Last Updated: December 3, 2020

We often consider our cars extensions of our personalities.

If you value social status and efficiency, then maybe you prefer luxury vehicles like those created by BMW. If you’re outdoorsy and enjoy the freedom of the open road, maybe you own a Subaru. Are you rugged and active? Then the Ford F-150 was created for you.

Car companies toil endlessly to establish their individual brand images and build up their personalities in the minds of consumers. To target these various audiences, car manufacturers market their products in specific ways, catering to the emotions, desires, and needs of the typical consumer.

Discovering how to elicit these emotions and meet these desires requires marketers to consider their audiences from a psychological perspective. What do their consumers want in a car? Do drivers place greater importance on safety, or would they rather drive cars that give them rushes of excitement when they hear the engine roar?

Exploring the hierarchy of consumer needs gives car companies better control over the effects of their advertising. By taking into account specific psychological needs, car companies create effective marketing campaigns that help drive sales.

Psychology and Car Advertising

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementDemographicsPsychological Response Elicited
Mazda “What do you Drive?”A narrator asks what you drive, if it’s inspiring, if it breaks the boundaries of tradition, if it’s different and unique. As the narrator asks these questions, images of utilitarian products like toasters and microwaves are shown, before switching to images of high performance cars speeding down the road.Males and Females who value social status and performanceDesire for Individuality, Hedonic Desire: Mazda is shown as a car brand separated from big name car manufacturers. The narrator pushes consumers to see themselves as the “discerning few” who value better-built cars. Buy Mazda if you want a car that breaks the rules and inspires you.
Subaru “Baby Driver”A father is shown offering driving tips to his daughter in a Subaru. The camera pans to the daughter only to reveal that she is a baby, buckling herself in. The father continues to give advice before saying, “be careful.” The camera then reveals that the whole time he has actually been speaking to his teenage daughter. “You knew this day was coming, which is why you bought a Subaru.”Parents and FamiliesRelief: You bought a Subaru because of it’s high safety rating. Even though you love your child, you feel safe that she’s driving a Subaru.
BMW “Cake”A sleek new BMW is shown driving down a motorway and scenic byways. The narrator intones, “efficient dynamics, better fuel efficiency, and all the performance.”Males age 18-34, Females age 18-34Utilitarian and Hedonic desire: The new BMW is fuel efficient and yet high performance. As the narrator says, “it’s like having your cake and eating it too.” Buy a BMW if you care not only about the environment, but speed and performance.

Psychology considerations when buying cars

Most people shopping for a new car are doing so out of necessity. Maybe their previous car broke down, or perhaps their expanding family needs require more space for everyday activities. While this basic need for transportation exists for most potential car buyers, marketers try to segment these individuals into specific consumer groups through marketing efforts.

Car commercials tend to center on several major themes, including:

  • Safety
  • Performance
  • Excitement
  • Emotional Attachment

Powersliding a sports car through a rain-slick city at night might seem like an unrealistic activity that most car owners won’t participate in, but marketers count on the excitement generated by this imagery to influence consumer decisions. These marketers are seeking those consumers most driven by “a need for speed.”

Alternatively, other types of car commercials might showcase families taking advantage of safety features, like anti-lock breaks, rear-view cameras, and sensors that alert them when other cars come too close.

Whether one type of commercial is effective for a consumer relies on that consumer’s individual goals and desires. Consumer choice and motivation to buy goods is driven by two major factors:

  • Hedonic considerations
  • Utilitarian considerations

According to “Delight by Design: The Role of Hedonic vs. Utilitarian Benefits,” published in The Journal of Marketing, the types of goals consumers expect to accomplish by purchasing goods differ based on their hedonic and utilitarian motivations.

Hedonic considerations are focused on promotion goals. Fulfilling promotion goals elicits positive emotions of confidence, fun, and excitement in a consumer. Hedonic goods make an individual feel more sophisticated and elevate them to a higher class on the social scale.

Utilitarian considerations, however, focus more on prevention goals. Fulfilling prevention goals reduces the probability of a painful experience and elicits feelings of safety and security. Buying utilitarian goods makes an individual feel like they are a smart, responsible consumer.

The study, written by author Ravindrea Chitturi, notes that consumers take these considerations into account whenever they purchase goods. For major purchases such as houses or cars, these two considerations play the largest roles in consumer decisions.

Hedonic aspects of cars might include shape, price, speed, handling, and prestige. An example of a vehicle primarily based on hedonic factors might be a sports car or convertible.

