Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Borrowing a cue from The Beatles, Ford Motor Co.’s top designer says all you need to create a successful automobile is love.

“People purchase products because they’re prepared to spend part of their life (with them),” J Mays, Ford’s group vice president-design and chief creative officer, says at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here.

“It’s not unlike a relationship with a spouse; it’s emotional. Love is an integral part of why we build cars,” he says. “Love is what we’re looking for; anything less is not turning out successful products.”

Making cars and trucks people love helps differentiate one auto maker from another, with too many currently building “commodities,” rather than vehicles that elicit an emotional response, Mays says.

In illustrating his point, he shows a number of smartphones from many brands that mostly perform the same function. But the one most owner’s “love” is Apple Inc.’s iPhone, which boasts an iconic design, he says.

Mays also rattles off a number of automotive brands that have been successful in connecting with consumers, including BMW, Mini, Porsche, and Audi.

But he says the brand that accomplishes this feat best is Ferrari.

Ferrari “has been consistent for 50 years,” Mays says. “They’ve consistently communicated what’s fantastic about Ferrari with very few (misses).”

Ford now is producing vehicles consumers love, but that didn’t begin to happen until CEO Alan Mulally took the helm, Mays says.

“Five years ago, we were all over the map,” he says. “‘Red, White and Bold’ in one part of the world; good driving dynamics in another. But today, every engineer and designer knows future Ford products will be fun to drive.”

Mays now gives his design team three guidelines to follow: the vehicle must be true to the brand, meaningful to customers and differentiated from the competition.

“These are the only three things I want my design team to think about,” he says. “Unless you tick off each box, you’ll be caught in the middle, and nobody want to be there.”

Differentiation is particularly important, he says, citing a study that shows 80% of automotive CEOs think their products stand out, but only 8% of customers agree.

“Something has gone belly-up,” he says “It could be advertising, but I suggest it is product development. Products of various brands around the world are looking just the same.”

When it comes to automotive interiors, Mays says many of the vehicles he sees on the road have cabins that don’t deliver a clear and consistent message. Too-busy interiors “are not helping enhance the brand or articulate (the) company and brand,” he says. “If there is too much ‘noise,’ no customer is going to hear it, so pull back the volume.”

Mays points to Ford’s Start concept car, making its North American debut at the conference, as a prime example of how a clean, uncluttered interior can clearly convey a brand message.

The Start, unveiled at last month’s Beijing auto show, boasts an interior that is “designed with love and attention to detail,” he says.

bpope@wardsauto.com