What drives a car buyer to a specific brand?

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on April 11, 2007

What drives a car buyer to a specific brand?

When it comes to automobiles, a brand is bought based on the association it invokes in the buyer, according to branding expert Robert Passikoff, president for Brand Keys.

By way of an example, Passikoff challenges anyone to pick a single word - an association that you already have in your mind - that best describes each of four popular vehicle brands:

  • Mercedes
  • BMW
  • Toyota
  • Volvo

Volvo means safety, yes? If your central brand association with Volvo was safety then Passikoff agrees with you. But while consumers do want safe cars, Volvo recently issued the statement that "safety on it's own is not enough" - and Passikoff agrees with that, too.

Given a general lack of real automotive differentiation and ubiquitous car brand awareness, car buyers' decisions today are more emotionally driven than rationally driven.

Brand equity counts It's easy to suggest one-word brand images for most car makers, but a brand's equity is defined as "the degree to which the brand meets or exceeds the expectations consumers hold for the values that drive a category". The problem is that there is always more than one driver that explains how consumers will view a category, how they will compare offerings in a category, and, ultimately, which brand they will buy.

Safety is, in fact, one of the top purchase decision drivers in the automotive category. And Volvo's safety focus is a left-brained, rational position. But while consumers hold the highest expectations for safety, that is the least important (out of the top four) purchase drivers for the category, meaning that it makes the smallest contribution to brand bonding and sales.

Top drivers for cars... This finding means that there are three more important drivers that consumers use to bond with - and then buy - an automotive brand. So, as Volvo's rivals have been emphasizing safety for some time, and even though Volvo is still known for safety above all else, this focus no longer differentiates or resonates with consumers the way it did in the past.

Studies of 15 major automotive brands included in the latest Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index indicated that the 'engagement - loyalty - purchase' process for automobiles is 61% emotional and right-brained, and only 39% rational and left-brained.

Two of the top three purchase drivers are emotionally based - and that of course could provide an opportunity for Volvo to merge the brand into the right-brain camp, if people are willing to believe it about the brand. Currently, Volvo ranks 12th in the index, ahead of Kia (tied with Hyundai).

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