Ford learned a valuable lesson in designing its Taurus SHO performance sedan. When the vehicle was reintroduced in 2009 as a ’10 model, following a 10-year hiatus, the auto maker described it as a “sleeper” performance car; nearly the mirror image of the standard Taurus.

It didn’t take long for Ford to realize its mistake.

“We wanted to make sure we stayed true to the (Taurus’) original promise,” Amy Marentic, Ford group marketing manager, tells WardsAuto. “But after we launched, people asked for more (differentiation) on the exterior. We got a much different customer than we expected.”

Whether it’s a designer handbag, Air Jordan basketball shoes or a new car, consumers want others to notice their coveted purchases, says Aaron Ahuvia, professor of marketing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

“The idea that the things we buy reflect various aspects of our identity is very basic to contemporary marketing,” he tells WardsAuto. “It’s more true for some products than for others, but it’s very true for cars.”

Marentic says many Taurus SHO buyers previously owned luxury brands including BMW and Mercedes, whose performance models clearly stand apart.

To appease those customers, a number of distinctive features were added to the next-generation,  ’13 SHO, including a black-mesh grille; numerous SHO badges; unique mirrors; painted wheels; and series-specific, high-intensity-discharge headlamps.

Honda has grappled with similar issues with its Civic Si. Jay Guzowski, Civic senior product planner, says the Si is a “different animal” because it is both a performance car and a coupe.

Now in its ninth generation, the Si has undergone numerous changes along with each generation of the base Civic. When it came to the current model, Guzowski says Honda turned to customers for inspiration. “What we heard was people want as much differentiation as possible, but they also want it to tie in to the DNA of the car.”

Exterior styling exclusive to the ’12 Civic Si includes 17-in. alloy wheels, a body-color deck-lid spoiler with a light-emitting-diode center brake light, fog lights and a chrome exhaust tip.

Ahuvia says consumers are attracted to cars such as the Civic Si and Taurus SHO, both of which are not too flashy, for reasons different from those who purchase traditional sports cars; they want to draw the attention of people “in the know,” who can distinguish the vehicle from the standard model.

The needs and wants of consumers who buy specialized items vary, Ahuvia says, comparing automotive with the high-end fashion world, in which there are three tiers of products.

The first tier consists of brands with large logos that everyone knows, while the second tier has smaller logos that only those with knowledge of the brand notice. The third tier includes brands most consumers have never heard of and are embraced by people trying to craft a unique identity.

The Taurus SHO and Civic Si fall under the second tier, Ahuvia says. But cars like the Chevrolet Camaro are more difficult to slot. There’s a difference with marques that offer several levels of performance.

“If you have (the base) Camaro, it’s still a performance car; it’s just not as fast as the other choices,” he says. “But with (the) Taurus, nobody thinks of that as a performance car to begin with, so the difference in the way it’s perceived is very large.”

The Camaro comes in four trims – the LS, LT, SS and the high-performance ZL1, which boasts a 6.2L supercharged 580-hp V-8. The ZL1 had to be more exclusive, says Kirk Bennion, exterior design director for Camaro.

The ZL1 model sports a number of styling cues to separate it from its stablemates, including a hood air extractor, large lower grille openings, front splitter and special badging.

“Sometimes it’s big differences, sometimes more subtle differences,” Bennion says. “You have to play to the personality of the car and the consumer.”

ZL1 buyers typically care more about the car’s performance than styling. However, most like a unique color palette from which to choose.

“Black, red, silver and white are the four staples, and then we have some bright colors and some fashion colors,” Bennion says, adding that new choices are offered every several years.

“People want products that are consumed publically to be more reflective of their identity, because others see them,” Ahuvia says. “Cars are very much for self-expression. There are a variety of choices, and your choice is important.”

bpope@wardsauto.com