What’s Really Driving Car Buying?

Posted by: Collette Eccleston, PhD
  • August 27, 2015
  • 2

chevycarsmalltruckcommercial_blogIt’s that time of year: Labor Day, back to school, shorter days. The end of summer? Yes… and the new model car season.

The newest cars can entertain the kids, connect you, hands-free, to Twitter and, in some cases, can actually drive themselves. These new features are there to attract buyers and edge the competition out. And yet, I came across an article in Forbes stating that it is not the bells and whistles driving car buyers’ decisions. The article cites a survey conducted by Harris Poll, stating that reliability is the most important factor to American car buyers, followed by purchase cost, safety features and fuel economy.

At first blush, this makes intuitive sense. A reliable car will get you where you need to go and will cost you less in the long run. But, if reliability is so important, why aren’t we all driving Hondas and Toyotas?  Don’t be misled by the Harris Poll; it tells only part of the story. The picture is a little more complicated and a lot more interesting.

Quick… picture a yellow Lamborghini. In an instant, without any research, you have some sense of who the driver is. Is the driver male or female? Middle-aged or a senior citizen? Brands in general, and car brands specifically convey so much social information, we can, without much conscious thought, evaluate a car and then make conclusions about its driver.

A recent Chevrolet truck commercial hits the nail on the head when it asks regular people (kids, single people, guys with beards) to describe a guy who is pictured either with a Chevy truck or a small car. Participants quickly demonstrate how a truck can make you more handsome, dependable and rugged.

More than many other consumer purchases, cars act as a visible signal of our status, beliefs and personality. When we buy a car we signal to ourselves and others a bit about who we are. “I am smart.” “I am successful.” “I am fun.” These thoughts and feelings are key influences in car buying. While we are sometimes aware of them, some of these thoughts are happening at a less conscious level.

Clearly car buying, like most consumer decisions, draws on both conscious and less conscious processes. Evaluating cars based on their reliability, purchase price and safety features reflects the more conscious aspects of the process. Undoubtedly, consumers go back and forth between conscious and less conscious processes in their decision making when narrowing the consideration set, during the test drive and on the lot.

Consumers are excited by auto manufacturers’ latest innovations like parallel parking assistance, and clearly they appreciate reliability and safety features, but to understand the key drivers of what people buy and drive, we need to look under the hood. Whether it’s autos or beer, computers or athletic gear, any survey approach that wants to identify the key drivers in purchase decisions really must examine both the conscious and the less conscious, or risk ending up like Packard and Plymouth.

  • Sean Folan
    August 27, 2015
    I think there are definitely some evolution-based "signaling" elements at play here as well :)
  • Rahmatullah Akbar
    August 27, 2015
    "..we need to look under the hood." Great insights!

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