Insights from a design-driven car sharing system

Are you as attached to the object you rent as to the one you own? Probably not! A recent study by researchers Fleura Bardhi and Giana Eckhardt (2012) shows that car sharing users value above all the functionality of the service. Studying Zipcar in the USA, the authors find that consumers do not become attached to the cars or to the brand. Emotional or aesthetic considerations are not part the picture. Generally, consumers don’t wish to engage further with the brand nor do they care about the physical damage done to the cars. This has dramatic consequences for the service provider.

So what’s missing? Zipcar has a fleet of various models. There is no consideration for design. Yet, the literature shows that designers can create a chain of meaning: new products force the development of new consumption practices, which in turn create new meanings and representations for consumers (Du Gay et al., 2013). Could this chain of meaning happen in car sharing? That is, could the cars’ design create meaning for the consumers?

Autolib’ is a Parisian car sharing system which has a design project at its core: all cars are the same model, the Bluecar. This uniformity gives users a repeatable experience. They develop an attachment to the object. This appropriation gives them a meaningful, harmonious relationship with the cars.

Figure: A Bluecar in Paris. Image Credit: By Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A Bluecar in Paris

The findings of the present study show that the cars’ design, as well as the design of the service, foster three practices of appropriation:

  1. First, the electrical engine and automatic transmission of the vehicles make the drivers feel in control of the cars. They are empowered by these features.
  2. Second, the use of a single model car and the personalisation of the on-board computer enable the consumers to know the vehicle. Each time they get in the car, they feel as though it’s the same as the previous time (they even get their favourite radio station).
  3. Third, the design of the service necessitates repeatable actions each time it is used: booking, badging, unplugging. Users invest time and energy in the service.

Controlling, knowing and creating are practices of appropriation which, when enacted, render the use of the car sharing system meaningful for consumers. They make the service theirs. Meaning develops and the Bluecar becomes ‘the car of the future’, or ‘the true Parisian car’.

The contributions of this paper are twofold:

  1. Product and service design lead to consumer appropriation of cars in access-based systems and create sign value.
  2. Car sharing companies who want to create a consumer-object relationship should standardise their product while personalising the service.


Bardhi, F., & Eckhardt, G. M. (2012). Access-based consumption: The case of car sharing. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), 881-898.
Du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., Madsen, A. K., Mackay, H., & Negus, K. (2013). Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. 2nd Edition, London: Sage.

Read the original research article: Gruen, A. (2016) Design and the creation of meaningful consumption practices in access-based consumption. Journal of Marketing Management.

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Adèle Gruen

Adèle Gruen

Adèle Gruen is a Lecturer of Marketing at the Institute of Management Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work explores consumer research in the field of access-based consumption. She combines consumer research with an interest for design, design research and design practice.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.