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Automotive Marketing

If they don’t change gears, there’s a Nokia moment coming for auto brands


By Richard Pinder, CEO

April 8, 2024 | 5 min read

Brands that only deliver incremental change in the face of society’s exponential transformation will be left behind. Rankin Creative’s Richard Pinder explains using what he calls the auto industry’s ‘Nokia’ moment.

Will the Western auto industry fall into the Nokia trap?

When in 2020, the then-CEO of the then-world’s largest car maker, Volkswagen, urged wholesale change in his company’s business model to avoid becoming the next Nokia, he was met with incredulity. And not long after, he was out. Four years later, his warnings feel way more, not less, relevant.

Chinese automaker BYD, a brand most people in Western Europe have barely heard of, recently overtook Tesla in EV sales. It is on track to be more relevant to more people around the world than BMW.

‘Build Your Dreams’ v ‘Bavarian Motor Works.’

Perhaps the simplest expression there can be of the current change in the sector. And the recently appointed global head of design at Chinese Geely-owned Volvo Cars said his job was to design the next ‘devices on wheels.’ No wonder James May of Top Gear and, latterly, The Grand Tour fame noted this was the most interesting time in the car sector since it was invented.

Meanwhile, the discourse in Germany today is all about the potential loss of technological leadership and industrial might at the apparently unstoppable juggernaut that is Chinese electric car manufacturing capability, backed by easy access to capital and supported by government. Before we get all high and mighty about the last point, it is worth remembering that such things are not new. Volkswagen is part owned by the regional government of Lower Saxony and Renault is part owned by the French state and so on. But it is an existential moment for the traditional players and we can see it in the way they are each making big bets for their next steps.

The main point surely, though, is not this background noise and upturning of the order of things but the role of brand and marketing. In these chaotic times, brands need to be built differently. The next cars will no longer need to be engineered so much as holistically designed. With user experience of the semi and fully autonomous driving systems being paramount, they will not even be actively driven half the time, so much as experienced. The brand will be all since the brand will dictate the look, feel and experience of the many shared drivetrain and electronic driving system components from different offerings. These are heady changes and reminiscent of what happened at that Finnish company we were all so familiar with when the iPhone was launched.

Nokia did a lot of consumer advertising, but Apple understood the power of engaging audiences in a better future. Our belief is that viewing things through the lens of B2C or B2B is not actually very helpful in an era where audiences need to be engaged and monetized. Where a movie star is more valuable for their repeatable audience and cultural connection than the supposed loyalty that many of today’s less interesting brands think they command. Where entertainment can drive government policy (Mr Bates v the Post Office) much more powerfully than many years of ordered, traditional, communications can.

So as we enter further into the exponential age we live in, any brand or company that is doing things the way they did them before is destined to struggle. Easy to say, but not so easy to address. Stop and think about it for a moment. So much of modern marketing and annual budgeting is built on incremental change from what was done last year. This is how we do things around here tends to be the mantra until the whole thing gets upended - by which point it’s often too late.

The biggest challenge, I believe, for marketers therefore is not the issue of when or whether to be the canary in the coal mine, VW and Nokia style. But how to avoid being measured incrementally in an exponential world.

Make no mistake, we are further and further into it whether we like it or not. Keeping to the principles of what you do well but developing the outputs and outcomes as swiftly as innovation, technology and the audience allow seems to be a crucial navigation for all of us who believe in the power of marketing to shape the future we want to build.

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