Driving passion - the psychology of driving a car

Dirk Ziems

The following Interview was conducted by Matthew Beecham and published at just-auto.com:


Continuing just-auto/QUBE's series of interviews, we spoke to Thomas Ebenfeld, psychologist and managing partner of Concept M, about what makes car consumers tick. Headquartered in Cologne, Germany with offices worldwide, concept c consists of a group of psychological market researchers with a focus on the automotive industry.

Could you tell us about Concept M, specifically your work in the automotive industry?

For many years we have been successfully working internationally in the automotive sector, on behalf of various clients, both OEMs and suppliers. We adopt a multimodal approach which enables us to gain a comprehensive picture and in-depth understanding. We can, therefore, reliably and precisely gauge and describe the level of consumer interest, what consumers want, how they can be expected to deal with new features or technologies, and their acceptance of car makes and models. These findings, in turn, act as the basis for relevant and reliable forecasts prior to a product launch.

Our procedure combines qualitative and quantitative methods. We work with the 'conscious' and 'unconscious' parts of the consumer's personality. While this approach has been known for some time from advertising impact research, we have further developed and tailored our techniques so that we can explore quite different and specific questions relating to the automotive industry. For example, how should a seat be designed to simultaneously meet the various requirements of engineers and drivers? What does 'intuitive' mean for the different areas in a car? How can a UI be designed in the widest sense to allow for an optimally intuitive experience? Considering the numerous unconscious actions and activities when driving, it is necessary to employ a deep psychological approach that delves into the consumer's unconscious in order to understand their needs.

Another speciality of concept m is our ethnographic procedure. We investigate car drivers, their motives and habits across various countries at first hand. By that, I mean we visit them in their homes, get into the car with them, accompany them while driving and film short videos that bring the behaviour and experiences of the driver or the other passengers to life and make them comprehensible. And, if required, the results are quantitatively collected and analysed in a second step to provide a reliable set of figures.

To what extent does the consumer's first impression shape their experience of the car?

The overall or 'gestalt' impression that is formed immediately on experiencing a new car model is always very important. This involves the line, perceived fit of the individual parts, and the statement a car seems to be making psychologically. And that can be more or less attractive for the driver. However, similar to a love affair, it is the first fractions of seconds when you unconsciously form a picture - that can then be more or less magnetically attractive - but this picture can certainly change through further handling of the car, use in everyday life, the opportunities the user gradually discovers for themselves and their specific motives. In other words, their love can grow over time!

Conversely, we are repeatedly amazed to see the extent to which drivers are unfamiliar with many features, functions and capabilities of their car and hence do not use them. Many drivers could, with more support, be far happier with their cars. This, in turn, is a topic for further research which we are exploring.

To what extent are 'design codes' used in vehicle interiors and why does it matter?

Of course, design codes also play an important role in the car, similar to home furnishings or fashion. A car can have a futuristic, classically modern or rather 'cosy' design, and the driver confidently selects a model and version that matches their sense of style. The same sentiment applies not only to the design but also the experience of functionality, i.e. not only the lines, curves and edges of the design but also the use of features of a car indicate its style. A handling process can also be rather 'classically modern' or 'cosy', likewise the lighting or the layout and design of functions or controls. A lot more can be psychologically investigated here than many people think.

In your opinion, what attracts target groups of consumers to specific car models and features?

A car must be experienced by the consumer as fitting him or her and their personal lifestyle. And then they can spontaneously love it, want to own and use it. On the one hand, this means the purely practical characteristics of the car; it must perform its function in everyday life appropriately and affordably. It must also meet a driver's status expectations. These can range from 'ecological status', 'economic power' to 'youthfulness' and 'sportiness' that the driver wants to portray with his car. A car must suit a person's circumstances and relationship patterns. And a car must always give its owner a perspective, i.e. they must be able to personally develop with their car, be able to grow into something that they find aspirational. He or she wants to 'go places' in a psychological sense.

What approach does concept m take for car segmentation research?

concept m is an agency with a tradition of in-depth psychological, qualitative market research based on morphological psychology. Many newer developments have now joined this approach such as participatory observation of the purchase process or of driving, eye-tracking or quantitative methods (face-to-face or online) which add larger samples and numbers to the qualitative research. In recent months, we have intensively explored how to use virtual reality in research settings. We have just been nominated for the German Market Research Innovation Prize 2017 for our work in this field.

We understand that concept m has undertaken Consumer Lifestyles studies for automotive suppliers. Could you give us an example of how your team investigated the emotional bond that consumers have with the car and their lifestyle journey?

Let's take young families, as an example. Young families have a special relationship to their cars. For example, their attitude towards the car differs. They mostly make joint use of the car. Some have another, smaller, second car which the father may partly use to get to and from work as well as use for work. This means that personal preferences are more likely to be put aside and 'practicality' comes before 'sportiness' and a 'low fuel consumption' comes before 'beauty'. They also want to be mobile with their vehicle, move things and yet still be able to fulfil their family and social obligations. Their main usage is shopping, mum's taxi, visiting grandparents, DIY store and garden centre, and maybe a short holiday with the family.
Regarding the car market structure, young families are very conversant with the market and know the options. Their focus is on making a 'sensible' car choice. They are more intent on playing safe regarding social factors. Nothing too cheap, but no luxury either. Mostly no impressive innovations or really innovative technologies. Practical usefulness is repeatedly central, too. Young families find it is important to obtain enough room for everyone and practical features for everyday life. It should be flexible to meet different requirements and at the same time always keep an eye on the costs. They typically choose 'finished' and thus lower-priced packages and medium-sized cars that offer a lot of car for the money.
In terms of their physical feeling in the car, young families do not desire 'separation' in the car but look for a large collective space and a 'democratic' arrangement of the controls with softer shapes, rounder lines, no pronounced edges or chrome strips, etc. And, of course, easy entry, exit and handling is a must.

To what extent was a consideration of cultural influences a part of your automotive lifestyle research?

Cultural influences naturally play a very significant role. Cars are important in all parts of the world – but the cultural backgrounds that influence the motives and usage fantasies differ greatly. For instance, in young industrial nations, there is usually a much younger automotive culture. Many expectations and needs of the old automotive countries do not appear. For example, a very different attitude towards many aspects of the car is apparent in China compared to Europe. Chinese drivers are far more open to new technologies and do not cling so strongly to the standards of the fossil age and classic automotive values. Their automotive culture arose at a different time and hence developed differently. But the reality of life is also experienced differently. Someone who is stuck in the awesome commuter traffic of China for two hours every morning has totally different needs and expectations of his car than a German or Italian driver. If drivers are to be offered really 'fitting' models and versions, there is no way around an international research design.

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Dirk Ziems
Dirk Ziems ist Experte für tiefenpsychologisches Marketing und berät auf Basis von Markt-, Medien- und Kulturforschung weltweit Unternehmen und Konzerne in zahlreichen Branchen und Ländern. Als Mitbegründer der Global Research Boutique Concept M und der Marketingberatung Flying Elephant begleitet er Themen wie die Adaption von Erfolgsprodukten in neuen kulturellen Kontexten, das tiefe Verständnis neuer Konsumgenerationen in China und USA, die Transformation der Werbekommunikation in der neuen digitalen Medienwelt oder die Neuorientierung der Brands in Post-Corona-Zeiten. Dirk Ziems ist auch als Gastdozent an verschiedenen Universitäten tätig.

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