In Your Car - Road Trip through the American Automobile

Kelley Styring

Americans have a hunger they can never quite satisfy: a hunger for the road.

Perhaps it is our history as a nation of people transplanted and transported from other lands. Or -- maybe it's the nature of living in a vast, open land mass with freedom to move over it at will. It could be related to a need for speed - stemming from our human ancestry as slow, easy prey, where speed could save your life! But, I think we drive because it's fun.

Over time, our practical concerns mitigate the fun. As adults, we need to get to specific places at specific times to do specific things that we can't even remember right after we did them. We become taxis - servants to the wheel as we transfer kid cargo to school, sports, events, ice cream, etc. That can really suck the fun out of driving.

Still, even as fragmented and harried as daily driving can be, there are moments when your favorite song comes on the radio, the breeze blows your hair back and you belt out time-worn lyrics. You mash the gas harder to go faster, faster, heart-racing. You lose yourself to petroleum dreams and become one with the car, skimming the road in pure, crazy joy. It may only last until you get to the grocery store, but the fun of driving is still there

There are nearly as many cars on the roads of America as there are people living here. I've heard that in Los Angeles, cars actually outnumber the residents.

So, why do we spend so much time in our cars What are we carrying in our cars and why? What unmet or unarticulated needs does this reveal? Are our expectations of cars changing? What does the type of car we drive or the way we drive reveal?

In early Summer 2008, I took my family on an epic road trip to find out the answers and see a good-sized chunk of America along the way.

We drove more than 5,800 miles in thirty days, interviewing car owners and cataloguing every single item found inside their vehicles - down to the last French fry stuck behind the passenger seat. What are we carrying in our cars and why? What unmet or unarticulated needs does this reveal? Are our expectations of cars changing? What does the type of car we drive or the way we drive reveal?

My study of women's handbags, In Your Purse: Archaeology of the American Handbag, uncovered billions of dollars in product innovation and marketing opportunities. In Your Car is a similar journey of discovery, digging into drivers, their cars, their needs, and how innovators can find new ways to engage with, and market to, drivers and passengers. We also experienced first-hand immersion in the automotive lifestyle, spending a month together in a car covering most of the U.S. - cities and small towns, highways and byways -- visiting just a few peculiar automotive roadside attractions, drive-thrus, classic roadside motels, car museums, greasy spoon diners, car junkie establishments, and we ate as many barbecued ribs as humanly possible.

We learned a few fundamental things:

  1. Your car doesn't merely transport you from one place to another. It's a habitat for living. As such, you must select a car that has an interior designed to suit your lifestyle.
  2. Things enter the car in three ways: just in case, seemed like a good idea, and what the heck is that doing in here? Be selective about what stays in your car. Make room for what works, pitch what doesn't. I like to do this while pumping gas.
  3. The trunk is where things go to die. Visit it often and remove things that don't belong there.
  4. All cars are filled with trash. Again, empty trash while pumping gas. Put a box in the back seat if you need a place to stash trash.
  5. Demand more from automakers. They are designing interiors as if we haven't changed since the Model-T. We are living in our cars and yet there have not been significant improvements in this environment. Make your needs known. Ask questions when you shop, like "what's the ideal car to sit in for a two-hour soccer practice?" and "what's the ideal car for eating two meals a day with three small kids?" The more Dealers who are asked these questions, the more likely things will change, for the better."

About Kelley Styring and InsightFarm:

Kelley Styring developed her insatiable curiosity and passion for innovation during her Florida childhood, where she grew up inspired by the people and events that occurred where her dad worked - NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. In 2003 she founded InsightFarm, a consumer strategy and market research consultancy dedicated to helping its industry-leading Fortune 100 clients drive business growth through consumer insight.

Kelley's 2007 groundbreaking research study and book on women's purses and their contents, In Your Purse: Archaeology of the American Handbag, has been featured at conferences like M2W™-The Marketing-to-Women Conference, Johnson & Johnson's Consumer Insights Summit, and the Institute for International Research's Shopper Insights in Action and their Youth Marketing Mega Event. It has also been the subject of media coverage around the world, including Advertising Age, Brandweek, Fortune, Reuters, Good Morning America, ABC Radio's Satellite Sisters, Quirk's Marketing Research Review and the U.K.'s Research.

She debuted the results of her current project, In Your Car: Road Trip through the American Automobile as a keynote speaker at the 2008 International Institute for International Research's The Market Research Event, Los Angeles, CA. USA Today picked up the story and ran a section feature in Automotive, July 2, 2008. The book, In Your Car: Road Trip through the American Automobile, will be published in the fall of 2009.

A few of the innovations Kelley has helped bring to market include: Black & Decker's Dustbuster Redesign and their Cordless Appliances (now GE); Olay Bath Bar and Body Wash; Pampers Premium, Swaddlers and Bibsters; Frito-Lay's WOW! Olestra Snack Chips, Natural Line, STAX and Flat Earth Line; Tostitos Scoops and Hint of Lime; Tropicana FruitWise; Quaker Milk Chillers; Pepsi's Fuelosophy energy drink; Gap Brand's Forth & Towne;; and positioning for prescription drugs Aromasin and Exubera. InsightFarm is based at the Styring family farm in Northern Oregon, where Kelley's husband Steve grows grapes and makes fabulous, award-winning wines.

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