Designing with provenance

Think of a car brand - Ferrari, Mini, BMW, Cadillac, Volvo. Our first association with these brands is cars (obviously!). Then we think of the types of cars these brands make and we also think of their nationality: Italian, British, German, American, Swedish respectively. The provenance of car brands is, with some exceptions, one of the first associations people make — even those who know little about cars (actually, disproportionately so for people who know little about cars, but that’s another story…). And the primary association of national identity then brings with it a whole realm of secondary associations to the car brand which mostly add significant value to the brand, particularly for customers in export markets. So for Ferrari we think of Italy and then we think of various Italian associations such as being emotional and expressive, and being focused on the artisan side of design — and these secondary associations then connect back to Ferrari, further enriching the brand. With Bentley people think of various British associations such as the heritage that sits within ‘Rule, Britannia’ and monarchy, or being hand-made with fine natural materials — and these secondary associations then connect back to Bentley, further enriching the brand. 

In our work for Japanese, Korean, Italian, Swedish and British car brands looking to affect their future brand and design strategy, we have often held up the untapped value of provenance. Much of this value resides in export markets; inherently the values people ascribe to ideas of nation and nationality are both more visible to, and more sought after by, those not of that nation. And therein lies the reason that provenance remains so much an under-used component for so many car brands: the brand’s creative team tend to be from, and working in, the country that their customers are attaching value to — they literally cannot see the wood for the trees. And when they are confronted with the equity that derives from their brands’ national origin, they both see it with less fiction or positive bias, and sometimes also with a frustration at the cliched associations that foreigners have (and how these are ultimately not accurate). 


So the case-studies that best show car design leveraging provenance through design tend to be when the brand is under foreign stewardship. To many British eyes the first of the new generation of Rolls Royce and Mini designs under BMW stewardship at the turn of the century were caricatures of the some stereotype of ‘Britishness’: the aristocratic banker and the post-Brit-pop imp perhaps. Yet they were almost unquestionably bulls-eye designs that usefully stood as visions for their brands and subsequent designs; the way national identity was evident in the Phantom and the New Mini massively delivered for the brands, particularly in markets outside of the UK. Similar also is the way that Chinese ownership and a German Design Director (and a little support from Car Design Research) helped turn Volvo from being lagom (Swedish for ‘good enough’) to the producer of assertively confident cars baring a Swedish flag, selling in record numbers. 


There are other instances of car brands successfully harnessing their national identity; but not as many as there are of brands not doing so. There remains still untapped potential for many British, Japanese and Italian brands, for Korean brands perhaps too. And whilst America has a fast changing set of associations, brands like Jeep could choose some of the many strong strands within this nation-state’s rich identity to connect to and consciously move forwards to much benefit — particularly as the ‘American dream’ is one dreamt more in Asia and Europe than in America.

At a time when the car is both such a mature and sophisticated product, when brands are increasingly looking to deliver on some more ‘premium’ level relationships with their customers, when differentiation in all markets is becoming ever more important, and when so many customers are seeking to attach themselves to an authentic (if not wholly true) narrative; the value of brand and product and design strategies embracing a significant proportion of values derived from, and associated with, their country of origin has never been more pertinent. It’s not about nationalism, it’s about realising more of the brand’s latent value through design. It’s about designing with provenance.