“Honda: We Make It Simple” – That was the tagline the company used widely in the 1970s and early 1980s as it made inroads into the American market. One TV spot touted the fact that you had a choice of only two colors of one Civic model, red or black.
In truth, Honda HAD to make it simple: The company only offered a few models for several years, two variations of the Civic and the Accord. But its advertising made that restriction a virtue:
“We know that choosing a new car can be a complex problem. It’s a problem, however, that we can solve quite easily by giving you your choice of just three cars. Now haven’t we made your life simple?”
Honda was wildly successful, and as it grew in popularity it offered more and more vehicles. Eventually, the company added a whole separate division, Acura, as well as minivans and even trucks.
For the most part, the company has continued the high level of quality that initially won consumers over. But Honda doesn’t make it simple anymore, and there are a few lessons to be learned by witnessing the car company’s shift to complexity.
Lesson One: The user experience suffers. Early Hondas were designed to make driving a gas-up-and-go operation. Advanced technology let consumers buy whatever gas they wanted as the standards was shifting from leaded to unleaded. But the technology was hidden from customer view, buried deep in the engine compartment. With the introduction of the newest Accord in 2008, Honda splayed advanced technology all over the dashboard with so many buttons to choose that drivers felt they needed to study their manuals at length before putting the car in gear. Not good.
Lesson Two: Products reflect a reaction to other manufacturers rather than consumer needs. Acura now sells something called the ZDX, a 2.5-ton, all-wheel-drive vehicle with swoopy looks and marginal utility. Auto writers wonder what the point is, other than to have something to compete with an equally pointless model made by BMW, the X6.
Lesson Three: Design gets weird. When a company doesn’t have a strong, guiding philosophy, its products are free to head in any visual direction a group of designers want to take it. Somebody needed to tell the folks who created the Accord Crosstour and the 2011 Acura TL that they were not in line with Honda’s tradition of straightforward purpose and practicality. No one did so, presumably, because that tradition evaporated along with the “We Make It Simple” tagline.
Of course, the market is more challenging for auto manufacturers now than in the 1970s with increased regulations and global competitiveness. Still, many Honda loyalists wish the company would find its way back to a coherent corporate identity – one that puts consumers back in the driver’s seat.