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Business Journal

Why Car Buyers Buy

Yet another comprehensive study of auto buyers ignores the enormous impact of consumer emotions

by William J. McEwen

A recent study of automobile buyers has concluded that there are only two critical factors that influence car-buying decisions in the United States: "product excellence" and "cost of ownership." According to the Booz Allen consultancy, which conducted the study, these two factors account for about 90% of the perceived differences among alternative vehicle brands.

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The study, which was the result of an intensive investigation into a decade of automobile buyer data, seems to have crystal clear implications for auto marketers and their ad agencies. As one Booz Allen vice president states, "If the pictures people are seeing don't show the functional attributes of the vehicle, you're wasting your money." Lifestyle and "feel-good" advertising, he further contends, fall flat because they completely ignore the real reasons people buy.

This seems to make perfect sense. People buy cars for functional reasons, so they need products that perform. They use these products to commute to the office, pick up groceries, schlep the kids to soccer practice, and tow the family outboard to the lake on Friday. What they want -- and need -- to know is how the car will hold up and what sort of long-term return they can expect to get for their large investment.

In large-scale studies such as this one, abundant data show that functional attributes are enormously important to consumers. The conclusion is, when it comes to spending thousands of dollars, people are logical.

Aren't they?

Maybe now we know the real reasons why SUVs are so popular: People apparently love to go off-roading -- and they obviously need that 4-wheel-drive capability -- on the way to get groceries in Los Angeles and Miami. And we also know why middle-aged urban males buy sports cars -- they're just perfect for an urban commute on a gridlocked interstate. And, of course, they always buy the better rated, higher resale value option.

Or, could it simply be that when people are asked for the "reasons why" they buy things -- including cars -- they'll usually offer up logical reasons, mainly because they believe it's important to appear logical? Ferrari and Hummer owners can, and will, talk about their vehicle's resale value and its impressive performance features. But they buy these cars because of how owning these brands makes them feel.

Let us "reason" together

Lots of studies report the "reasons" people give for the purchases they make, then correlate consumers' ratings of various product features with their reported intentions or purchases. In many of these studies, buyers appear to be quite rational. As in the Booz Allen report, they appear to make decisions based on product quality and costs.

But perhaps consumer decisions only appear "rational" because of the way many companies measure these decisions -- and what they include in that measurement. If there's a factor that companies haven't been able to measure, or measure adequately, then it's no surprise that it's overlooked in their analysis.

However, these other factors do exist, and they do have an impact, in spite of the fact that many researchers fail to measure them. In his book How Consumers Think, Jerry Zaltman points out the fallacy of assuming that consumers make linear, logical choices simply because when asked about their decisions, buyers typically describe them that way.

Do functional attributes count? Of course they do. But Gallup Organization research has revealed that the strength of the connection between a customer and a brand has an essential -- and reliably measurable -- emotional component. (See "Getting Emotional About Brands," "The Engagement Imperative," and "The Constant Customer" in See Also.)

In case after case, Gallup has found that brand relationships are not simply rationally driven or logically grounded. They are also emotional. We have found that the strongest -- and certainly the most profitable -- auto buyer relationships are marked not just by confidence in vehicle performance, but also by real passion for the brand.

Moving metal or building relationships?

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In a study of 904 recent (past-four-year) auto purchasers, Gallup researchers found that customers' perceptions of the durability of their vehicles was the number-one factor in building customer confidence and the number-two factor in building passion for their cars. (See sidebar: "Levels of Customer Engagement.")

But vehicle quality, we found, does not account for 90% of the brand relationship. Beyond product attributes, there are other crucial factors that reflect the entire ownership experience, and these must be taken into account.

For example, customers who stated that their auto dealer sales and service reps were "extremely helpful" were, on average, 11 times more likely to have passion for their cars. And in another study, we found that owners of Toyotas and Hondas, both of which are highly rated for their vehicle quality, were 10 to 15 times more disposed to repurchase those vehicle brands if they felt that their dealers provided outstanding customer service. Brand passion depends on more than just functional attributes.

Gallup has found that emotional connections play a vital role in auto buyers' brand relationships. That doesn't mean obscure or obtuse "image" advertising campaigns, such as the much-bashed "rocks and trees" introductory Infiniti campaign, are the best approach to the brand-building challenge. But it also doesn't mean that "rational" product attribute displays should necessarily be the focus of every brand's advertising message. Vague and toothless brand promises, whether they are presented through image ads or hard sell feature-focused ads, won't build strong brand relationships.

In fact, although advertising is the tool that marketers reach for most often when they want to establish and reinforce emotional connections with customers, it's seldom their most powerful one. Indeed, Gallup has found that advertising pales next to what happens at the dealership.

Emotions are powerful brand differentiators, and they demonstrably affect consumer decisions, regardless of whether they're being recognized and addressed. Auto manufacturers who want to build strong emotional ties with consumers must do more than merely focus on functional attributes and strive for the reduction of vehicle defects.

Customers aren't just "touched" by the quality and price of the vehicle or by the informational content of its advertising. Their perceptions are formed -- and their emotions are engaged -- by their experiences while their car is in the service bay, the treatment they receive during the financing process, the appreciative stares of their neighbors, and the time they spend on hold waiting to talk to a customer service representative. Those are the moments that enhance or endanger brand relationships.

Keith Crain said it quite well in an Automotive News editorial a few years ago: "Reliability, real value for your price, real quality without any exceptions. Those are just the price of admission . . . But in the end, you must have something that creates passion in the mind of the buyer."

We agree. With apologies to Ford, quality may be job one, but it clearly isn't the only one.

William J. McEwen, Ph.D., is the author of Married to the Brand.


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