Case Study: CODA Experience Center
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2012 “Justified” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.
CODA Automotive, a privately held all-electric car company headquartered in Southern California, sought to unveil its nontraditional vehicle in an equally nontraditional space. Instead of a conventional, sales-focused automobile dealership, CODA wanted to create a destination for visitors that would accomplish multiple tasks:
- Introduce a new and unknown company, brand and product
- Educate the public about a complex and unfamiliar new technology
- Inspire people to join the company’s ideological cause
- Launch a retail and marketing strategy that was recognizably distinct from typical car dealership models
CODA wanted to do all this in a shopping mall space (just 892 square feet) in order to communicate with audiences not specifically focused on buying a car, and to be more accessible to the everyday life of American families.
Shook Kelley was tasked with helping to define this complex problem and creating a design solution that could respond to these challenges. Due to the limited space available, environmental graphic design was emphasized as a key factor in communicating the story of the company, cause and product.The Shook Kelley design solution breaks sharply from a traditional automobile dealership format, favoring a more immersive, accessible and engaging experience. The evocative environmental graphics and targeted interactive technologies communicate the story of CODA’s cause and its technological capacities. The space also doubles as a community gathering destination for like-minded people, including both customers and employees, to engage in relevant conversation about the future of transportation and the environment.
Because no CODA stores or centers exist, and this is CODA’s first vehicle, directly applicable research wasn’t possible. However, CODA had conducted market research on potential audiences that Shook Kelley considered in the design of the project. In addition, Shook Kelley’s research included a set of in-depth interviews with CODA executives, visits to automotive trade shows and visits to other electric vehicle dealerships.
A deeper understanding of how to approach the project was derived from comparative models of similar brands facing similarly complex challenges, from Burt’s Bees and Whole Foods to IKEA, Kashi, Muji and The Body Shop. Innovative store and customer relationship sites were studied, especially the CarMax used car sales site model. Shook Kelley found inspiration from other pop culture sources that sought to simplify complex social messages, both through humor (e.g., “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) or earnestness (e.g., the “Dove Campaign For Real Beauty”). One last set of models included brands without physical presences who have recently found ways to create spaces, including ING Direct.
Many of the biggest challenges faced by Shook Kelley were immediate and material. The shopping mall format at Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles was quite small, especially for showcasing an automobile. CODA’s budget was limited to just $270,000 for the store. And because CODA is an unknown brand with a new product and technology, the number and complexity of messages Shook Kelley had to communicate made the project challenging.
The design team had to be inventive, resourceful and efficient in using the limited space and telling evocative stories that could capture a conversation. The first goal was to make the store easily identifiable as a place where people learn about a new electric vehicle. A second goal was to simply communicate a series of complex messages, such as the range of the electric vehicle and the benefit of driving electric. A third goal included initiating discussions and getting people excited about the vehicle, beginning with an evocative store exterior and carried throughout the rest of the store experience.
The more challenging issues were intangible in nature, and this required the design team to have a deeper understanding of the product, the brand, the cause and the psychological and cultural dimensions of the audience. After all, the underlying problem of trying to help CODA market and sell a new electric vehicle is wrapped up with perceptions, including misperceptions and ingrained perceptions that people have about this technology. At the outset of the design process, Shook Kelley engaged the client in a “discovery and strategy” process to help uncover the complex sets of questions that Americans are asking about electric vehicles today. These questions included concerns about this new technology, such as:
- What is an electric vehicle (EV)?
- Why do I need an EV?
- Where can I charge these cars?
- How far can I drive on one charge (known as “range anxiety”)?
- Although the car doesn’t run on gas, it still uses electricity: How will this energy usage impact the environment?
- Who is CODA?
- How much does it cost (or, often, why does it cost so much)?
- Why do I have to buy it online (versus a traditional automobile dealer)?
- When will the car be available?
- How do the EV tax incentives work?
- Is CODA an American company?
- Is the car made in America?
- Where do I get my car serviced if there are no dealerships?
- Why does it look so plain?
- Are there other models?
The questions also stemmed from the new company and brand that had to be introduced:
CODA’s responses to these questions helped designers set an emotional tone for the store that would respond to the audience’s psychological mindset. The challenge was to ensure that the space would not simply be a church for the already converted, but a more open-minded community space that could help people rethink what an EV is and how it could play a more realistic role in their everyday life. For some people, the conversation revolves around the environment. But many others are interested in whether they can go to and from work, pick up their kids at school and go grocery shopping, all in one charge. Still others want to know about style and color options. The challenge was that there was no single “ideal” customer, but a range of potential visitors who would need to be engaged.
Shook Kelley took CODA through our uniquely tailored “strategy and design” process. Beginning with a research phase that studied the electric vehicle industry, Shook Kelley’s research led to an examination of other brands and places that engage people in a wide range of often-complex questions. The key question for the Shook Kelley team was not What would you like this space to look like? but How would you like people to behave in this space? Due to a number of factors outlined above, Shook Kelley saw a pressing need to rethink the relationship between visitors and CODA. The shaping of this relationship became the strategic focus.
The overarching strategy was to get away from the traditional car company, and toward a driver/customer relationship. This meant finding a way to be the anti-car brand from the anti-car company. Shook Kelley sought to reposition the store conversation from what people are getting with CODA, to what they are not getting: tailpipes, exhaust, exhaustion, emissions, petroleum industry support, ego-driven ad campaigns and the rest of the automotive industry agenda. Instead of focusing on traditional car company sex appeal, the CODA store would tap into a psychology of care and concern, rational thought, sensible choice, alternative ways of living and self-confidence.
In an effort to break through the traditional model of car dealerships, the CODA Experience Center would be a more welcoming, leisurely shopping mall space.The solution breaks sharply from the look and feel of traditional dealerships, in favor of a lifestyle experience design. Instead of pressure sales and showy ads, the store strives to pique curiosity, create engagement and inspire the possibility of positive energy. Shook Kelley accomplished this through evocative environmental graphics, compelling spatial layouts, the targeted use of interactive technologies and carefully-crafted storytelling communications.
In order to help visitors more easily learn about the car and its technology, Shook Kelley designed a set of compelling and entertaining learning experiences in the space. The store features an EV Lab with iPads for customer exploration, a battery display to showcase CODA’s new technology, a range map to illustrate the distance the car can travel with one charge, a customization wall showing options for purchase and a graphics-enhanced test drive space in the parking garage below the store, where visitors can actually take the EV for a spin.
Reflecting the environmentally consciousness and eco-friendly intent of the new company, Shook Kelley made use of sustainable and environmentally-friendly materials in the space, such as reclaimed “picklewood,” formaldehyde-free plywood, energy efficient lighting, low VOC paints and natural concrete floors.
While many retail spaces are evaluated on sales, the CODA Experience Center is somewhat unique in that nothing gets sold there. Potential customers can learn more about the vehicle and employees can help them begin the process of purchasing the vehicle, which actually happens online. That said, CODA has been pleased with the attention the space has received and the amount of interest created there. The sales team explained that they receive many reservations every day, and a solid number of people are now coming in to request test drives.
In a world of increasingly oversaturated media messages, CODA’s space offers a rare opportunity—one in which a brand invites people into a conversation that is more engaging and real than another media ad. The space is immersive and creates the opportunity for relationships not possible through other media. The ultimate measure of effectiveness for CODA is a greater sense of clarity and purpose, as well the opportunity to create a community for their brand. The purpose of the store was not to sell cars, but drive traffic, drive interest, create engagement and get people talking about the brand. In the end, the store is a tangible reminder of what this new brand is all about.