“Experiences are the foundation of lasting emotional bonds”

The automobile has always been associated with attributes such as passion, loyalty and high emotionality. Car manufacturers make use of these values and focus on emotional brand experiences. Professor Paolo Tumminelli, car design expert, talks about emotional branding in the automotive industry, its tools and success.

Professor Tumminelli, more and more car manufacturers are relying on emotional content to build their brand image and increase customer loyalty. Where does this come from?

The automobile has always suggested a high level of emotionality. The automobile myth started 120 years ago because of one thing: people experienced a new dimension of speed, excitement and emotion. Even today, no other product addresses emotions and senses so comprehensively: through sound, smell, feel, speed, safety, freedom, mobility and so on and so forth. Why shouldn’t car manufacturers take advantage of these emotions? If you look at the Western markets, you can say that the car market was saturated at the beginning of the century. People didn’t really need cars any more – the cars were good, they used little fuel, they offered safety. The technology had reached a level that could hardly be surpassed with arguments and hard facts. And so they began to work with soft facts like design and marketing.

Can you give us some good examples of this?

The first thing that comes to my mind are new aspects such as sound. It’s easy to see that the sound of the exhaust is getting louder and juicier, so the manufacturers are individualising the sound and thus also emotionalising it. The cars may have become louder, but at the same time they have gained a personality. Then there is another dimension of emotionalisation that stems from the fact that the automobile actually has a high-tech soul – the communication and entertainment level: the manufacturers offer displays, switch panels and screens that the customer can personalise. They can help customise the car and reconfigure it as often as desired. The customer is recognised and welcomed by the car. All of this binds emotions. And then, of course, there is emotionalisation through great brand experiences: be it in experience worlds such as the BMW Welt and the VW Autostadt, or be it through themed events or driving experiences.

So what is all of this about?

The answer is trivial at first: It’s about the car manufacturers wanting to sell us cars and keep us loyal to their brand. But modern marketing has recognised that the product alone is no longer the only thing that counts. You have to tell stories, you have to supercharge stories with content. It’s quite clear: when I buy a car, it’s one thing to see it on the internet or in a dealer’s shop. Yet a further step is to really experience it. Only when I experience it do I really think: Hey, I have the absolute-ultimate product! Today, the automotive industry takes a holistic approach. It wants customers to feel good about the automotive world and have fun with it.

In other words, the automobile should be based on the day-to-day life on the one hand and enable the experience of the non-day-to-day on the other?

Driving has become progressively slower, more boring and more restricted by speed cameras, driving bans and speed bumps. So the car industry is trying to compensate with a visionary perspective: “I’ll show you the car in its entire range and diversity, so you can really experience it.” For a start, this is the liberation of the automobile from the clutches of the traffic lights and roundabouts. Furthermore, the object is overloaded with symbolic meaning. All the romance that one knows from the possibilities of life is transferred to the automobile. Now you can have a dream weekend not only with your partner, but also with your car, driving into the sunset to meet him. This is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but through such experiences a holistic brand world may be created. Experiences are the basis of lasting emotional bonds, sociology knows that. The world of feelings and experiences has a strong anchoring effect.

What other instruments does the automotive industry use for this purpose?

With the current technologies, also digital platforms are being used. Manufacturers can always know where a car is or if the driver has a problem because they can communicate with the owner via the car – directly. Just as we are used to being in exchange and reachable with friends and family via WhatsApp, email or phone call, we can now also be connected with our car manufacturer. In a sense, it becomes a life companion, and this establishes a new kind of bond – in every way: whether it appeals to one person and annoys the other. It also always pays back to the long-held theory of the automobile: When you get into your car, you should feel good, be happy and feel a moment of relief from everyday life.

You also mentioned driving experiences as a marketing tool. Where do you see the emotional value of such events, which of course interests us in particular as a race track?

Driving experiences are a way to experience the automobile in its full performance potential. And for some car enthusiasts and fans, driving fast represents the highlight, the pinnacle of the experience. That’s easy to understand, as it is a part of the automotive industry’s culture that needs to be nurtured – even if other car owners associate other experiences with their vehicle or find them more important: whether it’s exploring nature by car or – if you look at the whole VanLife movement – spending the night in a vehicle. After all, there are cars that you enjoy on the country road, and there are cars that you enjoy on the race track. And that’s wonderful, because the road no longer allows you to experience race track feeling. You have to remember that in the 70s there was no speed limit. When I started driving, you could dare to drive 200 kilometres per hour on a country road. Today, no one dares to do that. The race track, however, still allows you to experience the automobile in its original, un-neutered form. People take the thrill and the emotions with them afterwards, they last and bind – not only to the car’s soul, but of course also to the brand.

Text: Nicole Thesen (Zimmermann Editorial)

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