Driving along the highway with the wind in your hair and the radio blasting, you gain a sense of freedom that only comes with not really knowing where you are going. The stark reality is I’m faced with someone’s armpit on the Victoria line on my way into the centre of London.
My destination today is a roundtable discussion with automotive experts who are going to shed some light on the disruptions taking place within the automotive industry as we know it: autonomous driving, brand relevancy, Tesla, the sharing economy to name a few. Culture will change and, as a consequence, how and what we drive will change along with it. Let’s not even start on the tech that will transform how we get from A to B and our landscape.
How can we value car brands and how can they stay relevant in our ever-changing world? How can the essence of the car still be an integral part of our daily lives when attitudes to cars, pollution and energy are so diverse?
Joining the roundtable at The Riding House Café was Andrea Lennon of Critical Mass, Simon Mearns of Reading Room, Matt Franey of Foxtrot Papa, Ben Callis of Aesop, Simon Amster of TVC Group, Dan Pitt of HPS Group, Richard Lees of Merkle DGB, Adam Cleaver of Collective and Norma Gray of RRD Creative.
Tesla: innovator or PR machine?
The discussion could not go on without acknowledging the fact that huge brands such as Ford (worth $22.4bn) and Toyota (worth $43.6bn) would have to change to keep up with the technological advances of autonomous driving. Tesla, which recently released its Model 3 version of autonomous car, has slowly, but surely, shaken the stock market.
Only two weeks after releasing the celebrated Model 3 however, Tesla has seen a drop in market value by around $10bn. With this decrease in value and the fact that Volvo also recently announced they will only be producing electric or hybrid models from 2019 onwards, it’s clear that traditional car makers are cranking up the competition.
Traditional brands will need to put the consumers “at the heart of the metal box” and that is where the innovation will spring from, comments Cleaver.
So how far away are we from full autonomy? Dan Pitt of HPS Group explains: “Autonomous cars do exist. They can drive themselves, however, we just aren’t ready for them yet.”
Matt Franey expanded on this point by exploring how difficult it would be to teach a robot to break rules. How can we code a machine to understand that a construction worker waving you through a red light during roadworks to keep the traffic moving, is not a pedestrian frantically waving for the car to stop at a red light?
Richard Lees agrees and comments on the dangers of the transition period we are on the cusp of: “This intermediate period is the biggest risk for me. Half the roads will be filled with autonomous cars and the other half will be filled with AI. Autonomous cars will need to be taught to get out of your way every single time.”
Not only that: there is the slightly dystopian notion that there will be an insurance value on our heads. At risk of sounding Black Mirror-esque, the table were unanimous in predicting that there would be a financial element to an autonomous car’s decision to either run over the mother with a pram or the elderly couple crossing the road.
With predictions that one in 10 journeys will be autonomous by 2030, Franey described full autonomy by this time as a ‘pipe dream’ and that it was a ‘red herring’ for brands to ignore what is far more achievable now for consumers: “there are areas that I believe as marketers we should be able to provide good, innovative solutions to now, let alone 2030.”
Pitt agrees: “Tech is great, but at some point, it will become homogenous. When we all have full ‘level 5’ autonomy, I think authenticity will resonate with a substantial part of the car-buying community. Rushing towards tech is fine, but when everyone else does tech well, what else have you got?”
Staying relevant through experience
“I think it will all move onto experience,” Ben Callis of Aesop says. “Arguably, there is no point in making cars. Car brands right now are lacking in the emotional hook, the really deep-seated input for consumers and that is what brands need to transition towards, not just autonomy. This emotional connection is where the real value lies.”
Mearns goes on the importance of data for auto players to use to their advantage: “We need to educate our clients and consumers that we are shifting from focusing on products and more towards experience. And of course, making that experience a lot easier, using data to tailor it. To me, loyalty would come with a brand if I bought my sports car, then my life changes and the brand upsold me to an SUV. If the brand is based around the individual and different data points, then it can be personalised. Brands need to provide a relevance to consumers’ lives by providing the right solutions.”
Simon Amster spoke of the fact that as model production decreases, it will be less about the bottom line numbers and more about customer retention in the long term. In fact, brands will have to continuously re-engage with consumers by offering something additional: “You have to build consistent brand loyalty through every piece of communication. A lightness of touch and authenticity will mark traditional car brands out.”
It’s a lifestyle
The trend with auto players at the moment is a desire to change identities. They don’t want to be seen as an auto brand, but are aspiring to be like tech companies, the next Uber waiting to be downloaded on consumers’ phones. What can they do to stand out and become a more integrated part of customers’ lives?
A recent campaign with Gorrilaz and JLR by TVC Group demonstrates this desire for relevance in an ever-changing market. JLR approached TVC Group and asked if they could do something that will encourage the public to think of them as a tech brand. Amster explains that “using brand partnerships will be something you come back to again and again as it’s something that every auto brand should be looking at. They must be able to approach their communications in different ways to attract people who aren’t as interested in cars.”
Cleaver expands upon this point by claiming that to become more relevant, brands must be engaging with people on a life stage basis. Who is the customer, why do they want the car and where are they?
“Manufacturers need to start selling their cars based on both life-stage and location (metropolis or not) and wrapping up not just relevant product but relevant sales and ownership models along with relevant services, is a way they can become more than just a seller of metal boxes and start being a truly useful and tailored part of people’s lives.”
Another important aspect of car buying is emotion, Cleaver continues: “There used to be an emotional connection that was placed on the beauty of the car in old ads. The way cars are bought hasn’t changed, they are all bought on emotion. The data shows us that people make shortlists, all the data points to the fact they love this car, but then they buy that one. Big brands need to get the emotion back.”
The blurred lines of ownership
Ownership leads to a level of emotional connection. However, the sharing economy has made it easier for people to temporarily own things, especially transport. ZipCar, EasyCar and HiyaCar all make it accessible and cheap for users to get from A to B, and also take away the expense of owning a car. Ownership requires road tax, insurance, maintenance, petrol, service, MOT; the list is endless and the costs keep cranking up.
Norma Gray of RRD Creative claims that brands need to provide more services to be seen as a ‘drivers’ brand’ as opposed to a commodity. And yet, she says: “The majority of car ‘owners’ subscribe to their cars right now. Cars are so expensive and tech heavy, owning it outright is actually impossible for most people.”
As cars become more tech heavy in their autonomy, the more expensive they will get and the less likely people are to invest fully in owning their own car. Lennon of Critical Mass explains in plain terms that “It will not matter whether the person is the car owner, car driver or passenger. The reality is, on our morning commutes, all we care about is convenience and the suite of services available to us. How can I get to my destination the fastest and which way will optimise our time?”
If it all comes down to convenience instead of ownership, then the answer for car brands is connectivity. “We must fulfil a need for people. We have parked autonomy for now. People are interested in good quality connectivity, that’s what people want in a car,” said Pitt.
“What we as marketers and advertisers need to do, is help brands find the stuff they are really good at. The reasons why people should buy the product, which is essentially authenticity and everything coming along with that. The quality of output in terms of comms, should be getting better. Our role is to help people fall in love with cars again.”
How did we all get to The Riding House Café? The train, the tube, bus, Uber and an electric bike. Roll on authenticity.
This article was originally published in The Drum Network's Auto Special. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details or to receive a copy.