The future of car retail marketing in the age of Tesla and Amazon

In an age where Tesla and Amazon are on the cusp of revolutionizing the sales process for car buying, and consumers can design and order vehicles to match their heart’s desire, the marketing process within the fiercely competitive sector is just as fluid, with more options for where to promote a car, and how, than ever before.

Not to mention the looming spectre of automotive and electrically powered hybrids which could be voice activated in just a few years’ time, and the car world we know now could well be unrecognizable in the decade. There is a general acceptance among car brands that automation is inevitable, but still a belief that there is desire from buyers to still drive – potentially meaning a feature which allows cars to shift from automotive to manual, will be developed one day.

One brand that isn’t overly concerned by the automated potential is Bentley however, which believes that it will make little difference to many of its clients who are used to not driving their cars themselves as part of the brand’s aspirational appeal.

“For us it’s still about the brand and the experience of being in the cabin, which from a marketing point of view is something we are always pushing… but different ownership models are something we are interested in,” says Louise Burns, head of strategic marketing at Bentley, who goes on to talk about ‘Bentley on Demand’, a recent scheme where any existing owner can borrow a Bentley free of charge as part of their business trip.

The sales process itself will evolve greatly too over the coming years, driven partially by technology, but also by innovation from new entrants into the automotive scene. Search will be a major factor in the marketing mix according to Auto Trader UK’s brand director, Marc Palmer.

He cites research conducted at the beginning of the year by Auto Trader which discovered that “most people don’t have a clue about cars, they are aware of car brands but don’t think about cars every day.” When they do decide to buy a car, he adds, they begin with an open mind which brings them to use search, a reason why content and PR are so important to help the 45 brands on the market compete for attention and a sale.

“You have to interrupt people as they get into the journey rather than try to build awareness at the start as most people aren’t listening,” he states, revealing that people change their minds across the journey, looking at new cars and used cars. In fact, 65% who bought one brand started by looking at a competitor, according to Palmer.

Benjamin Baumann, business director at C3 offers his caveat that while search is important in the UK, in that some countries it didn’t begin with search but with other elements that brands ‘had to deal with’.

“Our big driver is to really get a big interest in the brand and we’re really trying to hook people at very early stages that Bentley could be part of their world,” she adds. “We are spending a lot of time that Bentley is in people’s mind and then, yes, then search becomes important, but for us it’s brand-first.” She revealed that other elements of Bentley’s marketing mix is branded content, digital advertising, storytelling ‘right at the top of the customer journey’ to meet the target market in digital or physical spaces.

A major evolution in the sector will take place around the place of the dealership to the automotive sales process, which continues to be a necessary evil that offers services, support and safety like no other, but is still an off-putting experience for younger drivers who long for the ‘one-click’ online purchase experience offered by Amazon and others, as well as the straight forward information that Tesla provides for its cars online.

“All the costs and investments that are there for 30% or 40% of our customers. It won’t make much sense to invest so much money in them when we are talking about virtual reality and augmented reality. There are possibilities to change the customer journey and to become more mobile-centric,” predicts Baumann.

Burns agrees that getting people to come to the forecourts is “becoming a bit of a barrier” to some, because the ‘culture’ was not keeping up with how people wanted to buy brands online and enjoy the experience of creating their own bespoke design of car. Then there are dealerships which remain attractive to consumers through the warranty and packages they continue to offer.

“However the experience is not fun. You walk into that space and it feels quite combative,” she later states.

The online experience is also a major concern for Fernando Barbella, the recently hired executive creative director of SevenC3; “You deal with a screen and the whole process is smooth all of the time and you have customer service online for a chat right away, it’s so effective – but when you go to a dealership, it’s like going back in time. We have to figure out how to rethink that experience.’

However Palmer cites further Auto Trader research which found that seven out of 10 people liked going to a dealership, although that may be more due to their desire to see and experience the car before purchase —- such is the level of investment, over the actual experience of being sold to on a forecourt. He adds his expectation that it still had many years left in the buying process, although more work had to be done to make the experience ‘enjoyable’.

Offering insight on a test-drive campaign that C3 ran between Mercedes and Amazon, for little more than a trade in user data, Baumann is positive about the future for car sales via the retail giant: “I don’t think that we are so far away from selling cars but it’s a question of how and other things regarding trust, regarding the brand, the platform, the payment provider and other things – Amazon has a huge trust from our audience.”

Meanwhile Palmer explains that Auto Trader has run a trial with online car sales company, Rockar, which displays cars in shopping centers without sales people, and is an example that people would buy cars online when viewed in a public space, but only to an extent. He adds that sites like Amazon would mostly be viewed with an intent to research prices before going to a dealership due to the reassurances they will get there.

“People we know from our platform, will buy online, on a third-party platform like us and we are looking at how we can bring that to market,” he claims.

See the views of all four contributors in the video above around the most important developments they expect to see take place within the automotive marketing sector in the coming year.

The views were taken during a panel session held by The Drum and sponsored by Auto Trader and SevenC3 in London earlier this month.

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