Guccimobile

October 17, 2010

The most interesting thing about revolutionary new kinds of car propulsion, like in-wheel electric motors & hydrogen fuel cells, is nothing to do with the technology or even the environmental impact. It is the fact that it gives designers & consumers the opportunity to start completely from scratch.

With something like the original Audi etron concept, other than the (admittedly still quite lumpy, for now) battery pack, there are almost none of the packaging requirements that lead to the shape & interior layout of the humdrum carbon-buckets we all parp around in now. No engine (motors in the wheel hubs instead), no gearbox to speak of,  no fuel tank – nuffink.

Obviously car designers are playing it pretty safe in the short term – they don’t want to panic everyone with a whole new paradigm in transport, and at the same time confuse or damage the visual brand they have carefully built up over the many decades of conventional car production. OK, for some reason Renault are quite happy to, but most of the others aren’t.

But the really interesting thing here is contained in the idea of brands; every now & again a bored but fruity billionaire reawakens the essentially pre-war idea of coachbuilding, and commissions someone to build him a unique motoring icon on the chassis of an existing ubercar – gorgeous autoporn that still rolls over the  speed bump at the entrance to the yacht club.

But what if they didn’t need to – since all the oily bits in a car are no longer oily, and what’s more they don’t really intrude above the wheels anyway, then what’s to stop Audi, BMW and everyone else just making the base? Fast, frugal, but above all flat, you pop online and order whatever chassis makes the most sense for you size & cost-wise. Click ‘buy’, and the next step will be to decide which brand you want to be responsible for the outside and which for the inside of your new wheels – probably from a list of companies that this particular manufacturer works with.

Prestige car brands already basically operate as labels that say ‘I’m rich, rich! Now will you love me, mummy?’ (BMW X6) or ‘I’ve done fairly well, thank you for not mentioning it’ (Volvo XC60) or ‘I’ve never actually held money and went into the family arms business at 19’ (Maybach). So it’s not a stretch to imagine bringing other brands from outside the car world into play.

How about an Audi A1 etron chassis with a body by Apple and an interior by North Face? Or a Mercedes E-Class with a Mulberry interior and a nice subtle, grown-up outside by Gieves & Hawkes? We as consumers already see & understand these kind of relationships – Nike & Apple (music to run to) for example. Prestige car brands will still operate as labels – because you won’t be able to get Gucci seats in Ford Focus.

This will definitely happen.

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Money for old hope

July 12, 2010

So the Times paywall has finally gone up, a month or so beyond the original planned date of introduction. It’s looking fairly slick too, although there have been a few teething issues with their own journalists getting frozen out.

The media & advertising industry have adopted their standard attitude to anything new; an initial flurry of excitement, quickly followed by complete apathy until either:

a) It is proven to be successful in one of a few hundred possible ways, in which case it simply becomes the new normal and no-one questions it (recent examples: anything to do with Twitter; user participation in the news – “record snow here in London, and to prove it here are some of your 44,000 photos of ruddy snowmen”).

b) It doesn’t really work for one of a few hundred possible reasons, in which case it becomes the new Betamax and no-one learns from it (recent examples: CEROS e-mags; Adrian Chiles)

I think media paywalls will eventually fall into category a) – but not in this precise guise.

Newspapers currently cling to a space in our collective heads that they no longer have the wherewithal to occupy. Firstly, scale – we still think of newspapers as categorising people, whether by class or political view (Guardian-reading communist, Sun-reading football hooligan, and so on). But the reality is only 20% of the UK adult population ever read a daily newspaper. To put that in context, more than twice as many people agree that, ‘yes I eat mature cheese regularly’ (a staggering 50% of the country), than do with the statement ‘I rely on a newspaper to keep me informed’.

The Guardian now circulates at almost precisely the same level as Marie Claire magazine. So why do we still treat one as an active political force and the other as passive entertainment? Why isn’t the editor of Women’s Own (with more readers than the Guardian) ever on a panel with Jeremy Paxman?

