What the Fiat 500 Can Teach Us About The Power of Design
Aug 2, 2011
You may have noticed a new mini-car on U.S. roads. At first glance, you probably thought it was a variation of the MINI Cooper. I did. But then you noticed the subtle design cues — the forward stance as if it’s almost lunging forward, the apparent lack of a front grill, the deep seam that runs along both sides and around the front that make the car resemble a melty layer-cake. Then there’s that large, red, gorgeous Fiat Badge… Yes Fiat.
The new Fiat 500 is an attempt by Chrysler to relaunch the Italian brand in the U.S. market after a 25 year absence. Unfortunately, the brand does come with some baggage. The last time Fiat sold cars here, F.I.A.T. stood for “Fix It Again Tony.” Their engines were said to break down so often they’d spend more time at “the” garage than in yours.
A reputation like that is a big hurdle to overcome when you relaunch a brand. But Fiat’s strategy for overcoming this legacy has little to do with improving the quality of their engineering. To be honest, I haven’t cared enough to look into whether they have or not. They’re betting the stunning design of the car will be enough to sell it. You may have noticed the commercial above doesn’t include a single word about the car’s performance. They might as well be selling clothing or jewelry. The 500 is about standing out, visually, from the crowd.
Let’s compare the 500 to the Ford Ka. The Ka is built side-by-side with the 500 in a factory in Poland. The Ka is built on the Fiat frame with a Fiat engine. From an engineering standpoint, both cars are essentially the same. They even use the same key. Where they differ is in the design.
The Ka is thoroughly modern looking. It looks fast. Sharp edges, pointy headlights. It looks like a car designed for a fuel-conscious urban ninja. In comparison, the 500 looks more sophisticated and very european. It’s classic. When I see somebody driving one, I expect to see him pick up an espresso from a tiny cup holder with a hand clad in italian leather… all while on his way to a soccer, err… football match. The 500 is, in my opinion, the better-looking car. Any elegance the Ka might have was inherited from it’s Fiat frame.
Unfortunately, I’m unable to prove that this better design has resulted in better sales as I can’t seem to find figures on European sales where both cars have been available for some time. But what I can tell you is that the Ka won’t even be offered to the U.S. market.
According to Ford, “The Ka is too small for American tastes.” To me, the Fiat 500 and other cars like the Mini Cooper prove that the Ka is not too small for American tastes. If it were, those other mini-cars wouldn’t sell. What Ford should have said is that the Ka isn’t interesting enough for American tastes.
I don’t sell cars, what does this have to do with me? My point is this — If you want to sell your brand, you need to get people talking. You need to turn heads. Put loads of money and energy into design. Trust your designers. Be mindful that you need to match your design with solid engineering — your bite needs to match your bark, so to speak. But don’t dilute your design to meet technical specifications. Use your technical challenges to compliment your design. Do this and your brand will sell itself.