The changing relationship between human and car makes marketing more important than ever

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The way we use, own and think about vehicles is being transformed - and brands that want to weather the changes need smart marketing ideas, writes Nissan's global marketing chief.

Earlier this month at the Tokyo Motor Show, the automotive industry has offered a window on the future: a world of highly autonomous and intelligent road transportation.

Companies such as Nissan, the pioneer of mass-market electric vehicles, are offering customers exciting vehicles that combine zero-emissions, self-driving capabilities, artificial intelligence and data connectivity.

These are the technologies at the heart of what we call Nissan Intelligent Mobility, which is our vision to move people to a better world. 

We are not alone. Almost every car company is seeking some form of competitive advantage. This creates a dilemma not just in the auto industry, but for other manufacturers of high-value, must-have products.

From household electrical products to smartphones, from cars to aircraft, we are all engaged in developing, producing and marketing increasingly automated products. 

Our common challenge is how to differentiate our new technologies and brand proposition in ways that drive growth, market share and sustainable profitability.

We have a clear choice: to invest in pioneering and appealing products that exceed customer expectations, or to settle for highly commoditized products that sell in large volumes but at low margins. 

At Nissan, we are taking the first path. Our company is among those driving the change in new mobility services, creating a distinctive foundation for how we market and sell vehicles in future.

In a world of ride-hailing services, pay-as-you-go rentals and automated "robo" taxis, it is harder to sell products purely on the basis of brand loyalty, reliability or driving characteristics.

That commitment has been evident in Tokyo. Our IMx zero emission concept car demonstrates how mechanical switches, for example, can be replaced with motion-sensing technology that detects hand gestures and eye movements. 

The replacement of traditional internal combustion engines with battery powertrains will enable us to transform the look and feel of car interiors. Increasing vehicle connectivity and data-management will clear the way for interactive communications and for next-generation safety and traffic management systems. 

We must also introduce these technologies intelligently, matching the evolutionary pace of changing regulations and customer demand. As with other industrial sectors, there will not be a "big bang" change. Rather we anticipate a gradual adoption of increasingly intuitive systems that customers are willing to pay for. 

That changeover requires smart marketing. We must preserve the appeal of driving, especially for those customers seeking high-performance cars such as our NISMO models, while offering distinctive mass-market products with a range of new technologies. 

This is the basic challenge of new mobility services: finding a way to produce and market automated and intelligent products, with the brand appeal and distinctive identity that customers want.

This challenge is being compounded by changing attitudes to both car ownership and usage. Barely a generation ago, vehicles represented the second most important and high-value asset that customers owned after their homes. 

Now we are seeing a shift to new usage models such as ride-hailing services, pay-as-you-go rentals and, eventually, the arrival of fully automated "robo" taxis or shuttles. In this world, it is harder to sell products purely on the basis of brand loyalty, reliability or driving characteristics. 

In effect, our industry is adjusting its marketing efforts and brand proposition for the streaming generation – a generation where access to technology is as important as product ownership. 

These consumer shifts will only grow as cities adopt smart transport-management systems, favouring zero-emission and autonomous vehicles over traditional models.

For these consumers, the ability to access smartphone connectivity, or to be driven with increasing degrees of artificial intelligence, are becoming important purchase considerations. 

Over time, this will change the customer relationship with the auto industry. We are moving to a world of software updates, cloud-based services and remote maintenance – all of which demands greater ingenuity in how we design, produce and sell vehicles.

This is not a challenge confined to the automotive sector. It is true of all forms of transport, whether travelling by road, rail or air: consumers will gravitate to those providers offering the best, most sustainable and technically advanced means of getting around. 

This consumer shift is likely to grow as cities adopt smart transport-management systems, favouring zero-emission and autonomous vehicles over traditional models.

Product innovation and sales-marketing techniques will have to adapt to the preferences of these consumers.  Cars must become interactive, personalised spaces that connect to people and objects. 

They must serve consumers who want to choose between driving their car and being driven by their car. And all this must be packaged in a way that represents affordable individual mobility.

At Tokyo this month, and at the next major auto shows in Los Angeles and Detroit, these will be the themes that influence the sort of advanced vehicles and technologies on show.

At Nissan, we recognize and embrace that challenge. We see it as a long-term opportunity to drive sustainable growth for our business and move people to a better world. 

Daniele Schillaci is head of global sales and marketing at Nissan