Thursday, 9 November 2017

What happens to a car brand when all cars drive themselves?

Autonomous cars are coming. The technology is improving all the time. Consumer acceptance will take time but once exposed to the advantages I think all but the most ardent petrol head will succumb.  In the same time space, say over 10 years, legislation, the main brake on their deployment will change. In a future where cars can drive themselves, how will consumer behaviour change?

We own a car so we are able to travel when and where we want. It boils down to freedom and control. Since the Ford Model T this was the dream delivered by car ownership. Ownership allows us to commute, have time for fun with our family and friends, go to the shops when we want and have occasional trips or holidays. But the downside of this freedom is the need to purchase a machine which sits unused for the majority of the time. Every second it is slowly decaying and loosing value. We gain freedom but at a cost.

Integrated public transport systems would provide a lot of the benefits of car ownership and are viable alternatives in large cities. However, they require the user to adapt to their models and timetables and routes.

Imagine a transport system where there was no walking to bus stops. The vehicle collects you where you need it, and drops you exactly at your desired destination. There is no timetable you have to fit into. No other unwanted passengers. Boot space for your belongings, comfortable seated environment – where you control the temperature, safe and reliable. Like busses, trains and tubes you don’t have to do any driving. Like existing public transport systems, you only paid for the times when one was in transport and actively using the system ( I know I am simplifying things by not acknowledging taxation and subsidies).

Autonomous cars allow this form of pay as you go services. Transport from your A, to your B, when you want it. Reliable and with the potential to select the type of vehicle for your journey: 2 seater, four seater, estate, 7 seater etc.

Ownership or pay as you go
Given a pay as you go model, and the demise of the individual car owner, what is the role of car marketing or even car brands? Today manufacturers spend millions trying to make a consumer purchase one car over another, one grade over another. Marketing tries to persuade consumers to feel their purchase is the right one for their aspirations, lifestyle, fits with their values, is more fun to drive or own or simply is better value than another. If the consumer no longer buys a vehicle and becomes a service user the whole model has to change.

The perceived value of a pay as you go service will be based on cost, reliability and availability. All vehicles will have a minimum level of comfort and equipment. The consumer may be willing to pay more for a car with a better in car entertainment or productivity system or more luxurious interior. The key point is that they will pay for the service which provides it rather than select to only travel in an autonomous BMW or Toyota etc. The automotive brand disappears, and is replaces by the brand of the service provider. The king is dead long live the king.

In this world car brands have to adapt to survive. With autonomous vehicles we will not need as many cars on the road. Initially there may be a bounty period when the existing fleet is switches to autonomous vehicles. But then, because ownership drops and cars are not sitting idly on peoples drives and parked blocking up our streets, the number of cars needed to transport everyone will drop.
Think of how we choose a flight.

First choice point is about is there a flight from where I want to start my journey to where I want to finish up. If you are lucky enough to be in the position to have several possible flights then you have to weigh up, cost, reliability of airline, level of service.

The passenger is highly unlikely to factor in the specific aircraft in the equation:  I will only fly if it is an Airbus, and I really want to be in a A321 rather than the A320. (possible exception is flyers selecting one flight over another because of radically new planes such as the Airbus A380)
This will be the mindset of the autonomous car service user. They will select one provider, or one service package based on reliability, ability to deliver a vehicle whenever I need it, if they do discounts for non peak travel, cleanliness of the fleet, comfort, etc. But not the make of the car.

In this new world car manufacturers will play second fiddle to the service providers. It may be Uber or re-invigorated rental firms that dominate. The manufacturers should tailor their products to the needs of the service but also enter this space and become the service providers themselves.  They should set up new brands which are about the service and not about the vehicles. The vehicles become the facilitators and not objects of desire and status symbols.

(Post originally on my Linkedin profile)

Thursday, 2 March 2017


Many years ago, long before the troubled  behemoth Uber, I bought a web domain:

I bought it because of a idea I had to set up a go between the customer and the taxi firms/drivers.  It was a time when I was developing ideas with a friend for potential digital business ideas. There were many and this did not make the grade. I found my notes on this recently and thought it is worth revisiting.

As you can see it was prior to iPhones and mobile web and was a txt based system.

Was thinking of how taxi cab companies juggle the customer/ location problem. I expect all use a basic manual system with GPS data thrown in to help the controller assign fares. But drivers can cheat these and other problems.

