Guestauthor Cars

G-Class: What are the attributes of an icon?

Mercedes-Benz presented the new G-Class (G 500: Kraftstoffverbrauch kombiniert: 11,7-11,1 l/100 km; CO₂-Emissionen kombiniert: 276-263 g/km*) in Detroit at the beginning of this week. Because this SUV model is already a legend, automotive fans were on pins and needles before the unveiling. Would the new G-Class remain true to its origins?

At the University of Wuppertal we do research to find out what attributes define icons such as the G-Class and how strong the emotional bonds are between consumers and coveted products.

When Daimler decided to remodel the G-Class, a great deal was at stake. After all, there’s hardly another car whose fans have such high standards — while also insisting on respect for tradition. Does the new off-roader have the same genes as the predecessor model? Does it perform just as well in rough terrain? And above all, is it a worthy successor of the classic SUV from Mercedes?

One thing is clear: The exalted status of a legend is not eternal — it can be also lost. Iconic products such as the G-Class therefore need to be facelifted with special care so as not to drive away customers and fans.

Professor Daniel Bruns is holding the iconic Rubik’s cube in his hands when we meet him at the Motorworld Manufaktur in Metzingen

Characteristics of an icon

What are the attributes that make a product an icon? And how do icons affect us emotionally? Why do we love them? These are questions I’ve been investigating for years at the University of Wuppertal together with my team, which includes Professor Tobias Langner, Dr. Renée Fröhling, Malte Christ, and other colleagues. Today we can offer a number of well-founded answers.

Our investigations have shown that objects with the status of an icon have three key attributes.

  • These products are unique, with unmistakable quirks and rough edges.
  • They have endured and stayed true to themselves for a long time.
  • And they enable the consumer to have a special “lifestyle.”

The G-Class possesses all three of these attributes in an almost exemplary manner. This vehicle has had an almost unchanged and timeless exterior design since 1979, with attributes such as a boxy bodyshell, a spare wheel cover in the rear, prominent turn-signal lights, and special door handles. In addition, thanks to its outstanding off-road characteristics the G-Class takes the driver to places a normal car cannot reach. In other words, it offers the customer a unique product experience.

The same affection that we feel for a human being

It’s also fascinating to see which emotions a car like the G-Class can call forth in customers. We have carried out various physiological investigations of “brand love” at the University of Wuppertal, and we’ve come up with some interesting findings. For example, consumers who are occupied with their favorite products and brands experience strong and pleasant physical reactions that are similar to those felt by people who like each other very much.

For example, you can see this in the fact that in both cases the person’s skin conductance changes in similar ways. This is an indication of strong emotional stimulation. In addition, the same kinds of muscle activities can be observed — in the face, for example. When we look at products we feel an emotional bond with, our facial expressions change. The result is a very special smile — one that otherwise appears on our lips only when we see a person who is dear to us. In investigations of the neuronal networks, you can also observe definite parallels.

For example, certain areas of the brain are active when a person feels love for another human being or for a brand — for example, the caudate nucleus, which is part of the brain’s reward system and enables us to anticipate pleasant experiences. This is a groundbreaking discovery, because researchers previously assumed that different parts of the brain are active when we deal with human beings or with things.

Whether it’s a beloved partner or a beloved product, positive experiences generate a close emotional bond. That’s equally true of the bond between a mother and her baby, who develop a strong affection for each other during nursing, and the bond between a consumer and a product that brings him or her positive experiences — in the case of a car, for example, that could be an enjoyable drive in the country. In the case of the G-Class, it could be a memorable adventure in rough terrain.

It’s also interesting to observe that people are extremely loyal to their favorite things. In many cases, they’re even ready to overlook some “foibles” of their products — just as they would overlook those of a friend or a romantic partner. They also invest a lot of time in caring for and spending time with them. And if something breaks, they suffer. We see all of these phenomena in the area of interpersonal relationships as well. For example, we’re also sad if someone we’re close to becomes ill, and we miss them if we’re unable to see them for a long period of time.

Of course an object like a car is not a human being. But it’s worthwhile to keep these scientific findings in the back of your mind if you are professionally managing a successful product or a valuable brand.

In any case, the team behind the new G-Class seems to have taken the needs and feelings of the customers and fans very seriously. The initial reactions of media representatives indicate that Mercedes has managed to successfully balance tradition and modernity — and that the latest model of this off-road vehicle will also be dearly loved.


* Weitere Informationen zum offiziellen Kraftstoffverbrauch und den offiziellen spezifischen CO₂-Emissionen neuer Personenkraftwagen können dem „Leitfaden über den Kraftstoffverbrauch, die CO₂-Emissionen und den Stromverbrauch“ neuer Personenkraftwagen entnommen werden, der an allen Verkaufsstellen und bei der Deutschen Automobil Treuhand GmbH unter www.dat.de unentgeltlich erhältlich ist.

Professor Daniel Bruns is a junior professor of marketing at the University of Wuppertal. Together with Professor Tobias Langner, he investigates phenomena such as “brand love.” They gave a joint talk about the theme of “Icons” at the presentation of the interior design of the new G-Class at the Motorworld Manufaktur in Metzingen in November 2017.