This might seem like a strange topic to write about, given that I now earn my living writing about a car company on the internet, but sometimes you’ve just got to roll with these things when they come to you.
Last week, here in Australia, we had our biggest horse race of the year: The Melbourne Cup. It’s referred to as ‘The Race That Stops The Nation’ and it’s no mere boast. All around the country, workplaces grind to a halt at 3pm to watch the 24 nags run the 2-mile course. For the bookies, it’s the biggest betting day of the year. At Flemington racecourse itself, well over 100,000 people cram themselves in, dressed to the nines and gulping down chicken and champagne for breakfast, then just champagne for the rest of the day’s meals.
The event is almost as much about fashion these days as it is about horseflesh. If your idea of entertainment is seeing a flock of loaded, but very well dressed women sitting in a gutter, shoes-off and dishevelled, head down to Flemington around 6pm during the Spring Racing Carnival. It’s surprisingly entertaining, but back to the race……
I joined in and watched The Cup on television. I didn’t have any money invested, but you want to be able to talk intelligently about the race when one of your friends calls or emails you to tell you about his/her winnings.
Something that I saw on the TV coverage really made me sit up and take notice. After the race, the winning horse was brought to the presentation area along a path going right through the crowd. As I watched this, it struck me how many people were holding up their smartphones. The crowd wasn’t a huge wall of cheering suits and frocks as you might imagine. It was a wall of raised arms and gadgets, with everyone watching the magnificent animal that was little more than six feet in front of them through a tiny 3-inch screen. This photo doesn’t quite do it justice, but you’ll get the impression.
Photo: The Age
I saw this video earlier today, and it reminded me of the Melbourne Cup scene and the way instant communications and social media have changed the way we live. It’s a US comedian named Louis CK talking about his Twitter account (less than 2 minutes, but funny and quite true):
The point, and the question(s):
Has our recent obsession with ‘connection’ and gadgetry reduced our aspiration for actual experience? And has the market for providing that instant connection taken precedence over the experience/product it’s covering?
I had my first car for three months before I was legally allowed to get my licence and I sat my driving test on my birthday. I couldn’t wait to get out on the roads. The younger two of my three stepkids are boys and both were content to grab lifts for absolutely ages after they reached driving age. When I was at driving age, the most sophisticated piece of technology I owned was a Walkman. They both had laptops.
Despite what my three stepkids might think, I’m not an old man. I’m 41 years of age and whilst my body feels every bit of it (regretfully), my mind still thinks it’s 21. Perhaps I’m stuck back in 1991?
It doesn’t seem that long ago, however, that owning and driving a car was still a very aspirational experience for a young man. It really was a ticket to freedom. Every weekend was a road trip and the destination was of secondary importance. It was the journey and the fun along the way that made many of those trips memorable.
Nowadays, a lot of people seem to look up the destination on Expedia, flickr through a few images and then grunt “meh” before getting back on to Facebook where they can share some more ROFL’s about the latest meme. (And by the way, if that last sentence made sense to you, turn off your computer now and go for a drive – NOW!).
So what of the way we get our vehicle information in the modern age?
The internet has created whole new industries on its own. Imagine how crowded the lines at the saltmines would be of there were no digital jobs. No CSS programmers, no web hosting companies, no smartphone designers, no software or hardware engineers, no database gurus, no bloggers (!) and no big demand for bits of blue cable.
The internet has certainly opened up new and fantastic opportunities for all sorts of people. There’s no doubt that it has changed the way companies in many different sectors share information about their business and connect with their customers. Over all, that’s probably been a good thing, but it can also be a cause for concern.
Somewhere in the world, there’s a fat guy sitting at a computer in his y-fronts making a very substantial income from a product or service he doesn’t really know that much about – simply because he knows a) that it’s trending, and b) how to get a high search engine ranking.
The web is full of ‘Presidents’ and ‘COO’s of entities that are little more than ones and zeros. The number of websites providing ‘the #1 industry analysis’ is staggering. All of them provide an opinion, whether it’s worthwhile reading or not is inconsequential. It’s there and it has an audience. For the people making the product that they’re talking about, it’s another element of noise that has to be considered.
As a real company, staffed by real people and (under normal circumstances) manufacturing a real product, Saab are having to deal with this modern phenomenon like every other carmaker. Our customers have changed. Their interests and behaviours have changed and they keep changing quickly, too. If we were to commission a customer study today, there would likely be several new generations of technology that people are engaged with by the time we got a chance to read the eventual report.
The web has changed the way you find information. It’s changed the way you shop for a car, the way you compare prospective purchases. By default, it has to change the way we package and market a car. It has to change the way we provide information about our company and our products.
And that right there is the big challenge for us and others like us. I know that Saab people are engaged online and are still very interested in our cars. I know there are other people who aren’t Saab owners, who maybe aren’t even aware of the brand and who could be interested in our cars. Can we react effectively to the way they now engage online? Can we reach them in the places they hang out or is our brand going to be overtaken by those who write about us, instead of being shaped by our own online presence? How can we make the vehicles that we sell aspirational again in front of an audience that doesn’t get out and experience quite as much as its forbears?
Is the internet slowly strangling the car industry?
Probably not. People still need cars and many of them still want certain attributes and values in the second most expensive asset they buy in their lifetime. But it has changed the landscape in which cars are sold and the market that we have to reach. It’s changed our customers’ aspirations and behaviour and that’s something that’s only going to continue to evolve. It’s something that’s interesting, a little scary, and very challenging all at the same time.
Enough from me. Now go get in your car and give it a good flogging through the twisties!!