So, what about a one stop shop for a taxi - anywhere in the uk.

You txt your location and destination and time you need the car to a single text number - same no mater which part of UK you are in. The job is posted on a site where cab companies can bid for the job. The more they pay the more likely they are to get the job. So a short job will cost them a few pence and a long one might cost more. The auction is only open for a short time - say 5 min.

Once a cab company has won the auction you get a txt message back giving the company details and when you will be picked up. If no one has bid in the auction then the customer is invited to place their job on the auction again. Users would have a free txt back service where they could register a complaint if their cab was late etc.

The aution site would be categorised by location and a company log in would track the location of won journeys so it would ensure the search location was dynamic and keep up with moving taxis etc.

It would not be a replacement for the standard company controller but a source of other taxi jobs.

Revenue from the txt by the customer and the bids for the journeys. Large up front marketing cost to both taxi companies and to general public.

This was first published in

Monday, 26 January 2015

What drives our desire for the new?

This years model. The latest version. New and improved. Technology improves at a rapid pace and with it come ever shortening product cycles. New models of mobile phones, higher and higher resolutions of TVs, lighter, thinner and more capable tablets, new product sectors such as wearables and home automation. They all pour out of companies for our consumption.

The global economy is reliant on us all seeking the newest, the latest and dutifully paying the money down. A year later the purchase is positioned as so antediluvian we cannot understand how we can live with our selves if we don't upgrade.

As a child I was always interested in how a product you were perfectly happy with, could in the blink of an eye become old. The new model of BMW3 series may only differ in subtle visual ways, tiny clues as it its modernity. It may have some technical advances hidden under the skin. But on first sight it makes the previous version seem so inferior, bland or disgustingly old. How can this be, how are we turned so easily?

What makes something new and appealing? It comes down to several elements. One is its pristine nature. A brand new car is different from a merely new car. The brand new vehicle has the showroom shine, the quality of untarnished perfection. A quality the new owner tries to hang on to but over time spends less and less effort in maintaining and the product slips from pristine, brand new, to new, to current, to old.

How the item is packaged is an indication of the level of prestineness(?) of the product within. When buying a formal shirt we may open the packaging to feel the product and take a better look, but we will place the opened item back on the shelf and buy the unopened one. What was pristine a moment earlier is not as attractive even though we were the ones to change its state.

In nature we are drawn to the pristine fruit the perfect, vegetable because it is a sign of freshness, of lack of disease or pestilence. It is a safety issues. Pristine food is less likely to make us ill and more likely to be full of nutrients and be good for us.

A second element is the newness to me. Ownership of a product which is new to me means it has changed my state from being without the item to a new state where it is mine. The ownership has changed me and I value this brand new quality, brand new to me. This can even extend to a second hand item. Collectors get the same buzz from becoming the owners of an old item, which may lack the pristine quality, but is new to them, it is in their possession. The same is true for buyers of second hand (or vintage as they are now called) clothing, or cars, or ebay purchases. The newness, value and appeal is recharged by its passage from one owner to another.

Being the first to use an item is also one of the appeals of newness. To remove an iphone form its packaging, the various layers of protection and undressing that are required, before you get to switch it on for the first time. People relish this so much they post millions of unpackaging videos. Those lusting after or waiting for the delivery of their new purchase watch and imaging what pleasure they will experience when they go through the same experience. Maybe this is the fabled mirror neurons which makes these videos so appealing.

Another factor is status anxiety. The low background fear of being seen as less capable, lower status, less knowledgeable, poorer than a desired position in society as a whole, or within a peer group. Status anxiety is fueled by an awareness of newer products than those you already possess. There is social value in newness. However when speaking to others I have found a gender divide in this. Of course this is highly unscientific, but when talking to women this notion of the need to have the newest due to social pressure seems to be less evident. Maybe it part of hard to disguise macho heritage.

One example to drive this home was when my mother was looking to buy a new car. She sought advice and was told this year's Nissan Micra was a good economical city car. So off she went to the Nissan dealer and on entering the dealership she saw a Micra on her left. As an elderly woman it took time before a salesman bothered to approach her. She asked about the car and confirmed it was a Micra and that she wanted to buy it. Which she did, without a test drive, but she was perfectly happy with her purchase.