The other factor at work here is value. The Daily Mail in particular spends large chunks of its sweaty waking existence in attacking the BBC, constantly (jealously?) bemoaning any apparently slipshod use of license fee-payer’s money. And yet by any reasonable calculation you’d have to say that the BBC offers extraordinary value for money at just £142.50 a year – or 40p a day. For that you get everything from iPlayer to the Antiques Roadshow, the Today programme to a re-animated 6 Music. All with the recent added benefit of no Adrian Chiles. Amazing.

It certainly seems better value than the Daily Mail, which if we assume a regular purchase of 3 issues per week plus the Mail on Sunday, adds up to £156 a year. Which seems a lot just to find out the next instalment of Mail’s ongoing mission to categorise every object in the world as either causing or curing cancer, and even more so when you consider that all of their content is available online for free.

And so to paywalls. It may appear from the above that I don’t like newspapers  – but actually I love them. I love reading Charlie Brooker & Ben Goldacre in the Guardian, occasionally check out Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times, Oliver Kamm is brilliant in the Times, I like the Telegraph’s editorial leaders & sport coverage, and if I’m ever depressed then Richard Littlejohn never fails to make me feel better about the fact that almost no-one else on Earth is him.

But clearly I can’t/don’t buy every newspaper, and so to suit my snacking approach I just read each individual element, as well as all of those recommended to me by friends or linked in other articles, for free online – whenever I want & not just when  some people decide to roll out some dead trees really flat and stamp it on there, early in the morning.

I don’t want to pay £2 per week for the whole of the Times – but I probably would pay £5 per week for a syndicated collection of my choosing; this column from the Guardian, this from the Times, this cartoon from the FT (they have cartoons, right?).

The blanket paywall system is old media thinking applied to new media content.

Sorry for the massive delay in posting. I’d love to be able to say I won’t do it again.

Daimler in distress?

April 8, 2010

Should we be surprised that Daimler are already courting another corporate partner? After all, it’s hard to see how the previous relationship with Chrylser could have ended in a worse fashion.

But the simple fact is that the economies of scale in development & production, as well as the increasingly key group CO2 emissions, are just too big to ignore.

However, shouldn’t Nissan-Renault exercise some caution here? In a fairly astonishing case brought in America, Daimler have agreed to pay $185m in fines in order to settle a corruption case that covers at least the last 11 years.

It seems they were systematically handing over cash in exchange for contracts across 22 different countries – including in one particularly impressive case the gift of two armoured vehicles to one individual official in Turkmenistan. How did he manage to hide them? Surely the least subtle instance of company car park one-upmanship – “Nice 3-Series, Murik.. I parked on top of it.”

Everyone involved is terribly impressed with Daimler’s complicity in the investigation and generally seems at pains to point out how lovely they are. [From the Independent article covering the story]: ‘Prosecutor John Darden added that Daimler had “showed excellent co-operation. The company has undertaken an effort to clean its own house. That reflects a serious change of mind on part of Daimler. This deserves credit.’

In as much as they had any real choice, I suppose this does deserve credit.

But according to Deutsche Welle, Daimler gave out about 41m Euros in bribes between ’98 and ’08 – and in that same period “the deals earned the company 1.4bn Euros in revenue and at least 69bn Euros in allegedly illegal profits.”

So a pretty good deal then, albeit a distinctly shady one if it could be described as a policy decision.

On the other side of the fence, Carlos Ghosn – world-acclaimed saviour of Nissan & Renault and general all-round business good egg – once said: “I think that the best training a top manager can be engaged in is management by example. I want to make sure there is no discrepancy between what we say and what we do. […] Don’t believe what I say. Believe what I do.” (Thanks to Leadershipjot.com for the quote)

Hmmm. Do I detect an impending clash of management philosophy? That’s certainly what happened last time – Peter Schneider says that “The Germans [Daimler] found out Chrysler only planned ahead for four months on many issues, whereas the Germans planned ahead for almost 10 years on virtually everything”.

All in all, I can see the proposed partnership between Nissan-Renault & Daimler failing just as spectacularly as the Chrysler relationship did. It might take a while to do so, and actually I really hope it doesn’t – because I admire Carlos Ghosn and what he has achieved. But it’s hard to see how two such apparently distinct company ethoses (ethi?) can be reconciled, just because both parties need to make seatbelts & steering wheels.

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