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Thinking differently

There is a long history of motorsport and watchmaking collaboration, but the two products rarely could be seen as connected in any way beyond a rich man's accessory to his high-powered sportscar or weekend racing hobby. With the advent of the smartwatch, however, there has been more and more discussion of the potential connection between the two—notifications from your car, accessing performance data, even remote starting. But with the arrival (and apparent early success) of the Apple Watch, there is a new correlation between the car industry and watches—selective personalisation.

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Personalisation has been the keystone in the ‘premiumisation’ of mainstream cars ever since Mini introduced their new innovative customisation scheme along with the new Cooper models about 15 years ago. Since then, manufacturers have been rushing to offer an increasingly wide array of options. While just a few years ago a buyer could only choose from a small range of exterior and interior colours, a few different wheel designs, and interior in cloth, leather, or vinyl. Now some brands offer the possibility to order hundreds of exterior colours, colour-keyed wheels, roof, mirrors, dashboard materials and seats, as well as myriad stickers, patterns, roof decals, and interior trim materials. Frequently though, these options are packaged with bigger engines and more performance in addition to the higher price. But what if automakers went back to a paired-down approach and started offering fewer, but more impressive, options instead?

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Reducing choice would seemingly go against everything the market is currently demanding. Beyond just matching wheels and contrast roof colours, Renault's new HMI system even allows an owner to choose a different gauge cluster, complete with an entirely different design from the standard. But are customers using these options, or are they so overwhelmed by choice that the default is never touched? And are eight hastily created gauge cluster designs more desirable than one well-researched, brand complimenting, ergonomic one? The Apple Watch shows that many people are willing to pay—and pay dearly—for a more desirable (to them) aesthetic choice. Through simple changes in colour and materials, and with a highly limited selection, Apple have created the illusion (or reality?) of value for nearly all market segments. By carefully honing the customisation options for their three watch versions, with finishes ranging from aluminum to 18K yellow gold, they've managed to span price points of $350 to $17,000 without a single change "under the hood".volvoxc90excellence3.jpgapple-watch-gold edition.jpeg

So could the same be done in the auto industry?

Volvo's XC90 Excellence, and its presentation in Shanghai this week, may be the answer to that question. The Chinese market is in love with luxury, but has different opinions as to what makes a brand premium compared to European or US customers. The appearance of a full-fledged luxury flagship SUV from the perennially upper-mainstream Sino-Swedish brand shows that through clever material and design choices, especially at customer touch-points such as the seating and entertainment, a premium vehicle can emerge. Currently Volvo says that it has no plans to sell the Excellence in Europe, but judging by the rave reviews it's receiving in Western markets, I wouldn't be surprised if that decision changed sooner rather than later. So what's special about the XC90 Excellence? One of the most clever nods to the luxury market in years—the transformation from 7-seat to 4-seat to 3-seat SUV. 

Commercial suicide many would say, in a market where those seven seats, and the flexibility they provide, are one of the key model and brand differentiators. But by offering a 4-seat option with extensive rear-seat luxury features (for the chauffeured Chinese), Volvo has in some ways distilled a simmering market trend—SUVs with reduced utility—to its essence. By making a car that sits comfortably as an intelligent family people mover and also as an absurd show of excess, Volvo has in many ways pulled an Apple-style coup over its competitors. They've taken the fairly modest underpinnings of a popular family SUV and through selective material changes and a unique seating rearrangement, have created something that feels new and special even for the most discerning premium customer.

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This approach has been tried before, with Audi offering a 4-seat version of the previous generation Q7, but there was a massive difference, it could only be had with a 493 bhp V12 TDI engine. Not exactly a triumph of colour & trim over under-the-hood premium substance, and clearly sitting in the first division of premium vehicles before the interior layout was even considered.

Volvo has, instead, created a baseline product with such well-designed features as an industry-leading touchscreen/digital gauge cluster, top-notch seating and electronic gadgetry, that it can extend its model line-up beyond what its competitors can do without bespoke additions. The real challenge, and one I'd like to see happen at Volvo, is to see how far down the market it can extend the XC90. A well-designed mainstream product with some of the premium materials removed, but all of the good design remaining, could be a potential market disruptor. If Apple can sell the Sport Watch, its entry-level but performance-equivalent watch, at 1/2 to 1/4 the price of its primary offering and 1/50 the price of its exclusive Edition watches, could a car company ever do the same? 

Good design is not more expensive than bad design, and good design will always resonate with all market segments, regardless of territory. Although Apple is undoubtably a premium brand, its massive sales numbers show that it is also clearly mainstream. If Volvo and others can capture some of that magic through good design and clever material implementation, there is a chance at a serious market shift. A shift towards cars which don't abandon mainstream in favour of premium positioning, but rather straddle it. I think the market is ready for fewer, better designed, and more impactful options. If a brand like Volvo can make it happen, then expect others, even the German premium brands that usually steer the market, to follow.

In consumer electronics, where Apple goes, so goes the market. In the auto industry, however, it seems that uncertainly and a lack of confidence in Germany has left the game open to anyone clever enough to try something different.