That afternoon she told me about her purchase of a new car. Some days later when I visited I saw a 2 year old Micra outside her house. By selecting a car from her left, she had purchased from their used car stock. If she had looked to the right she would have seen the new stock including this year's Micra. From her perspective the older model fitted her needs and she had no desire for the newest one. This is partially down to her age, the fact she was just following the advice she was given. But also she had no notion of the new model being better or more desirable in her world view.

Going back to the BMW of my youth. None of this adequately totally explain how a new car, without any marketing, social, heritage or external factors, can make last year's model seem so inadequate. I am still at a loss. Any thoughts?

Predictions for 2015

A bit late I know, but these were to be published elsewhere.

Forget the tech, when it comes to phones Status Anxiety may be all there is left
At least to sell smart phones. Each year we are bombarded with new model releases and leaks of the features of the next iPhone, Samsung etc. But we have reached the point where all the big things have been solved. We do not need bigger screens, or more sensors, or slightly better cameras. Unless someone can give us a battery that will last a week, most of the latest phones are marginal improvements on last years. Status anxiety is the only thing that will drive purchases in the next year. 

The iPhone 7 will be bought to make it clear that you are digitally fit and competitive and a valued member of the herd who cannot be looked down upon. Not because we need any of its features. For Samsung who are already reeling from low end and high end competition this will be a big problem, expect their slide to accelerate. Apple may cling on to the top slot, but phones are becoming so homogeneous that even they will have to work extra hard to chase the upgraders.

Digital heritage comes of age
People have been immersed in digital for a generation. We have amassed enough digital output to create historic documents. The recent Portrait of Lotte, a time-lapse of 14 years of a daughter growing up is an example of how (with foresight) this legacy can be used to create compelling content. While the consumers may be leading the movement we can expect brands to find value in their digital legacy and find ways to tell stories using their heritage.

Facebook will continue to win and context will loose out
The demise of the web is often foreseen. Facebook, twitter, Flipboard and countless others are attempting to serve as a conduit to all the webs riches. Increasingly with features such as auto play videos they are reducing the need to traverse links and see the content at source. This control has big implications for the rest of the web. Content will still be found through other routes and Google will still reign supreme, but for many the context and richness of related content is lost. A creators ability to shape a complete story through multiple content elements and a editorial position. 

Digital Natives move from consumers to shapers
Digital natives are reaching a critical point. They are not only a massive part of the global market, they are also coming of age. The web was 25 this year and so the university graduates are starting to deliver true digital natives onto the job market.  Rather than just being the consumers they will move into jobs where they will shape the content, functions, approaches and delivery of digital experiences. Their impact should not be underestimated. Their experiences are devoid of analog heritage and models. They only think digitally.  Within organisations across the world a new mindset is coming on tap. Expect wonderful things.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Amazon Echo analog data collection gets cute

Some time ago I wrote about Kinect 2 and its potential to provide deep insights into not only the games you play but what you watch, when and the real time emotions of the TV viewers in your home.

While Kinect2 is loaded with sensors to capture different channels of data, other "simpler" devices are already acting as covert data collectors in our homes. A year ago it was discovered that some LG Smart TVs were collecting viewing data without the users consent and send it back to LG servers. We should assume LG are not the only connected playing this game.  Now it appears that Amazon will be expanding it data collection activities further into the analog world.  Last week they announced the Amazon Echo a voice controlled music streaming and general home digital servant.

Echo will play music, answer questions via web searches, set reminders, compile shopping lists, check the weather all through simple voice commands. Its promotional video shows it as a cute, augment to the family, helping everyone in small ways to make their lives easier. It gives a feeling of, "how did I ever live without this!" To achieve this magic it follows the Siri, Google Now and Cortana model of sending your requests to the relevant brand's cloud for analysis and returning answers. It is an extension of Amazon's approach of always trying to help their customers. And as with its recommendations and personalised offers it comes at a price. When you are explicitly out to make a purchase consumers may be aware of the trade off of data in exchange for personalisation. But when a device sits in our living room and appears to just be a helpful music streaming, note taking, alarm clock ...thing then we may not be so aware of the trade off. Amazon have done a great job in creating a cute domestic disguise for their spy in the living room. Even the voice is lovely and unthreatening.