Utilitarian aspects of cars might include gas mileage, airbags, safety rating, and number of seats. An example of a vehicle primarily based on utilitarian factors might be a minivan.

Maslow's Hieracrchy of Needs

When choosing between goods, consumers seek to alleviate stress from specific needs. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, these needs rest in several domains, structured from most important to least important.

  • Physiological Needs
    Food, Water, Sleep
  • Safety Needs
    Security, resources
  • Love/Belonging
    Friendship, Family
  • Esteem
    Confidence, Respect
  • Self-Actualization
    Morality, Creativity

Marketers who advertise cars should take these needs into account, placing high emphasis on safety and belonging, in addition to prestige and respect.

Chitturi suggests that these utilitarian and hedonic considerations are reflected in the personalities and behaviors of the car owners. Those who buy luxury cars are likely to crave social status and material wealth, while more utilitarian vehicles are chosen more by necessity.

To target these specific audiences, car marketers work to advertise their cars as catering to either hedonic or utilitarian needs. By building up their brand’s recognition and personality through clever advertising efforts, specific car manufacturers try to position themselves as the best choice for the hedonic or utilitarian-minded driver.

Influencing consumer needs and wants

Consumers typically develop attitudes and associations toward specific brands in part because of aggressive advertising efforts from marketers. BMW cars attract individuals who value performance and luxury, while the Volvo brand is classically associated with safety and reliability.

According to “Drivers and Outcomes of Brand Heritage: Consumers’ Perception of Heritage Brands in the Automotive Industry,” by authors Klaus-Peter Wiedmann and others, consumers prefer vehicle brands with histories of credibility, trustworthiness, and reliability.

Published in The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, the article describes this “brand heritage” as a dimension of a brand’s identity. Aspects of brand identity and heritage include:

Automotive Advertising Spending

Car manufacturers represent some of the biggest spenders in U.S. advertising. Consider some of the following figures:

Total Auto Advertising Spending in 2011

  • Advertising spending totaled $13.9 billion
  • Auto advertising in 2011 contributed to nearly 25% of total advertising revenue

Ad Spending in Q1 2012:

  • General Motors – $403.3 million
  • Toyota – $327.8 million

sources: Moody’s Investor Service, Borrell Associates, Kantar Media

  • Track record
  • Longevity
  • Core Values
  • Symbols
  • History

These values, symbols, and track records in turn are reflected in a car’s utilitarian and hedonic attributes.

When automotive brands embark on advertising campaigns for new cars, they try to zero in on these features, reinforcing a brand’s image and identity. One brand might have a reputation as safe and efficient, represented in advertisements as family friendly and convenient, while another might have a reputation cemented in traditional values, represented in an emotional pitch toward the consumer.

For example, consider Chrysler’s 2011 Super Bowl commercial featuring hard-working Detroit citizens. The advertisement’s narrator focuses on the American history of rising against the odds, and beating back adversity to reclaim success. Throughout this inspiring message, images of the new Chrysler 200 are flashed as it drives through the Detroit landscape.

The commercial elicits hedonic emotions of pride and longing for success, pairing the Chrysler brand with traditional American values. The advertisement suggests that consumers who wish to be associated with these values should buy Chrysler vehicles.

As car companies continue to invest in advertising their brands, their target audiences narrow over time. For instance, there aren’t too many teenage boys who want their first car to be a Dodge Caravan, a car marketing particularly toward consumers with utilitarian needs. This narrowing audience allows for more specific targeting in future advertising efforts.

Psychology and Marketing

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As the American automotive industry continues to recover after the damaging 2008 recession, advertising must remained focused and targeted in order to reach the correct audience. Since advertising is such an expensive venture, researching consumers’ psychological needs and characteristics is key for future success.

If you’re interested in learning more about how psychology and consumer behavior guides marketing principles, read more about consumer psychology.

Related Professions

Explore some of the following professions if you’re interested in learning more about psychology and car marketing:

Research Analyst

Research analysts help crunch through statistical data to narrow down target markets. These professionals explore which advertising strategies are most successful, who buys cars as the result of the strategies, and why they bought the car.

Market Insight Manager

Car branding efforts typically focus on creating an emotional association with a car. Market insight managers interview consumers and create polls to determine what consumers think about a particular brand of car.

Market Development Manager

Cars typically sell in large dealerships that create relationships with car manufacturers. Market development managers help facilitate the development of these relationships, negotiating business deals and contracts.