The fast and the curious: What cars say about consumers and brand

The fast and the curious: What cars say about consumers and brand

“Money may not buy happiness, but I’d rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.” – Francoise Sagan

Cars are far more than a means of transportation. We form strong emotional connections with our cars, even personify them.

A recent study conducted by DMEautomotive found that 49% of car owners ascribe a gender to their vehicle and 1 in 5  ‘christen’ them with nicknames.  

Some people have an even more passionate relationship with their car, spending all Saturday morning grooming and polishing it before taking it for a ride. The bliss continues during the journey with 90% of people singing in their car while driving!

It is this emotional connection we have with our vehicles that makes cars one of the most important symbols of status, alongside real estate and watches.

As a consequence, one significant consideration when buying a car is, that we – either consciously or unconsciously – determine how a new vehicle will reflect our personality and make a statement about who we are.

For that reason, successful car manufacturers design brands and ranges of models with their target consumer’s personality in mind aiming to fulfil both their functional and emotional motives.  

Understanding functional consumer motives

Functional motives refer to the functional benefit of a product. For instance, mineral water needs to quench thirst, coffee machines need to produce coffee and cars need to transport people faster than horses would. 

The first problem is that all mineral waters quench thirst, all coffee machines produce coffee and all cars nowadays are able to transport us faster than a horse! So these functional benefits alone do not differentiate one product from another or help us increase brand value.

One secret strategy of “boosting” your brand, according to our Limbic® founder Dr Haeusel, lies in expanding it’s functional value. In other words, all cars need to be reliable and safe (safety motive), as well as reasonably fast (efficiency of transportation motive). Now you can start differentiating yourself by saying that you fulfil one of these functional motives in a particularly competent manner. 

Porsche for instance is associated with speed – being seen as one of the leading high performance sports cars – but it has expanded its functional value with superior brakes and handling to allow maximum control at speed.

By emphasising and expanding its functional value, Porsche has set itself apart from most competitors, positioning itself as the fastest horse in the stable.

But there is more to this than functional optimization. The more powerful consumer motives are not functional, but emotional.

Understanding emotional consumer motives

Emotional motives represent deeper (hidden) motivational structures that usually operate under the surface of the conscious mind and cannot be explained properly by consumers.

Where there is an abundance of choice and all choices fulfil our basic functional needs in a similar way, we start choosing products based on experience and emotional benefit. At the same time, products have evolved to be important social communicators. Exactly these emotional and social functions can make a product very valuable.

The question is, which emotional values are right and credible for your brand?

The “Big 3” of brand positioning

According to neuroscience research, you can position your brand effectively by catering to one of the three groups of emotional consumer motives:

1. Hierarchy/status/power – the first major driver is that we are social animals and can’t live without community. Evolutionarily speaking, the higher the social rank, the better the access to sexual partners and available material resources. This dynamic is firmly installed in our brains in the form of the dominance system.

2. Fun/individuality/discovery – the second major social driver is the desire to be different; we want to be noticed and seen as a unique individual. Here the stimulance system is the driver in the brain; it seeks what is new and different and to learn and expand.

3. Security/care/inclusion/attachment – the third drive is the desire to bond, care and fit in to survive.  These emotions are hardwired in our brains as the balance system.

Mapping consumer motives

If we now take a look at our map of consumer motives and corresponding brand personalities we can easily see how Porsche speaks to the dominance dimension in the consumer’s brain. A Porsche is a status symbol, advertising by saying “The new Benchmark”, “There is no substitute”, etc – speaking to the emotional motives of power, status, strength and victory.

On the left side of the map we find personalities that speak to the consumer motive of fun, individuality and discovery. Mini is the perfect example of “saving on fuel, not fun” and the promise of “urban discovery”; owning the emotional space of stimulance.

On the bottom we find the balance dimension, which is catered to by car brands such as Volkswagen and Holden – their proven “Quality you could get used to” (VW) speaks to the consumer motives of security, reliability and care.

Understanding how brands position themselves to cater to the consumer’s functional and emotional needs reveals many secrets of how to use words, values, colours and shapes to give a brand a consistent “face” or personality expression that creates desire and instant emotional value.

As the successful automobile entrepreneur Lord Rootes famously said: “No other man-made device since the shields and lances of ancient knights fulfils a man’s ego like an automobile.”

And this observation is true for most sectors beyond the automotive space.

Katharina Kuehn is director of RDG Insights and one of Australia’s leading neuromarketing strategists, specialising in neuromarketing insights and their implications for retail and consumer brands. Contact her by email:


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