The Amazon Fire was the sales assistant in your pocket and despite its lack of success, we know Fire 2 will be much improved. The history of Kindle shows they just keep evolving and improving. Now Echo gives them a spy in our living rooms. I expect Echo2 will extend its capabilities to home automation. So it will increase its scope of data collection to your whole home environment. Amazon have gone from desktop, to mobile, to domestic. As they say in their copy, the more you use it the more it/we gets to know you.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Smartphones - what ever happened to ergonomics?

Smartphones have become the swiss army knife of the digital age. The expression, "There's an app for that", describes the seemly endless diversity of functions you can use your smartphone. While many of us have dozens of apps most of use very few. Mostly we habitually use a core set which allow us to communicate, discover and record. These three categories also describe three modes of holding our phones.

To communicate we can phone, email, text, or post to social media. To phone we tend to hold the phone up to our ear in the traditional, making a call mode. Despite siri and the improvements in voice to text dictation, the other communication modes are usually done with the phone in one hand at approx 18 inches from our face. Frequently we do this one handed.

We surf the web and discover information using the same single handed mode. When possible we will use two hands for this task, but frequently we are in situations where one hand is more convenient.

Finally we use our smartphones to record our lives in the form of photographs and video. This tends to be a two handed operation, but again it can sometimes be done single handed.

While this is what we want to do with our phones their design is driven by the need to improve the technology that allow these functions to happen. How we actually physically hold the device is not a focus of improvement. What ever happened to ergonomics?

Pick up your iPhone, Samsung, HTC, Sony or any other new smartphone. Their design is primarily focused round the conflicting goals, of incorporating as large a high resolution screen as is practical combined with as much battery life as possible within the slimmest size. The camera, additional hard switches are added in there, but their location and utility is of lower consideration than the screen/battery compromise. The whole package is encased in materials which say as much about the brand values and social statement as the functional needs of the device.

Coupled with this is an ever shortening product cycles. New models come out every year. The core technology increases in capability, the camera gets more better, the pixel density gets higher and the screen seems to inevitably get larger, and the products get more anorexic. The product cycle is more driven by the same forces that gave us ever increasing fins on the American automobiles of the 1950's. It makes last years, or hopefully the competitor's current phone seem, so yesterday.  At no stage in this headlong rush does the ergonomic failings of the slim cuboid seem to be addressed.

When looking at our high definition, retina displays we do not actually hold our phones, we cradle them in our hand balanced on our pinky. One of our most personal and valuable habitually used possessions is balanced in a precarious position. All the people who we see with cracked screens stand testament to this. The larger the screen the slimmer the form factor the harder this single handed use becomes. If you try and grip your device tightly and then use your thumb to select things on screen it quickly becomes tiring. You need a relaxed grip to comfortably use your thumb.

When we take pictures we are holding a thin slab, with none of the ergonomic enhancements actual cameras have, no hand grips, or ridges to make griping easier. Not even a tactile surface which offers some friction to aid grip. And when we hold these slabs to our ears we increasingly need to stretch our fingers to grasp the device.

The software attempts to make concessions to the ergonomic problems which Steve Jobs so rightly pointed out at the iPhones birth. The arc of reach of the thumb is a limiting factor in the size of the display. So now the iPhone 6 has an software trick which brings the top of the screen within reach.

Jonathan Ive is a very clever man, he is a leader of the cult of the design object. Beauty in the materials and details of the finish. Shaving a tenth of a millimeter here, a new radius there. But for all his passion about making the perfect product he rarely makes phones which are holdable in use. The original iPhone and up to the 3s were much more ergonomic devices. But as the phone has evolved and grown to today's iPhone 6 Plus they have increasingly failed in terms of ergonomics. It is not an easy task. Can a multi capable device have one form which satisfies all uses? Maybe not. But which single use do our current phones actually do well.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Looking at the Scottish Referendum: what drives social media engagement?

As a Scot living in Glasgow, the phrase "we live in interesting times" could not be more apt. In less than a month on the 18th September the country will vote to leave or stay within the union of the United Kingdom.

We are immersed in a continual discussion of the pros and cons of independance. Almost all conversations contain reference to or are focused on the debate. In pubs, on the bus, at the shop till, in restaurants everywhere you turn it is being talked about. None more so than on social media. What is strikes me about the debates on social media is how different they are form other political campaigns or discussions.

