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Branding Is Car Design’s Greatest Asset

Some non-enthusiasts these days suggest that car design is beginning to look the same, and I find there’s a lot of truth to that claim. Typical consumer sedans and SUVs share nearly identical shapes, components, materials and technology. For worshippers of all things automotive, like us, cars are extensions of our aspirations, egos and personas. The halo cars we drool over are near-cartoonish exaggerations of brand-identity and performance. Badging plays a huge hand in what cars we desire — and in car design today, it may be all that’s left for us enthusiasts.

My parents are in the market for a new car. I was on the phone with my mom, who shared a spiteful distaste for the oversized Audi grilles she saw at the New York Auto Show. What she said surprised even me, but it reinforced one of the main foundations of car design that I understand: the power of branding. For every person with a negative design impression, there’s someone with the completely opposite reaction who dreams about Audis at night. These days, a vehicle could be similar in capability, economy, power or shape to 90% of everything on the road, but it’s the grille (the first visual identifier) that makes an unconscious impression on me.

Last summer, I got to preview a pre-production BMW X7 at a swanky Hamptons event. After surrendering my iPhone and my watch, I was led into a dark garage bay where it sat in its tremendous over-branded glory. Although photography was not allowed, if I were later asked what I saw, I would say, I’d call it a BMW X5 with 20% more fat and a 40% larger grille. BMW’s X5 played a significant hand in creating the luxury SUV market, and BMW made it larger to compete in the largest SUV segment, with an extra emphasis on branding.

The massive over-branded grille movement doesn’t stop with BMW. I find Ford’s branding on the Raptor’s grille very attractive — which, while decidedly on the bold side, it is a match for the Raptor’s heaping performance. Also, a distinctive trait of Chevrolet’s new trucks are a bold new front end that spells out "CHEVROLET" larger than ever before. Ram also followed suit with its pickups. With heavily-branded front ends, I begin to wonder if I’ll soon be able to tell the Big Three’s trucks apart without badging. In today’s ultra-competitive truck market, so much of the product is comparable that a buyer shopping for a specific weight-class would be satisfied with any of today’s offerings — at least, in my opinion.

Ford also cut the Fiesta ST, a low volume hot-hatch from production, but extended the ST brand to the Edge, their mass-market SUV. While the Fiesta ST was a trackable hoot of an econobox, I’d imagine something may be lost in translation in an ST-branded SUV. However, I think it’s fairly obvious to say that Ford will sell more Edge ST models than Fiestas, so who’s to blame? I predict we will see an onslaught of performance-branded mass-market SUVs in our future.

Although the X7 is thoroughly a BMW, the brand-new Z4/Toyota Supra is a different story. Jointly developed between BMW and Toyota, both cars are mechanically identical, yet hold two different audiences. A buyer of a Z4 would probably compare the roadster to the Porsche Boxster, in the same way that a buyer of a Toyota Supra could conceivably also consider a Mazda MX-5 RF, or, say, a Nissan GT-R with a little extra coin. Few car shoppers will pit the Z4 against the Supra, as near mechanically-identical siblings, both cars differ only in brand and perhaps age demographics.

tr">What BMW and Toyota did was share a platform and development costs to bring a low-volume enthusiast’s car to the market. No, it is not going to rake in new fortunes for either company, but it will bolster both brands non-competitively at half the cost. This type of cost-sharing is essential in today’s market, and this example is just one of many. On the manufacturing side, Ford and General Motors jointly developed a 10-speed transmission for use throughout their respective lineups. While GM and Ford are neighborhood rivals, their pooled resources enable them to compete on a global scale against completely different cost structures, such as labor costs and raw materials as an example, which can vary across the developed world.

So why not make one car? We could eventually be getting to that point. Although Apple pulled back from developing an automobile, its investment in car development hinted at that possibility. In the same way that the iMac changed personal computing, I envision a revolutionary 21st century People’s Car on the horizon. However, such an innovation wouldn’t be possible without a brand — and when it does happen, it may even be an unfamiliar one.

I think as a whole, automakers and folks in car design understand the power of branding. Younger companies like Kia are finally getting dialed in with distinctive looks with the Stinger and the Telluride. I saw a Kia Stinger GT in traffic the other day, and at a quick glance, I mistook it for an Audi A7. That’s a good sign, as it proves they’ve successfully moved upmarket in my eyes. With increasingly similar mechanical and technological underpinnings, I think there will be a weighted emphasis on superfluous car design — and looking to the future in today’s industry, only the strong will survive.

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