I am posting this article because I think Land Rover’s dilemma about what to do with the Defender parallels Toyota’s dilemma about what to do with the Land Cruiser. There are a couple of quotes in the article from Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern that caught my attention. First, McGovern says that the Defender with have to “broaden its appeal.” He goes on to say that to do this it will have to be “lighter, more aerodynamic and more cost effective.” Ugh. This illustrates how the car industry thinks about designing cars and indicates that what Toyota started doing with the Land Cruiser in the 1980s is about to start happening to the Defender. In other words, its about to start evolving into a vehicle that has very little to do with its former self.
If you follow this blog you might have read a post I wrote last week related to Toyota unveiling the TRD Pro packages for the Tundra, Tacoma, and 4Runner. In it, I said that whatever Toyota had in mind for the TRD Pro package wasn’t going to accomplish what it was hoping to, which I think is an attempt to appeal to its customers who like having a true utility vehicle. The TRD Pro package and the remarks by Mr. McGovern show that Toyota and Land Rover have the same thoughts about the evolution of utility vehicles. And, I think they are exactly wrong.
I think what is going to happen is that by making a car that they think will appeal to a broad number of people they are going to end up with an uninspired product that doesn’t create a following for the vehicle or the brand. This is exactly what happens to iconic cars. They become very popular. The car company decides they need to broaden the car’s appeal to sell more of them, so they redesign it and ruin it. Then after a few years of horrible sales, they redesign it to be a proper modern interpretation of the classic vehicle, and then the cycle starts over again. This has happened with the Mustang and the Jeep Wrangler. Porsche is about the only company that has done right by the classic 911. And as a reward, it has retained a loyal following. Speaking of the Wrangler, the current version is a strong counterpoint to Mr. McGovern’s theory about making the defender “more relevant to the real world.”
The Jeep Wrangler is an incredibly popular vehicle in the U.S. It is not particularly light or aerodynamic. It’s a car that people enjoy driving and the modern version is something that people who have been fans of Jeeps since the days of the CJ can be proud to own. It sacrifices nothing in terms of Jeep heritage and yet appeals to a wide range of customers.
So here is my advice, Toyota and Land Rover: Stop thinking about designing cars to meet annual sales quotas. This is short-term thinking that will lead to crappy cars and destroy your brand. Remember that the Defender and the FJ40 created a cult following. The customers who fell in love with them also became Toyota or Land Rover fans. This means they bought other Toyotas or Land Rovers for their spouses and children, and recommended your cars to friends and family. Think about developing iconic cars in order to create loyal customers as you design your future trucks and SUVs. This will lead to popular vehicles and a strong brand, which will in turn lead to increasing revenue. And in terms of making a business case, the data is there, it is much more difficult to gather, report, and understand than annual sales, but if you can collect the data and make a case, you will have a better and more profitable car company in the long run.