The automotive industry has arguably experienced more disruption than any other sector, with industry experts even describing what is happening as "complete dislocation."
There are a number of external factors driving change, from new entrants to government legislation, but the biggest is new technology coupled with consumers’ ever-increasing expectations of how they want to experience a car brand.
WE's recent Brands in Motion global study found that automotive brands can no longer afford to think of brand positioning as a static endeavour. What does this mean for marketers? Katie Huang Shin, president, technology and chief strategy officer at WE Communications says: "Now marketers need to be more sophisticated. Companies need to be ready for ever-shifting consumer perceptions."
One marketer who is ready for this motion is Ben Braun, outgoing marketing and digital director at Audi. The changes, he says, that will have the most "profound" and "unexpected" impact are electric and autonomous cars and, later, subscription services. "Just like the internal combustion engine did in the 20th century, the next decade will be transformative for the car industry.
"Audi are the biggest car group in the UK. We are going to lead the transformation. A third of all new Audi cars will be some form of electric vehicle by 2025. The first one, the e-tron, goes on sale this month in the UK."
Transformation, innovation, credibility
But for any auto brand to hope to lead the transformation in this sector, marketers must have an understanding of how to tell their innovation story credibly. Being seen as innovative is crucial for success in this market.
"The challenge for brands is innovating while proving the everyday benefits of their brand to consumers," says Kass Sells, global chief operating officer and president of international at WE. "The good news is that our study clearly shows that being viewed as cutting edge leads to positive brand outcomes in areas that go beyond product. This is where the cutting edge becomes transcendent."
The positive outcomes "beyond product" he refers to are, according to the study: 1) being more likely to be loved rather than hated 2) being seen as delivering amazing customer experiences 3) being seen as doing good in society.
But the opposite is also true. The brands in the study consumers saw as "stuck in the Stone Age", consumers also saw as causing harm to society, delivering poor customer experiences and more likely to be hated than loved.
But, the good news for the automotive sector is that automakers are seen as innovators and disruptors. For instance, in the UK 58% of respondents see them as "cutting edge", 63% in China and 67% in India. Also, across markets and industries, people see automotive as more innovative than every sector behind ‘smart home’ and ‘computing devices.’
Dév Rishi Sahani, head of data and analytics, global customer experience transformation at Nissan says: "From concept cars to connected cars to L4 autonomous driving to Formula-e racing… the auto industry is innovating at such a speed that technology is ahead of the readiness of city infrastructure and legislation. They’re catching up."
This is no cause for complacency, Sells says, and "brands need to continue to shed light on their innovation stories," to tell them in a compelling, resonant way. WE’s research also revealed, for instance, that rational needs are outpacing emotional. When telling the brand narrative, these need to weave together in a balanced way.
"Brands need to modify their approach," says Sells. "The ‘Show v Tell’ manta still rings true – it’s not enough to talk about vehicle range, sensors or sustainable material—brands must illustrate the impact their investments have on consumers and society. Connect the emotional and rational."
Smooth running lives, not cars
Consumers are now far less interested in the actual technology behind machines, the incremental changes in models and the emotional pull towards having the latest version. Instead, they are far more concerned with the rational consideration of how different technologies fit together to make their lives run more smoothly.
"From a tech perspective, that means companies need to focus on breakthrough innovation over incremental innovation," says Huang Shin. "Incremental innovation is limited to features and functions. Now we’re at the point where companies must figure out how to make all these technologies work together on a bigger scale. Consumers want to experience seamless integration across all the tech in their lives. And they want to see companies collaborating to push innovation even further."
As well as delivering on consumer wishes for an aspirational, tech-enhanced life (the ‘emotional’ side of the equation) companies have to ensure that they deliver a consistent, quality experience that actually works (the ‘rational’ side of the equation). To do this, it’s essential that brands put the customer – not the tech – at the centre of decisions, something the automotive industry has traditionally struggled with.
"But our study also shows that the promise of a product is no longer enough on its own," says Huang Shin. "Consumers expect you to deliver a quality product that earns a valued place in their lives. Brands need to stay focused on the intrinsic needs of the consumer – and servicing those needs with consistency and quality – while still connecting with people on an emotional level."
Sahani "100%" agrees that automotive marketers must increasingly communicate rational needs as much as emotional. In his view, the sector has "depended on the emotional aspect forever," but that "over-indexing on emotion alone can be disastrous."
"You can end up building a brand visibility that departs from a customer imagining themselves in your cars," he says. "Rational needs, that can describe how a product (or service) is the right one for the individual customer, is the only way to be not only interesting but also relevant to the customers."
Being seen as a symbol of ‘stability’ also helps brands build consistency. The research shows that there is an opportunity for brands in this fast-paced, rapidly transforming market to represent stability. "In a world full of motion and ambiguity, brands can provide a constant. People find comfort in brand consistency" says Huang Shin.
