Monday, June 4, 2012

Association Concept Cars

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Jamie Notter recently turned me on to metacool, the blog of IDEO partner Diego Rodriguez, and I'm finding all kinds of useful nuggets in it as I read back through some of the old posts.

Case in point is Concept Car at Your Peril, where Rodriguez uses the debut and fan reaction of the Jeep Mighty FC to argue that the auto industry shouldn't produce concept cars unless they're serious about putting them into production. The whole post is worth reading, but here's the most salient point he makes:

But perhaps the biggest reason not to show concept cars you don't ever intend to produce is that you disappoint your biggest fans, those net promoters who would do anything for, and tell anyone anything positive about, your brand. These are the folks who write blog posts like "I Am So Excited About The Jeep Mighty FC Concept I Think I Might Die," or who spend hours photoshopping your PR photos to show the rest of us what a four-door or full-van version might look like, or who write headlines in national newspapers asking "Has jeep created the most interesting concept of 2012?" Do you really want to excite these folks, only to disappoint them over the longer term? My gut says no. Product brands aren't like perennially losing baseball teams whose fans have no alternative to their hometown monopolistic losers. Instead, it's pretty easy to switch when you stop meeting my expectations. Better to surprise and delight me with a real product I never anticipated, than to tease me with vaporware that we both know you'll never ship.

Now, I'll happily admit that I don't know much about "Pure Macho Gnarlyness," but when I look at this from an association perspective, I have to say I disagree. Associations should absolutely produce concept cars, if by that we mean proposals for radical new programs or services that have the potential to excite their membership bases and wildly exceed their expectations. Even if the association has no ability or intention to deliver these programs, just by proposing them it demonstrates a commitment to innovation and a willingness to swing for the fences.

Remember that for every Mighty FC that seduces its fan base with its potential, there are dozens of other concept cars that are soundly rejected by the same enthusiasts. The auto industry doesn't make concept cars to see what models belong in production. It makes concept cars to better understand what the cutting edge looks like, what features and styles create passion and loyalty, so that it can incorporate pieces of those elements into next year's models, the ones with the established production and distribution chains supporting them.

Association concept cars can play the same role for our industry. Just like the guy who photoshopped his own 4-door version of the Mighty FC, your members can take your wild ideas and show you how to improve them, to make them better suited for their own unique needs. And once you know that, you suddenly have a better understanding of how to improve all of your existing programs. Just like the auto industry, you can't produce a custom-designed concept car for every enthusiast. But you can use concept cars to inspire your members to action, to engage more actively with you in a discussion about what possible really looks like, and to which ends you should be directing your resources.

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