Concept Car at Your Peril

The term "concept car" is used in many industries today to refer to a prototype that's meant to test a marketing concept.  Obviously the origin of the term is in the auto industry.  Under the guidance of design maestro Harley Earl, General Motors refined the art of the concept car in the 1950's, using one-off prototypes to test and showcase styling "trends" or upcoming technical innovations.  A concept car is something for which the user experience has been fully fleshed out, but the supporting technical detailing may or may not be there, and certainly all the layers that make up a whole product — sales, marketing, support, service — are nonexistent.  A concept car is usually built as a one-off or in extremely low volumes.  These days if you were to bring a model — working or not — of a future personal computer to a tradeshow or demo opportunity, you might refer to it as a "concept car".

Last week Jeep released a concept car called the Mighty FC Concept.  As you can see, it's very gnarly:

Jeep Mighty FC Concept front quarter
Jeep Mighty FC Concept rear quarter

If you're the kind of person who dreams of parking a VW DOKA TriStar Syncro in your garage, as I write this you're probably creating an online petition to convince the powers that be at Jeep to put the Mighty FC into production.  For everyone else, please allow me to explain why this particular Jeep concept car has created a ton of buzz out among the forward-control cognoscenti, to wit:

  • Historical Reference: the Mighty FC pays homage to the original Forward-Control Jeep, which was actually put into production in the 1950's.  That particular design was done by the famous American designers Brooks Stevens.  So the Mighty FC plays to nostalgia, but also is an "in" statement for a certain crowd.
  • Functional Elegance: I haven't explained forward-control yet: it's when you take a truck chassis where the driver and steering wheel sit behind the front wheels, and via some mechanical contortions, you arrange the new seating position to be above or beyond the front wheels.  The iconic VW Bus is a forward-control job, too.  Functionally speaking, forward control is an elegant packaging solution because it moves human cargo to the periphery of the vehicle, opening up the rest for other stuff you'd want to haul around.  However, the functional deficit is that said human cargo now becomes the first on the scene of the accident, if you get my drift.  Given modern engineering techniques, materials, air bags, and structural know-how, I have to believe that the Mighty FC could be made relatively crash-worthy.  
  • Pure Macho Gnarlyness: while the Mighty FC is by Jeep after Jeep, I'd argue that its proportions and stance are actually those of the formidable Land Rover Forward Control.  The British surely know how to make a handsome military vehicle. Unlike the Land Rover FC, the original Jeep forward-control had the surface detailing and proportions of a plant-eater: gentle, bucolic, easy going.  Its trans-Atlantic second cousin, however, is big and bold and looks much mightier.  And that's what the marketplace wants: to look tough and mighty.  That green paint, those crazy portal axles, them big knobby tires, the two spot lights nestled up around that winch, those orange tow hooks, that bottle opener behind the driver's door handle — this thing just looks killer.  It's like, visceral, man.

So Jeep is going to build it, right?  Who knows.  Actually, probably not.  I doubt that the business case for the Mighty FC would work out, and it's not clear there's actually a market for an off-road capable pickup — it would likely appeal to that small segment of the auto-buying public which fancies vehicles such as the Citroen Mehari, BMW M Coupe, and Cadillac CTS-V wagon… eccentric cars, all, but memorable ones, too.  To market it would be really great for Jeep's brand.

And therein lies my beef with concept cars in general.  If you have a great idea, and if you believe in it, should you concept car it?  I'd say no.  If you aren't sure about it, there are other ways to gain confidence in its validity beyond showing your concept in public.  And, if its such a great idea, why show all of your competitors what you're working on?  Why tell them that you've had a great insight?  And why alert the marketplace to an upcoming innovation? A couple of decades ago, Apple used to show lots of "concept cars" of future computing devices, and to what end?  Very few of them shipped, and those that did were either met with disappointment — because the reality couldn't compete with the concept — or they drove down sales of existing product, which is not the best way to get the most out of your brand. 

But perhaps the biggest reason not to show concept cars you don't ever intend to produce is that you disappoint your biggest fans, those net promoters who would do anything for, and tell anyone anything positive about, your brand.  These are the folks who write blog posts like "I Am So Excited About The Jeep Mighty FC Concept I Think I Might Die", or who spend hours photoshopping your PR photos to show the rest of us what a four-door or full-van version might look like, or who write headlines in national newspapers asking "Has jeep created the most interesting concept of 2012?".  Do you really want to excite these folks, only to disappoint them over the longer term?  My gut says no.  Product brands aren't like perennially losing baseball teams whose fans have no alternative to their hometown monopolistic losers.  Instead, it's pretty easy to switch when you stop meeting my expectations.  Better to surprise and delight me with a real product I never anticipated, than to tease me with vaporware that we both know you'll never ship.

The whole point of having a strong point of view is to ship something remarkable.  And the reason we're here is to ship.  If you do have that strong point of view, believe in it first, and commit yourself to shipping.  Then — and only then — show off your concept car.



2 thoughts on “Concept Car at Your Peril

  1. As a gearhead, this sort of thing frustrates me. Why show us something remarkable, only to pull it back and say it’s not feasible?
    The message we, the vocal minority, receive on our end is, “We could do better, but the mindless, consumer sheep demand more cookie-cutter mediocrity, so we’re just going to keep doing that. You should totally buy a new Camry, though. They’re really sweet in beige.”
    Granted, it would seem 75% or more of the enthusiast population never actually buys new, which means the majority of people clamoring for concepts like this Mighty FC, and lambasting Fiat-Chrysler for not putting it into production wouldn’t buy one anyway, but why show that ace and follow with a low pair?
    This sort of thing is a prime candidate for limited production, specialty markets. If you show it, you can build it. Why not accept deposits for a limited production run? If you don’t get 1,000 people willing to pony up the cash on the front end, simply return everyone’s cash less a small processing fee (stated up front)?
    Then again, you don’t need a six-figure, rolling megalith to drive around the world, do you…

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