How car companies are tapping into fashion and art worlds to sell cars in a major marketing shift
Car companies sold cars by promoting dazzling chrome, enormous horsepower, and invented luxuries like fine Corinthian leather. Nowadays that is not enough. The auto industry is trying to attract new buyers by turning to the world of art and fashion in hopes of re-invading pop culture consciousness.
Old auto companies want you to know they fully understand. They want to be cool again, part of the zeitgeist, and look good.
It’s an understandable instinct for anyone who has always wanted a new outfit for the first day of school, but the auto industry’s agenda goes deeper than just fitting in.
Over the past 18 months there has been a spate of collaborations between automakers and hypebeast-recognized fashion brands like Palace, Kith, Supreme, Aime Leon Dore, and designers like Yohji Yamamoto and the late great Virgil Abloh. Ferrari held its first fashion show in June, and Jeff Koons – the artist behind the $ 91 million rabbit sculpture – announced plans to make a limited edition car for BMW. Fashion designer Paul Smith came up with an eco-friendly concept for Mini, while Porsche had two Toronto-based artists use two $ 120,000 cars as a canvas.
It’s usually embarrassing to wear branded auto company clothing in public, but these new designer hoodies, t-shirts, and hats aren’t terrifying. Some of them are actually good. The designer pieces were usually sold out quickly and could only be found on auction sites at exorbitant prices. (A beige x BMW baseball cap retails for more than $ 300 on the StockX fashion resale site, compared to about $ 100 for a typical hat of the same brand.)
During our conversation in September, Gorden Wagener, Chief Designer Officer at Mercedes-Benz said: âI don’t see Mercedes as a car manufacturer; I see Mercedes as an international design and luxury company. I would like to lift Mercedes out of the automotive world into various luxury areas. “
Wagener said it was Virgil Abloh, then Louis Vuitton’s artistic director, who approached him about a collaboration. The couple built two concept cars together. The second, a battery-powered coupe called Project Maybach, was unveiled in early December, just days after Abloh’s sudden death after a private battle with cancer. The car exploded on the internet and gained widespread coverage outside of the auto press by fashion websites and magazines, putting Mercedes-Benz in front of an audience for which cars – although perhaps a necessity – are less of a priority than clothing, art, and Uber-food something good for dinner .
As millennials become the largest group of car buyers, getting them to want a specific car instead of just needing a car is challenging.
Collaborations with brands outside of the automotive space are one way to get into big-topic conversations, said Tara Powadiuk, Marketing Director at Volvo Car Canada. On the occasion of World Car Free Day in September, for example, Volvo commissioned the Vancouver-based shoe company Casca Designs to produce a limited edition of sustainably produced trainers. “We tried to think about how we could be relevant in this conversation,” said Powadiuk. The Volvo shoes, designed to encourage people to walk and be active, were all sold out.
Nowadays, vehicle marketing is different than it used to be, she said, explaining that marketing is driven by product design and technology, but also by consumer awareness of the brands they choose.
âAs Volvo Cars we know that we are part of the problem and we need to be part of the solution,â said Powadiuk.
Paul Smith, who founded his eponymous fashion label in 1970, did not want to do anything âdecorativeâ when he was approached by Mini about working on a project. âThere are a few hundred people in my company, and most of them are young, and they are very aware of climate change and sustainability,â said Smith. The idea for the mini project was to only use sustainable materials and reduce waste by reducing a car to the bare essentials. The resulting concept with the name Mini Strip is not for sale, but has caused a sensation in the fashion and lifestyle spheres.
Putting a designer label on a car is nothing new. Paul Smith designed limited editions of the Rover Mini in the 1990s. Peugeot teamed up with Lacoste in the 1980s and put some of the fashion label’s green crocodile logos on the 205 hatchback. In 1979 Cadillac sold a limited edition Gucci Seville, a neoclassical chunk of American metal and Italian leather.
In the past, automakers turned to fashion labels to make cars – often mediocre ones – desirable. Now, however, the industry is in the midst of a change that has not occurred since the beginning of the 20th century. Long-established automakers need to talk about pollution, rebuild their businesses to make electric vehicles, and cut emissions while fighting off new competition from overhyped startups. In this context, a brand makes a brand appear cool (more) if it is just in the same sentence as Supreme or Palace. So the collabs and drops get thick and fast. Car companies aren’t trying to sell cars, they are trying to reclaim some street credo and cultural stamps – to sell cars, clothes, trainers, and everything else. Judging by how quickly this co-branded merchandise typically sells out online, it seems to be working.