Avoiding the Faster Horse

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  • 20 July 2016
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Contributed by Kyle Bradshaw

The Bigger Horse

I have a confession to make. For the past eight years I have struggled with an identity issue – triggered on my way to and from work to be specific. Here’s the kicker: my identity issue has nothing to do with me personally, it started eight years ago when I purchased a new vehicle.

Said vehicle wasn’t a sleek German sedan like I was used to seeing my parents work on in their repair shop growing-up. And it wasn’t a beefy chunk of steel like the pickup trucks they’d occasionally work on when business was slow. It was a Honda Ridgeline pickup truck, purchased after exhaustive research, test drives and general tire kicking. When I bought it, I thought nothing unusual about the Ridgeline.

Kicking the Tires

The general response I received from friends and family wasn’t quite as welcoming. The responses were as similar as they were disconcerting, “huh.” It wasn’t the “huh?” as if to express confusion, this “huh” was meant to imply a lack of approval – they just didn’t get it. The common thread was, my new pride and joy was not what it purported to be – it wasn’t a “real truck.”

At best, I was unusual for buying it and at worst, a complete and utter fool. But I knew I wanted a truck like the Ridgeline when I started looking for a new vehicle. Yet after the tepid reactions, I started to wonder why and how Honda decided to make the Ridgeline.

80-Year-Old Mold

This led me to research their design process and try to understand the U.S. truck market a bit better. As it turns out, the confusion surrounding my truck was warranted. Not only have the top three auto manufacturers been iterating upon the same design for decades, they’ve been making their trucks bigger. A whole two feet longer and 700 pounds heavier than they were just 20 years ago.

When Honda decided to enter to pickup truck market, they took a completely different development approach from other manufacturers when dreaming up the Ridgeline. And it all started by hiring former GM truck engineer Gary Flint.

Instead of immediately putting pen to paper to draft Honda’s version of the pickup, he turned to his customers first: people who already owned a Honda car or SUV in addition to a pickup truck. He asked them how the truck fit their lifestyle and found more than 85% of their audience towed less than 5,000 pounds. And they also wanted a vehicle that could run errands around town, yet still take the family to the mountains on the weekend.

In an interview with Autoweek, Flint elaborated his team’s findings, “If you look at the growth in the truck segment, it isn’t the hard-core truck user, it’s consumers who want passenger comfort features they’re accustomed to from their previous vehicles. These customers want the usefulness of a pickup in a package that offers the quietness and comfort of a sedan.”

“As consultants, our job is to serve as our client’s sherpa, showing them the path up the mountain, and the dangers along the way – not carrying them to the summit.”

Armed with these revelations about their customer, Honda broke the 80-year-old mold cast upon the American pickup truck. They modernized the frame, which hadn’t changed since the 1930’s. They downsized the engine from a fuel-thirsty V8, to a more efficient V6, while still being able to tow up to 5,000 pounds.

The Faster Horse

While Henry Ford’s adage about avoiding the faster horse applies in some cases, it is by no means a truism. While we need to constantly look for ways to better understand our customers’ needs today and apply our expertise to craft a solution for tomorrow, we cannot simply produce our customer’s wish list. In the case of the Ridgeline, the customer didn’t want a faster horse (or a bigger truck). They wanted a vehicle to fit their lifestyle.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Henry Ford

As consultants, our job is to serve as our client’s sherpa, showing them the path up the mountain, and the dangers along the way – not carrying them to the summit.

Coming to Terms

Now eight years in, despite the paint being peppered with rock chips, the bed scratched up and dented, and the back seat smelling of Capri Sun and Cheerios, my kinda car/sorta truck/not really an SUV has safely and efficiently hauled my family 110,000 miles around the Northwest. We’ve easily threaded our way past 4WD pickups on snowy side streets, bumped along dusty Forest Service roads, and bombed over mountain passes, sometimes with 26’ pontoon boat in tow or 15’ kayak on the roof. It totally fits our lifestyle, which really is the point.

Even after all the tepid responses from friends and family, my hunch came to fruition. After one year on the market, Honda managed to sell about 50,000 Ridgelines, which is a pretty big dent against the status quo of 220,000 Ford F-150’s. In recent years, sales have started to dwindle, but Honda knew they created the right formula and are hoping to generate new momentum this summer with the all-new, completely redesigned 2017 Ridgeline. Only time will tell.

While my “Ugly Truckling” earned its own nickname a few years back, today it’s clear no one will be writing any country songs about driving down a dirt road in my Ugly Trucking. That seems fine to me – in fact, maybe that’s how progress is made – one “huh” at a time.

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