Emotion: The ‘Go’ Signal for Car-Buying Decisions

Today’s blog post is by Chris Jones, Head of Juice Generation. 

Historically, our industry has assumed that to influence behaviour, you need to communicate a message to persuade people of a product’s superiority, and that if you do, people will make a logical decision in its favour. But the knowledge from Behavioural Science is showing us that when we’re confronted with a decision, we don’t ask ourselves a difficult question, ‘what do I think about this?’, but instead ask ourselves an easier question, ‘what do I feel about this?’.


And this pertains as much to the automotive sector as it does to any other area of our lives, and the following few paragraphs will, I hope, illuminate this with some real examples.

My connection to cars started way back when. When my dad had a driving hat and string backed gloves. When petrol cost 34 pence a gallon. When one of our neighbours had an E-Type and another had a Wartburg! And when I had a pretend steering wheel suction cupped to the back of the driving seat. I’m going dewy eyed just thinking about it.

I remember my dad had always had Fords – a Prefect, then an Anglia, then two Cortinas – an Mk I and an Mk II – and suddenly, one day, he swings into the driveway in a Datsun Bluebird. I clearly remember asking my Dad why he’d bought it, and his answer was simple… Turnbulls, the, as was, local Ford dealer, had switched allegiance to a newfangled Japanese brand. Et voila. Dagenham replaced by Yokohama.


So, here’s my Dad, an enthusiast and, supposedly, a brand loyalist, switching brands just because his local dealer changed. This is a genuine example of the notion of ‘good enough’.

Rory Sutherland, in his brilliant ‘Wiki Man’ shares with us the concept of ‘Satisficers’ and ‘Maximisers’. The former, like the vast majority of us, are happy to settle for what’s good enough [as he wonderfully puts it ‘we just don’t want to make the shittiest choice’], and the latter are your hard core Johnnies – he cites bikers and audiophiles as good examples of the latter. People who will research to the nth degree. People for whom knowledge about ‘the thing’ is as powerful and seductive as ‘the thing’ itself. Whereas the rest of us employ Zipf’s Law aka the Principle of Least Effort

It turns out my Dad was, and still is, a Satisficer, through and through, and that he had more of an emotional connection with the dealer – people he regularly met and who had given him good customer service – than with the car itself. For him, Ford was ‘product’ and the dealership was ‘personality’. He was not ‘engaging with the brand’ nor was he ‘having a conversation with the brand’. He was [surprise, surprise] engaging with people at the dealership and, literally, having conversations with them. So, when Turnbulls moved on, it was good enough for him

Emotional inconvenient truth #1: When it comes to cars, people think things are different because they are, and I quote ‘the second largest individual purchase many of us ever make’ . The truth is, as with pretty much everything in our lives, we think a lot less than we think we think about them.

Scroll forward a few years. After a stint in the world of advertising, I found myself working for a TV production company, whose largest client was BMW. Whilst waiting for the delivery of my new 3 series coupe [natch], the client gave me one of their pool cars. A 5 series touring with jet black leather interior and all the trimmings. And a number plate which made me public enemy #1 in South London.

So, there’s me. Rick Astley bouffant hair, Hugo Boss black linen suit driving a 525i BMW with the number plate J525BMW. Wherever I went, people would try to race me off the lights. People ceased to let me out at junctions. Someone keyed it whilst it was parked outside my flat. Seemingly I had ceased to be me and I had become part of the hateful ‘BMW Driver’ clan. My car became a heuristic. People did not need to know me. They did not need to bother to even think about getting to know me. My car, and that reg. number said it all.


At no point would I have had the chance to get out and explain how I came to have this car. I was too busy doing other things and others were, no doubt, too busy to give me the time.  And this, for me, was the first time I genuinely appreciated the power of association, and how deeply that can affect you, when it’s the wrong association.

Audi did a great job in picking up on this, and managed to create a belief that if you’re seen driving a BMW, then you’re a self-interested, avaricious wanker, but if you’re seen in an Audi, then, all of a sudden, you’re perceived as  a tree hugging, nappy changing modern man. However,  most tellingly, you’re still seen as being equally successful, only now with none of the rapacious capitalist undertones.

Emotional inconvenient truth #2: It’s less about what a car does and more about what a car can do for you…. ‘project me’ is likely to trump ‘protect me’.

So, now let’s bring ourselves bang up to date. Most car manufacturers have been making quite reliable cars for a while. They offer, in the main, good levels of comfort and the like. And overall, they seem to be easier to live with. So, if one is being brutally honest, it’s difficult to make, as Mr Sutherland would say, ‘the shittiest choice’. So, technically, I could just pin a tail on the donkey and it’d magically end up in the right place. Right? Wrong.

To understand how this works, we need to have a mini-history lesson. In the 80’s when you heard about Skoda, it was most likely the butt of a joke, as in ‘What do you call a Skoda with a sun roof ? A skip’ Boom. Boom. In 1994 Skoda was bought by VW. They create the brilliant ‘Favourite Things’ commercial in 2007. In 2011, the Skoda Yeti is heralded by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear as best car in the world. In 2014 Skoda is voted 4th best brand in JD Powers 2014 – just below Lexus, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz… and above Volkswagen. That is some journey. But, most importantly, it’s happened in tectonic timescales, knowing full well that real change can take time.


And it was a clever [simply clever?] combination of making a better product and creating positive associations and emotional connections. And this should be a lesson to all of us. Skoda knew it had to win hearts and minds because it was so far behind. There was no corporate ego punting out the ‘this car is so great we’ll just show you some sweeping mountain shots’ platitude. Instead, there appears to have been a fundamental understanding that before you can engage with the mind, you have to woo the heart. In other words, success demands that seduction has priority of persuasion. And this has let Skoda move from ‘skip’ to ‘chic’ [the IKEA kind of chic, admittedly, but chic nonetheless].

Emotional inconvenient truth #3: So many advances have been made in the world of motoring, and so many advances have been made in the understanding about how we behave and how our choices are made and how they can be influenced, but, still, the vast majority of automotive marketing communications remains rooted in an outdated persuasive past.

In my next piece, I’m going to be reviewing a number of automotive ads that featured in our FeelMore50 – the first ever global ranking of world advertising – to see how this category fares when it comes to emotions and seduction and to see how the world of marketing is adding some personality the proceedings.


Go on, tell us how you feel!

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