Building a premium brand – the role of design

09 November 2017 | by Aidan Walsh

Building a premium brand – the role of design

Could Kia’s Stinger gain them membership of the premium club?

The automotive world is obsessed with ‘premium’. Countless new car launches are peppered with the ‘P’ word and manufacturers like Kia and Volkswagen are scrambling to drive their existing brands upmarket – or else creating whole new nameplates (DS, Genesis, Vignale) to grab their slice of the uber-profitable premium pie.

Nevertheless, while many aspire to premium status, only a select few can credibly claim it. After all, words are easily thrown around; backing them up is often far more challenging.

Of course, the term ‘premium’, like many favoured by the automotive industry, is cloaked in ambiguity, having been so frequently used and abused by designers and marketeers alike.

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The old Lexus design language, aping the solidity of...

For the purposes of this article though, premium brands can be identified by a number of attributes including: higher perceived (or actual) build quality; greater comfort levels and/or performance versus ‘mainstream’ manufacturers (ie Ford or Toyota); an ‘upmarket’ image evocative of affluence and ‘status’; and, as the term ‘premium’ itself suggests, an asking price significantly in excess of garden-variety equivalents.

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...longer-establlshed premium brands like Mercedes

Despite sitting above the mainstream, however, premium vehicles remain largely mass-produced, practical everyday transport for the comfortably-off (or credit-happy), and should not be confused with what are best described as ‘exotics’; outlandish, low-volume ‘statement pieces’ and ‘toys’ generally the preserve of the super-rich.

While marques such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce sit firmly in the ‘exotic’ category, the premium sector is typically inhabited by the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar.

So, with all that in mind, what can designers do to help aspiring premium players break into the club?

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Audi's recent incarnation almost defines modern premium

Let’s take a look at the most convincing entry of recent times, Audi.

Once dismissed as the ‘poor man’s Mercedes’, the Ingolstadt firm can now look its aforementioned rival, along with the rest of the automotive Premier League, directly in the eye. While its rise can be attributed to numerous factors, including outstanding levels of perceived quality, motorsport success, clever marketing and well-judged halo products, alongside access to the hallowed ‘made in Germany’ tag, there is also a strong historical correlation between the esteem in which four-ringed brand has been held and the strength of its aesthetic identity.

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The older generation, though, were smart but staid

Look back to Audi’s earlier offerings, such as the 80 (B2, 1978) and 100 (C3, 1982), and it becomes apparent that while attractive and well balanced, they lacked the sheer presence of contemporaries from Mercedes-Benz (W201, W124), the subtle menace and dynamism of BMW (E21, E28) or the unique character of Jaguar (XJ). They were nice, but ever-so-slightly dull.

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Nowadays Audis are neat and recognisable

Over the course of the next couple of decades however, Audi systematically forged a far more clear-cut identity. Drawing on influences from its Auto Union past and the legendary Bauhaus school, it created a range of products, including the A6 (C5), A8 (D3) and the iconic TT, which were at once quintessentially German, true to the brand’s heritage (without being retro) and instantly recognisable without being ostentatious.

The final piece of the jigsaw was the ‘single frame’ grille, added in 2004, which lent the brand an unmistakeable, assertive DRG and cemented its status as a design leader.

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2003 Nuvolari concept introduced the now-iconic ‘single frame grille’

The distinctiveness of this identity, along with its authenticity and the methodical, consistent way in which it was implemented meant that Audi of the 2000s (unlike Audi of the early 1980s) projected an unshakeable sense of conviction and self-confidence, attributes which seemingly unite all the most successful premium brands and hold undoubted appeal amongst their key demographics.

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An unmistakable look (well, unless you've seen a Landwind)

Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Range Rover and Porsche have all established rock-solid visual identities to which they have strictly adhered – until very recently at least. These brands do not flit ceaselessly between themes (as Ford tend to), nor cling too closely to the past (as Jaguar has been guilty of), nor do they descend into generic design (like Toyota amongst others).

Their defining qualities are consistency and assertiveness, which serve to lift them above the visual white noise which characterises so much of the automotive landscape.

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More marketing than design – Ford’s glitzy Vignale range

So, what of those upstarts looking to break into this exclusive club? Most easily dismissed (in current form anyway) is Ford’s Vignale; the addition of a mesh grille and leather trim to products which are the very epitome of mainstream does not signify confidence, merely cynicism. Since history demonstrates that even a shovel full of Aston Martin-branded fairy dust cannot transform base metal (or a Toyota iQ) into premium-class gold, what chance does Vignale have?

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The DS range, busily disproving the idiom that more equals better

By contrast, the newly established DS Automobiles does at least have its own unique product range (or at least a name badge – many of its cars are of Citroën parentage). Unfortunately, however, its current design strategy seems to consist of cramming as many fashionable styling cues – contrast roofs, B- or C-pillar ‘fins’, full-length grilles and overwrought bone lines – as possible into its products. Again, is design or marketing driving this?

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The DS3 couldn't be accused of clean, uncluttered design

The result is a lack of consistency and coherence across its range, even within individual cars like the DS3, which has a set of seemingly unrelated features sitting rather uncomfortably cheek-by-jowl (partly as a consequence of shoehorning DS branding onto what was originally a Citroën design).  The DS range may be at least partly aimed at global markets with a very different attitude to what makes design attractive, but it’s certainly not hitting the targets that European upmarket marques have set for a premium image.

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The original DS is an icon of sleek cool. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison...

This level of inconsistency and slavish dedication to current trends only serves to amplify the insecurity of a brand unsure of itself and its place in the world – a far cry from the Gallic nonchalance of the original Citroën DS. 

That said, even more established premium wannabes have struggled to compose suitable design languages.

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The Lexus LC500 is certainly striking, if a little threatening

Lexus is a case in point, having leapt from bland timidity to visual rage. Its award-winning 2017 LC, though, has at last come close to achieving truly self-assured cool. Furthermore, fellow Japanese marque Infiniti, when not somewhat imaginatively ‘recreating’ imaginary heritage, seems rather mired in ‘me-too’ design, its Q50 having the appearance of a BMW 3 Series left under a heat lamp.

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The well-proportioned but not exactly groundbreaking Infiniti Q50

Likewise, South Korea’s Genesis appears to have taken the Q50 as inspiration for its new G70, thus making the G70 a clone of a clone – perhaps not surprising, given that even Genesis’ winged emblem is a little generic. Maybe Genesis could take a few pointers from sibling Kia, which has taken a far more convincing stab at premium with its new Stinger.

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The Kia Stinger is an assured and confident attempt at a premium car

Like the G70, the Stinger is handsomely proportioned. Unlike its cousin however, the Stinger’s fastback silhouette, unique detailing (particularly around the taillights) and bold ‘Tiger Nose’ DRG lift it out of anonymity and imbue it with an aura of self-belief that the G70 (and other premium pretenders) can currently only dream of.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the long-term custodian of Kia design is none other than Peter Schreyer, of Audi fame.

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Given that Schreyer’s range of influence now includes Genesis too, could we see that brand undergo an Audi-esque metamorphosis over the next decade? Stranger things have happened. Kia’s transformation from bargain basement also-ran to intrepid innovator has certainly been remarkable, and although the premium club is a notoriously tough nut to crack, the power of good design is immeasurable. Many would do well to remember that…