I was driving from meeting to meeting the other day, stopped at some lights. I turned and looked out my right-hand window and saw a Pininfarina badge staring back at me. For those that don’t know, Pininfarina are a boutique design firm in Italy specialising in cars, specifically ostentatious, expensive, European-made cars. Bughatti, Alfa-Romeo, Maserati. These are the names and brands associated with Pininfarina, very much from the If-You-Have-To-Ask,-You-Can’t-Afford -It-Department.

Now I’m no auto-enthusiast, I would frankly struggle to change a tire on my own. But I knew Pininfarina. And I knew that something was not right, or at least not expected. I eased in front of the car next to me and through the mirror saw, much to my surprise, there wasn’t a Europen badge in sight. It wasn’t even American. The badge staring back a me was Hyundai. Even some of friends who are actually into cars don’t know the Pininfarina name, so I’ll frame it like this: imagine Gordon Ramsay released his own menu in McDonalds. THAT is what a Pininfarina badge on a Hyundai is. Unexpected. Attention-grabbing. A story I want to know more about.

However this goes a bit beyond a simple comparison of prestigious brand meets common denominator brand; if Gordon Ramsay released a line of meals in McDonalds, I’d find it less a curiosity, more so a gross diminishing of his brand. McDonalds are a global leader in mass-produced junk food, there’s nothing beyond a general charitable interest in Ronald McDonald House that I find even remotely appealing about them. Ramsay himself I don’t really care for, but I’d be a big dirty liar if I said I had no interest in eating at one of his restaurants. But that sort of association would say to me (and I’m being grossly irrational here to prove a point):

  1. He was somewhat of a whore
  2. He ceased to care about the experience of eating his food and focussed simply on the mass promotion of his brand
  3. McDonalds had no idea;
    1. who their core audience was anymore
    2. nobody who gave a toss about who Gordon Ramsay was would be drawn to McDonalds, and did it simply for the brand exercise.

Now there are a myriad of other things wrong with a Ramsay-McDonalds association, but it is fictional so we won’t dwell. What I will say is it would be entirely unexpected, but I don’t think it would be well received. Contrast this with a Pininfarina-Hyundai association, which is equally unexpected, but received in such a glowing fashion that it changes the perception of both brands for the better.

For Pininfarina, it shows a level of candour and humility in what they do. They care about spreading a gospel of style and substance. They recognise continuing in an isle of exclusion among premium European automakers will not grow their business or brand, and are interested in more than just what their countrymen have to offer.

For Hyundai it is a stunning move. Let’s get something out of the way – it still looks like the kind of thing Hyundai would make. But to get hung up on that misses the point entirely. Hyundai is about providing the best car they can for the lowest possible price, eschewing a car that turns heads for one that is affordable and packed with as many features as possible. The people who buy cars from Hyundai want something that turns heads, but will settle for something generically comfortable, cheap to run, cheaper to fix, an, most of all, reliable.

This understanding of what a customer wants and what it expects from a brand is paramount. Who knows – Pininfarina may have first submitted something typically them, I would love to know! If that happened, then Hyundai made an astute move – the typical Hyundai customer would, I feel, have looked at it, and passed it by. It is not what they expect or come to Hyundai for. It would be like a no-frills brand being out a premium range of products. I can buy a $15 tshirt from Target, would I buy a $100 t-shirt from them or would I go to the store I associate with that price point? So too the car produced by Pininfarina and Hyundai hits the core offerings Hyundai is known for. And Pininfarina pocket a cheque that allows them to make the supercars they got into the business for.

Everyone wins, but consumers win most. Just as it should be.