How automotive brands can win over the always-on consumer

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With self-driving vehicles and ride-sharing apps, car marketers must adapt to an ever-changing, technological landscape.

Tesla sets a pre-order record without a working prototype, Volvo is going 100 percent hybrid, Ford partners with Amazon and millennials don't even want a car. While it feels like a Schrödinger's cat experiment, by leveraging data, new devices and emerging behaviors, automotive brands are actually on the cusp of redefining the relationship value between vehicles and consumers. 

No one knows disruptive times better than the automotive industry. It faces a continual stream of doomsayers as auto brands compete in a sea of sameness for market share with a new generation who is not that interested in ownership—or even driving. 

We have focused on a future in which we imagine car brands will be less relevant, and autonomous cars will rule the road. But, as a recent eMarketer report points out, a very real challenge is already here, and it centers around the connected vehicle and how it’s transforming the customer experience. 

Traditionally, automakers have had a very clear role: produce a great product and drive customer acquisition, largely through advertising. Once prospective customers connected with a dealership, however, the brand stepped back and then let the dealer take over and provide the expertise that leads to a sale and continuing interaction over time.

That’s no longer the case. Thanks to smart assistants, IoT devices and CRM-based customer lifecycle management systems, brands can now be much more present in a consumer’s life. As a result, they need to start thinking about new ways to communicate and provide value inside and outside the car. Here are a few ways, but by no means an exhaustive list. 

Simplify lives
Did you ever have a garage door opener clipped to your sun visor? Most cars today have programmable garage door buttons already built in. Brands need to think that way in relation to the connected car experience. They have to provide tools that make customers’ lives simpler, not complex platforms consumers are forced to figure out on their own. "Alexa, enable the garage door skill" should be a relatively easy win.

Find new models for interaction
A few years ago, the automotive world fell in love with the Uber/Spotify partnership. But, in fairness, this is first-generation thinking. We had radios in cars, and now we have highly personalized digital radio. We’re simply replacing one technology with a functionally similar one. Real innovation lies in breaking such conventions. 

The partnerships between Ford and Alexa or BMW and Cortana can open a range of new possibilities. Smart brands will find valuable ways to integrate new technologies into the car itself, collecting information, responding to needs and delivering personalized information and insight into things like maintenance, fuel economy and performance. 

Integrate systems
We also should move beyond the car, and a good starting point is our phones. Today, we have many mobile apps for things like finding a car in a parking lot or getting notified about service intervals, but they aren’t integrated into the car itself. Car brands need to approach connected car experience development with the same verve, boldness and timeline as technology companies. No one should ever have to reach into the glove box to find a manual. Instead, companies need to build apps that do everything from tell us where our car is, if it needs gas and what we might need to fix in the near future.

Brands must also commit to maintaining those apps. It may take several years to design a production car model, but it only takes a few weeks to develop or integrate a mobile app update that can be delivered to an owner’s phone automatically and add an additional dimension to the customer experience post purchase. Those little upgrades provide value and keep the relationship alive.

Expand to the home
In addition to our phones, we also have home technology that lets us control and monitor everything from the temperature of a room to whether we need to pick up more milk. That same technology can connect the car to the home.

A simple example might be telling Alexa to start your car on a cold day and let you know when the temperature inside becomes bearable. With technology like Cortana and the new Amazon Alexa Show, we can develop integrated utilities to monitor our garage, keep us up-to-date on driving conditions and let us know our vehicle status and location.

Collect and monetize data
While everyone is focused on functionality, the real value of smart, connected technology may be data. Currently, carmakers have very little visibility into how their cars are being used. They don’t know how their customers drive or what features of the vehicle they’re using. While privacy will be an issue, a connected vehicle could easily produce behavioral data on how to make a better future experience for drivers.

Data will also be more directly connected to the bottom line. Research today indicates that automaker profits will drop as technology vendors scoop up a bigger share of the pie. Brands should consider how data can be harnessed to create new value propositions for consumers and business partners. For example, how can Ford’s new in-car entertainment system serve as a marketing research tool that drives both product development insights and community marketing programs?

The future is in the consumer
While you might think doing these things involves a top-down reorganization of brand efforts, innovation often goes best when companies start small and scale. Marketing teams can begin building consumer-centric communication models now and gradually expanding into other touchpoints as data rolls in. The opportunities moving forward will probably be unexpected, but brands should start setting the stage for change today.

In 2017, car owners are moving away from aspiration to utility, and the brands that want to win should focus on the services a car can provide. Customers are slowly defining their expectations for the connected car experience, and the emerging leaders will be the ones that identify and meet them first. 

Thomas Stelter is the vice president of Emerging Solutions at the creative agency POSSIBLE.