there is not a critical mass of like-minded users and so most people cannot see themselves owning one. The one-offs might be cool for a glance but they are made of a special material called "unobtanium" and therefore have a tough time commanding a lingering share of the mind.

Frankly, the customers who crave Great Design are stuck in a Goldilocks conundrum when it comes to volume: too few - no good, too many - even worse, just in the middle - perfect, BUT who can service that need.....

Some manufacturers call that place "no man's land" we call it Local Motors' target market.