In recent years the Obama 2008 campaign stands out as the text book case of how to use the new channel of digital social media to powerful effect. The NYT summed up the importance of his campaign in the wider context of political use of the media:

Thomas Jefferson used newspapers to win the presidency, F.D.R. used radio to change the way he governed, J.F.K. was the first president to understand television, and Howard Dean saw the value of the Web for raising money,” said Ranjit Mathoda, a lawyer and money manager who blogs at “But Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.”

Obama did this with the help of some of the founders of the web 2.0 age, such as Mark Andreessen the founder of Netscape and on the Facebook board. He used a central site to sign up over 2 million supporters and provide the digital and real world tools to campaign on the issues which he stood for and that resonated with them and their communities. He had over 1.2 million friends on facebook trumped his competition on twitter and YouTube. Through the empowerment of a grassroots movement his message of hope can across loud and clear.

In Scotland today the way the Yes and No camps use social media has one striking difference. The No campaign feels very centralist. There is a single message delivered by the BetterTogether group, and echoed by the no sub groups. The Yes camp is a collection of diverse groups who all share the same common goal but have different personal views on why it is important and what it means to them. There is the "official ", which models itself on the Obama campaign and disseminates information and motivates independent action.  But it is just one in the digital crowd. Many are not SNP(the party who has a majority in the scottish parliament and are the traditional voice of independence) supporters, there are groups from the Greens, The Labour Party, the Socialists the Liberals. Many professions have formed groups, there are groups defined by location, by interests, by race, by gender, by the type of pets they own. Each one is not a carbon copy of the official Yes campaign. They are all singing their own tune. This is in stark contrast to the sense of a monolithic No camp.

Both camps may use stories from traditional news outlets as the kernel of a posting, but rarely is it just a case of sharing a story. Often a group will dissect and analyze the story. Admittedly each is full of their own prejudices and biases, but the effort that goes into blog postings and Facebook and twitter discussions is impressive. Neither are the Yes or No postings/blogs always preaching to the converted. Yes and No supporters will comment and post on each other's blogs and postings. Real discussion goes on. Most of the time it, or what I have seen, is genuine discussion and friendly banter. Only occasionally are real insults thrown.

Celebrity endorsement comes from both camps, but organised collective efforts such as the over 200 celebrities who signed a letter urging Scotland to stay in the Union was met with confused shoulder shrugging by most Scottish social media commentators. However when economists, historians, industry leaders or academics take a stance and provide endorsement or evidence one way or another, they are seized upon by both camps and thrust to the fore to become unlikely champions. Politicians statements from both camps are met with greater venom than those of mere mortals.

Scotland is not voting to elect a president or even a government. Alex Salmond is presented by the No camp as the leader, the boogie man who is attempting to con the Scottish people. To the Yes camp he is merely a vehicle for their ambitions and his role is far less important than that of the people who want Yes. The vote is about the future of the country. It is a very, very significant and unique moment for the people of Scotland. The level of passion it arouses is tangible and is manifest in the digital out pourings. It is this passion which is at the heart of the Yes and No campaigns.

The centralist approach is the model that each official leading campaign group has adopted. But why is it that the Yes campaign groups have run and taken the campaign as their own where as the Nos have clinged to the parent ship more closely? The No campaign has always been on the back foot as it is arguing for the status quo. We are doing very well thank you why rock the boat, why take risks, why go into the unknown?

The Yes groups are all embracing the risks, the uncertainty the lack of hard facts about tomorrow's future. They are characterised by optimism and, to borrow from 2008, Hope. The energy that is seen in the Yes campaign is a reflection of a sense of excitement for a new future, for the work ahead, for the opportunities, not the continuum of the norm.

This campaign, whatever the result, shows that we should not think about engagement. Engagement is a word describing, taking part, sharing, participating. The people of Scotland are not using social media simply out of a desire to take part, or share their views. This is about passion. Intensity, a desire to make change a real need to add their weight to the argument.

In the commercial world the brands which have an active and intense following are those which support or deliver services or products which allow individuals to express or fulfill their passions. When a dull brand or product reaches out to social media to "engage" consumers, they have a real challenge. Humour, incentives, endorsement can all buttress their efforts, but nothing will replace real passion. Seek out the activities, views, needs, desires which induce real passion in your audience and you will have a far greater chance of inspiring genuine interest and productive engagement.