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Before Going Too Jetson, Self-Driving Car Companies Should Ask Two Key Questions

Google's autonomous car project got the industry going, but just about every automaker now is getting in on the act. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Google’s autonomous car project got the industry going, but just about every automaker now wants to get in on the act. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

There was buzz and hype. There were high expectations and unbridled optimism. Without a doubt, the technology was pretty fascinating. But, in the end, the product launch was a bust. It was 2001 when Segway introduced a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered personal transporter. It was ballyhooed as a product that would revolutionize transportation. Investors expected hundreds of thousands of these vehicles to be sold, generating billions of dollars of sales in the first year. In reality, Segway sold only ten thousand units in its first years, and the company that makes it continues to seek ways to maintain its footing in transportation.

I bring this up as a cautionary branding tale. We are, once again, in the midst of buzz and hype, of high expectations and unbridled optimism with regard to an innovative mode of transportation. In this case, it’s the self-driving car. To Tesla and Google, Mercedes-Benz and Apple, Nissan and Audi and the myriad other companies looking to get us to take our hands off the wheel, I offer up this yellow light of branding caution: Don’t let your own excitement about a product or service short-change your assessment of how it will really play in the market.

The most critical factors that determine a brand’s success are whether it is different, and whether this difference is relevant to people. Any smart brand-builder in this category (or any other) should be asking in their road race ‘”What benefit are we offering and does it solve a real problem?”

Media outlets from 60 Minutes to The New York Times have been showcasing the brave new world of driving, Here are what I see as potential red lights – and green lights.

First, the red lights. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, the red light. While it may be early in the game, my guess is that aspects of self-driving technology will become a standard feature on many brands of automobile in the not-too-distant future. An autonomous driving button will be akin to automatic transmission, or airbags, anti-lock brakes or hybrid models– just one more available option. It may even become table stakes for automobile manufacturers.

This means that the feature, in and of itself, will not be a differentiator. Whether the equipment is Android or Apple-based, every manufacturer will have to ensure it passes the same government regulations. Each one will want to ensure their variation on the theme is as user-friendly as possible. And, every manufacturer will have to warrant that the software works the way it’s supposed to work, without fail. In branding parlance, this will make the self-driving feature somewhat of a commodity. But a brand can hardly compete, let alone establish a best-in-class position in consumers’ minds, by selling a commodity.

So, on to that second critical factor which determines a brand’s success potential: being different in a way that is meaningful to people. And, here’s the green light opportunity. My opinion is that the auto brands that gain significant and consistent market share with autonomous driving strategies will be those that do the best job of defining a target audience, and then tout their technology appropriately to this audience. Or, again in branding parlance, the automobile manufacturers that win will be those that understand the meaning of relevant differentiation. They will figure out how to connect the feature to the benefit for a particular group of people.

Given that the auto industry, in general, is not a zero-sum game, with one brand dominating the road to the distinct disadvantage of every other, I think the self-driving auto industry will be the same. Smart targeting and communication of specific benefits to a specific target market will play a huge part in which brands lead.

I expect the initial fervor will come from one of two groups. The first, of course, will be bleeding-edge technology lovers, those who stand in line, in the rain, for three days, in order to get the next shiny new object, They also, to be fair, actually generally know how to use the shiny new object. The second group will be those whose self-esteem is enhanced simply by having the next shiny new object. This will be the guy whose car drives him up to the valet at the country club. It will be a badge brand sort of thing.

Longer term, after the initial fervor subsides, I think the sweet spots for relevant differentiation will be both situational and generational. Say, for example, your commute is a bear. You crawl along on the 405 or the LIE for hours wishing you could be doing any number of other things. Push the autonomous-drive button and you can be doing any number of other things. You can check your email, return phone calls, drink your coffee and enjoy your bagel. Your hands are freed from the steering wheel. Your car enables you to do two things at once! What efficiency! What a benefit! Thanks for solving this problem! Now, these folks may not want to use the self-driving functionality driving down a country road on a sunny Sunday afternoon. At times like that, they may want to experience the feel of the wheel and the road, to be in control of the twists and the turns. Situational. Give them the choice.

As for generational? My teenage son told me he thought his would be the last generation to have to learn how to drive. He may be right, especially as technology becomes more pervasive and confidence with it is likely to be directly disproportionate to age. For people, well, like me who think back to HAL 9000, the computerized character in 2001: A Space Odyssey and his, “Sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” loss of control as it relates to technology is a real roadblock. I can’t even deal with that spinning circle of death when my computer won’t load fast enough.

My two cents is that the automobile brands that become the ultimate winners in the autonomous driving category will be those that understand it’s not about a different feature, but what problem the feature solves and for whom– situational or generational, safety or convenience, fun or efficiently functional. From a branding point of view, what wins will be brilliantly targeting the moment and the mindset. In other words, relevance will be the driver, so to speak.

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