The world is not enough
Yet, while demonstrating innovations in this way – marrying up the ‘emotional’ and the ‘rational’ needs – will lead to more positive outcomes for brands, that alone still may not be sufficient. Consumer expectations are huge and growing; they are expanding the boundaries of what’s possible, wanting safer, cooler, more luxurious, faster, more technologically advanced, newer, more exciting, cheaper and more environmentally friendly models…
"Their expectations truly are exponential, which leads to the ‘third reality’ of motion. ‘Good Product, Good Purpose’," says Sells. "It is no longer enough for brands simply to offer a good product. They must also do so ethically and for a purpose that aligns with both their internal values and the beliefs of consumers."
The Brands in Motion study backs this up. It found that consumers were more likely to support a brand that has a high level of purpose or participates in activism in six to eight markets surveyed.
And there are no shortage of ethical issues in the automotive industry. Modern consumers want to know what brands are doing to reduce emissions and prevent climate change – and how that manifests itself in the car and product.
But, as Sells says, a brand’s ethical stance must go further than just the car and product. "Consumers want to know how what they are doing extends beyond the vehicle itself and helps ensure a sustainable future."
Sahani says that ethics are becoming increasingly important for marketing, and not just in auto: "We have gone beyond a phase where we were playing with data to figure out how it will turn out. Every business is moving in a direction to transform from transaction to relationship. No relationship survives if ethics and motivations are questionable."
Some brands have gone to great lengths to show their ethical stance goes beyond the product. Nike, for example, went out on a limb to show it believes in racial equality in its controversial campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the outcast American football player and civil-rights activist. Its share price may have dropped but the message and its stance were clear.
"Nike got a lot of engagement around that," says Huang Shin. "Whether you agree or disagree, it had an impact on their business but also showed that brands are willing to take a stance on issues that a lot of people care about."
Specific to the auto industry, hot, ethical topics which are on consumers’ radars include what brands are doing to make autonomous vehicles safe and, as cars become more connected, what they are doing to ensure the security and privacy of people’s personal data.
While preferences among consumers vary regionally and nationally, the constant within the chaos is that innovating brands can’t forget the importance of ethics and purpose. So what does this actually mean for automarketers today in practice, not just theory?
"It means carving out time and space for stories around your purpose, both in the context of the product and outside of it," says Sells. "Marketers must clearly communicate the product and brand value so people see how it fits within, and enhances, their everyday lives."
Sells explains that once the story’s scene is set, marketers need to find the right times and places to expand the story beyond the product so people see and understand how and why a brand behaves in a particular fashion. By telling the story this way, a car brand can start to connect the rational and the emotional drivers to build a deeper connection with the consumer.
The values of leaders
It’s not only the response to external challenges that consumers are interested in – they are also concerned with how the car brand they are considering conducts itself as a company. "With existing and future talent across industries expecting more diversity, how are brands building and nurturing an inclusive culture?" says Sells.
Indeed, as the research also shows, executives working at car brands play a role in shaping a consumer’s perception. When asked whether the behaviours of the executive leaders of a company in the auto industry would influence their decision to support a brand or not, around half of the respondents said it had a "strong influence" in six markets and 40% in the others.
In the modern marketing environment, then, reputation is everything and key executives can make or break brand images because, largely down to the advent of social media, they are much more visible and vocal; they play a key role in communicating a company’s moral compass.
Huang Shin, for instance, believes that the "tone deaf" reactions some technology executives had have to concerns about things like privacy and data mining will lead to a lack of consumer engagement and, conversely, argues that Uber’s attempts to turn its attitude around, with a new CEO and mission, will pay off in the long term.
"Today, reputation matters more than ever." she says. "Having the right leadership with the right vision and attitude all affects brand reputation. Being transparent and honest, and mapping out a journey will help brands build trust among consumers."
It also comes down to being more human and, as a marketer and really finding what matters to you, not just as a brand, but as a person. As Huang Shin says: "In today’s age, integrity matters. Marketing is no longer just about ads. You have to think about ethics and customer expectations, especially related to human concerns such as technology and privacy. These issues impact people’s lives."
If you don’t, consumers will take action – the study showing that 97% believe that brands need to be responsible for their own ethical use of technology, with 94% saying that if brands don’t do it on their own, they would have no qualms about getting government to intervene and regulate.
Because of this new, ethics-based perspective on marketing, new, unusual words are starting to creep into the marketer’s vocabulary. ‘Soul’, for example. WE often talks to its clients about their brand’s "soul", which hits home the importance of humanity in marketing today and even hints at a spiritual dimension to modern marketing today.
"Automakers in particular have an opportunity here as some of the most storied and heritage-rich brands today," says Sells. "The key is aligning with topics and issues that are authentic to your brand and customer. At WE, we often talk about this as starting with your soul—show people who you are and why you exist as you embrace the motion and commotion around you."