the symbolism of the Pick-up Truck
An automotive company approached us with an interesting question: what is the future of pick-up trucks as the US becomes more urban and reliant on services? In order to understand what a truck should become in the future, we first had to learn what makes a truck a compelling vehicle in peoples' lives today. Through an immersive ethnographic study of the lives of pick-up truck owners, we learned that many consumers are drawn to trucks for their symbolism more than any particular physical capability. In fact, many truck owners rarely use the bed at all. Our research revealed that trucks have two main symbolic meanings for their owners: self-sufficiency and community connection.
These insights led us to Professor Claude Fischer, a UC Berkeley sociologist and expert on American culture. Fischer explained that self-sufficiency and community belonging are part of an enduring set of American values he calls "voluntarism."
He says voluntarism has two main elements:
"The first core assumption of voluntarism is that each person is a sovereign individual: unique, independent, self-reliant, self-governing, and ultimately self-responsible. The second core assumption is that individuals succeed through fellowship—not in egoistic isolation, but in supportive, freely-chosen communities."
Fischer argues that voluntarism is only growing as a value, extending to swaths of society who previously were not able to reach such ideals. The message was starting to crystallize: if trucks continue to symbolize aspects of voluntarism, they should be culturally well-positioned to maintain consumer appeal.
But how exactly do trucks symbolize voluntarism? To figure this out, we used our ethnographic data to create a symbolic map of the archetypical truck, identifying design elements that are voluntarism detractors and boosters. Using this map, we created a design game plan for their complete line-up of pick-up trucks.
Dr. Fischer’s cultural analysis led to our strategy that trucks of the future should offer new functionality and design cues that reflect the notions of self-sufficiency and community connection.