Since 2000, China's car industry has grown twentyfold. And to maintain strength in the market, German carmakers are creating designs exclusively for Chinese sensibilities.
BEIJING — What can German car companies learn from Chinese artists?
The German Embassy to China decided to find out during a recent seminar with Chinese sculptor Ma Jun and German design directors from Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, who are designing cars especially for the Chinese market.
Ma's work Porcelain Car was displayed in front of the German Embassy, attracting many spectators and flashing lights. The car, with the body shape of a Buick, was made of porcelain and printed with glaring colors and patterns in the Qing Dynasty style. Ma views the work as a conversation about traditional Chinese culture and the West's modern industrial civilization.
"Whereas porcelain presents a static beauty, the car represents speed and force," Ma says. "When speed is solidified in porcelain, it thus constitutes a conflict of beauty."
When German cultural attaché Enrico Brandt discovered Ma's work in Beijing, he decided to invite him for the automotive design dialogue. The auto industry is an important part of German culture, and the quality and performance of German cars are well esteemed in China.
According to Reuters, German cars sales have had a very good year in China. While sales of Volkswagen's premium Audi AG grew 77% in the first three months of 2014, sales for both BMW and Mercedes-Benz doubled. From 2009 to 2013, German car sales have increased from 1.6 to 3.7 million, accounting for 23% of China's total automobile market.
While the German Automobile Industry Association predicts that passenger car sales in China will increase 6% and reach about 19 million in 2015, the entire European market is predicted to have a growth of just 2% totaling 12.2 million. And that's optimistic, based on the economies of France and Italy growing as expected.
A worthy focus
Since 2000, the Chinese car market has grown twentyfold. The contrast with Europe suggests huge potential in China.
And that's not lost on German car companies. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and BMW have all set up design studios in China and are attaching greater importance to the aesthetic sensibilities and lifestyle demands of Chinese customers.
"From an elementary point of view, Chinese people always want the best," says Steffen Kohl, head of advanced global design at Mercedes-Benz. "As for the details, Chinese buyers tend to require more in added value such as the appearance, the line and the pattern. They want the car to have a Chinese look but at the same time be cosmopolitan."
Simon Loasby, design director of Volkswagen's studio in China, says that while a car is a necessity in much of Europe, it's a status symbol in China. "This makes a huge difference," he says. "Chinese people also have a preference for gold and crimson colors. It's like the Chinese temples, which are much richer in colors than the European churches."
Meanwhile, Gerhard Steinle, head of BMW's Shanghai desgin studio, believes that premium cars are more popular in China because "it gives the owner more face."
Based on this understanding of the Chinese market, German automakers have launched many series with champagne and gold colors, as well as versions with extended wheelbases. "A lot of our cars are designed especially for the Chinese market," Loasby says. "Extended cars don't sell much in Europe, whereas it's very popular here because Chinese hosts believe that this is a good way to entertain their guests. Besides a lot of Chinese customers have chauffeurs, so they prefer this type of car."
Bu Ma believes that when these companies design cars for China, it's not just about catering to the market but also about exploring a deep cultural sense. "While promoting their own culture, German carmakers should also help China to find a unique aesthetic of its own, instead of a superficial imagination of Chinese tastes or a simple interpretation of Chinese elements," he says. "Design based on an in-depth understanding of Chinese philosophy and aesthetics will obtain more respect and value. After all, it's design that leads the market."
The German designers agree with Ma's point. Because it takes five to seven years from design to mass production, designers should discover the future needs of customers and provide solutions. "Apart from the studio, we have a marketing department as well as scouts who are our sources of information," Loasby says.
Mercedes-Benz claims to have designers of various nationalities, including some Chinese. "We have also set up auto design prizes in universities," Kohl says, some of which are exclusive to Chinese colleges.
Nevertheless, German designers also have their own considerations. "First, we are the leading automobile brands from the West," Kohl says. "We have to research and understand the differences, aesthetic preferences and appeal between the Chinese and the European markets. We have to know how, but also why, so that Chinese customers are better served. But we won't change Mercedes-Benz or BMW as such. There's simply a balance to be found."