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Published: August 28, 2006

 
 

The Case for Long Shots

Despite the good signs, Ford lost interest in the Quickup (mostly because of an internal situation that had little to do with the camper), and it has not been picked up by a manufacturer or distributor. Since the Quickup design amounts to two concentric traditional pickup “camper shells” (cab-high cargo bed covers), I assumed that shell makers would see it as a chance to increase their product line. But the shell makers said, “No, we make shells, not RVs.” RV makers said they made RVs, not shells, ignoring the opportunity to introduce a truly new, high-quality product to fill an empty niche at the low end of their price range. Several manufacturers of both shells and RVs seemed to be downright hostile, remarking that the Quickup did not match the look of their other products. I think something else was bothering them.

Window of Opportunity
Perhaps the Quickup concept is flawed, but the positive public reception to it and 50 years of car-camping experience tell me it simply has not yet hit its window of opportunity. I’ve learned to be patient; I know that there are a host of reasons that ideas like the Pop Tent and the Quickup get turned down. Most of them have to do with unfamiliarity. In its early days, the Pop Tent was utterly unlike any other tent that retailers had ever sold. True, lots of people were buying Pop Tents, but maybe those customers represented the inevitable but limited enthusiasm of a small group of early adopters.

The Sears man also knew that accepting the Pop Tent would lead to an expensive ad campaign and a program to train a sales force in how to demonstrate the product. He may also have believed that the Pop Tent would make the rest of his tent line appear obsolete — which it did. In that case, the Pop Tent might sell well, but overall Sears tent sales would suffer and the man might lose his job — a possibility that he surely kept in mind as he considered each new product. Similarly, the RV makers who have rejected the Quickup probably realize (if only subconsciously) that it would make their profitable line of big, clumsy, fuel-hungry models look bad.

Another reason may be the classic, visceral response to anything “not invented here.” I can understand that. Years as a design consultant have made me all too familiar with the reasons that company employees and management do not welcome outsiders. The acceptance of designs from outside can feel humbling; it implies that the in-house group is incapable of coming up with good ideas. The founder’s ego may be involved as well: His or her original concepts have worked well for decades. Only rare companies such as Thermos in the 1950s and Procter & Gamble today seem ready to overcome that kind of resistance to taking a chance.

Even when management does not reject new products outright, the evaluation process itself often minimizes risk at the expense of marketplace potential. I’ve seen many companies limit their innovation to “benchmarking” (or, to be more explicit, copying) the successful products of competitors, adding only trivial improvements. This practice tends to blur the differences between brands, reducing the individual strength of a brand name and stifling the advance of an entire industry. Worse, the delicate balance of features that made the original successful is often lost. Benchmarking in the RV industry has resulted in annual repetition of tired old designs, with the same flaws appearing year after year; there has been little significant progress in four decades.

Customers also play a role. When customers decide to rent or buy an RV, they have probably already decided that poor fuel mileage, gross clumsiness, and other annoyances are inevitable. They aren’t looking for alternatives. Moreover, many people think that trailers or motor homes should resemble a house on wheels, or perhaps an Airstream Bubble. The Quickup looks like neither; its unique appearance derives from the articulated geometry that transforms it from road vehicle to living space. That may not appeal to traditionalists, but it could do well in a newly identified niche market. It is also a gesture toward a future when high fuel prices will mean that even RVs will have to be more aerodynamic. I truly believe it is the first of a new breed of RV.

 
 
 
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