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Buying a Car is an Experience. Owning one is a Relationship

When it was time for me to buy my first car, I did what any responsible adult does: consulted with Consumer Reports. I poured over reviews, compared features, and made a list of the top-ranking cars that were within my budget.

My first test drive was a Honda Civic, but there was something about its futuristic dashboard. It felt off, like I was at the helm of a spaceship.

I then went to the Nissan dealership to try out the Altima, but I knew right away that it wasn’t for me. I politely went through the motions until I could leave.

Both Nissan and Honda make great cars – my research confirmed it – but neither connected with me. Kind of like a date that you know will never go anywhere. I didn’t want a long-term relationship.

It wasn’t until I tried out the Mazda 3 that I knew I had found “the one.” I loved the car’s handling and gas mileage; on the open road, they loved me back. I dug the sleek body design and Bose sound system. The price was right. I decided to commit.

The dealer was not your stereotypical pushy creepozoid. He was kind and helpful.

The day I picked up my car (which I ended up naming “Dusty”), he had left me a handwritten note on the dashboard: “Dear Kristen, Enjoy your new Mazda 3! I hope you enjoy it as much as it enjoys you.” I keep it in my glove box.

Even though all this was seven years ago, I look back on my first date with Mazda with fondness. (I recognize that this is rare!) What strikes me the most, though, is that, to this day, I get a feeling about the Mazda brand that I can’t quite describe. My affinity is more than the sum of my personal experience at the dealership, or rationalizations about why I picked my car above all others.

It’s more emotional than that. We can all relate to the feeling of being pulled towards certain automobiles. In fact, a new C Space study suggests the reasons people choose one brand over another often have little to do with the car itself. It explains why we buy the cars that we do. And that’s a very important thing for an auto brand to understand.

If you own one – and even if you don’t – think for a moment about your favorite car brand. Why, of all the brands out there, are you drawn to it? Why does it speak to you, and what’s it saying?

What we drive says to the world, “This is me. This is what I stand for.” It’s an outward symbol of our inner-selfdom. An emotional relationship that transcends 5-year/500,000-mile warranties, state-of-the art gadgets, modern design, or even price.

And that relationship, that feeling, is what most of us seek. Our values, our needs, our choices – they’re all inextricably intertwined. For auto brands in particular, this coalescence is amplified. Cars are big-ticket purchases, and most of us end up driving them for years. Buying a car has more weight and consequence than, say, buying a pair of shoes.

Our car purchases reflect us. So shouldn’t a car brand’s strategy reflect who their customers really are? Or who they aspire to be? I think so. The relationship between car and driver is built on trust, empathy, and experience. And the benefits are mutual.

Nearly 18 million cars are projected to be sold in the U.S. alone in 2017. That’s billions in sales and revenue for auto brands. As each looks for new ways to differentiate and pull ahead from the competition, the experience of buying and the relationship of owning can’t be overstated or overlooked. Auto brands that pay attention will reap the rewards. Those that don’t will be eating their dust.

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