Buying a new car is a major event in the lives of most consumers and with it comes many psychological and emotional implications. Here is a high-level summary of what we have learned about the acquisition of a new car and its emotional impact on the typical consumer in the U.S., based on original qualitative and survey research conducted by and owned by Decision Analyst. The term “car” will be used throughout this article to include all automobiles and light trucks. Buckle up for a revealing ride.
The purchase of a new car is “exciting,” “thrilling” and “exhilarating.” Most consumers buy only a limited number of new cars during their lifetimes, so each purchase or lease is a major emotional event. Getting a new car is similar to the excitement a “child experiences with a new toy.” Buying a new car is equated to “getting that great new job,” “buying a new house” or “taking that dream vacation.” It’s a “manic moment,” an emotional peak.
Part of the thrill and excitement of owning a new car comes from the looks and attention that a new car brings to its new owner. Friends and family members make a fuss over the new car and its owner and compliment the new owner about the new car. Friends and co-workers want to see the new car, ride in the new car or maybe even have a chance to test drive the new car (although the new owner is rarely keen to share the driving experience with others). The new car makes its owner the center of attention, at least for a while.
Psychologically, a new car represents an achievement, an accomplishment. It’s a symbol of success, an affirmation of the owner’s personal worth. It’s seen as evidence of and a reward for hard work and sacrifice.
A new car is often associated with a new beginning, a fresh start. Psychologically, it’s a kind of personal renewal, a re-birth, a turning point in one’s life. It’s as though a new car creates a “new me.” Someone going through a divorce, for example, might buy a new car as way to boost his ego and help him transition to a “new me” and a new life.
A new car brings a sense of freedom, of unlimited possibilities, of the open road and expanding horizons. In some ways, a new car is a psychological escape from the limits, bounds and tedium of one’s life. A new car “feels like flying,” it’s a “feeling of extra freedom,” it’s a sense that one can “go anywhere” and “do anything” and “be anyone.”
A new car is a status symbol, especially if the car is an expensive one or manufactured by a high-status company. While none of us like to admit that we are status conscious, it’s a universal human weakness (or strength, if you prefer). Most people will never see the house we live in but others cannot escape the notice of our new car. The car plays a similar status role in the modern world as the strong, beautiful horse played in the pre-industrial world. It’s a statement about who we are and where we rank in the social pecking order.
A new car, especially a high-status or sports car, is believed to enhance one’s sexual attractiveness – witness older, over-the-hill men driving new Corvettes or the 70-year-old blonde woman in her new convertible. This romantic hope is promoted and reinforced by the automotive industry, of course.
An individual’s self-image – or idealized self-image – plays an important role in brand and type of vehicle sought. Large, expensive pick-up trucks are often purchased by city-dwelling men who rarely, if ever, haul anything in the back of their vehicles. Trucks fit the aspirational “masculine” image that some men hope to project to others and perhaps to convince themselves of their own manliness as well.
New car buyers love the new car smell. The new car scent helps evoke positive emotions and happiness. The new car smell helps reinforce and is linked to all the positive emotions triggered by a new car. More research is needed to delve into the nuances of smells and how they could enhance the new car experience.
The psychology of buying a new car, however, is not all champagne and roses. The purchase of a new car often triggers worries over the financial obligations and monthly payments. What if I lose my job? What if I get into a financial jam? What if I have a serious health problem? What if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew?
A brand new car brings worries about possible dings, scratches, dirt, spills, anything that destroys the perfect, clean condition of the new car. These worries can even become a barrier to buying a new car. One is at peace with the old car and it doesn’t matter if the dog jumps in the back seat, someone gets in with mud on their shoes or spills Diet Coke on the seat. What’s OK with the old car, however, is not at all acceptable for that shiny new car. Cognitive dissonance is often an issue as well. There are so many cars to choose from. In buying one new car, one has to forsake all the other new cars and this reality can create internal discord. New car buyers worry “did I choose the right car” or the “best car for me.” This dissonance often underlies the tendency of new car buyers to seek out and absorb advertising for their respective new cars. The reduction of dissonance is an under-appreciated role for advertising in the new car purchase process.
A new car is an emotional roller coaster for the typical consumer. A new car lifts the new owner’s spirits to mania levels but beneath the mania lurks a covert dread, a hidden foreboding that the good feelings will soon fade away.
Few products evoke such pervasive and deep emotions as the purchase and ownership of a new car. Americans’ love affair with the automobile is alive and continuing. It’s difficult to imagine that consumers will readily give up all of these deep-seated emotional linkages to cars in favor of electric scooters, car sharing or Uber. Investors who hope to disrupt the automotive industry might be well advised to go carefully and cautiously.
Decision Analyst is a global marketing research and analytical consulting firm. The company specializes in strategy research, new products research and forecasting and advanced modeling and simulation to optimize marketing decisions.