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Jon Gandy talks Marketing Strategies for an increasingly diverse Consumer Landscape

New car registrations in the UK reached a ten year high in 2014, reflecting the increased consumer confidence in the post-recession economic upturn. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), 2,476,435 cars were registered in the whole calendar year – the most since 2004. Interestingly, confidence appears to have been growing over a longer period, with registration numbers showing that December 2014’s 8.7% rise was the 34th consecutive month of growth. But how are car manufacturers going to capitalise on the market’s apparent confidence and particularly those who are searching out the more niche, discerning automotive ‘enthusiast’ customer?

Why would I even ask this question? Manufacturers are continuing to grow their nameplate portfolios into new areas to compete with the diversity of today’s global automotive market. MINI, for example, no longer offers one three-door hatchback in its range, but almost a whole fleet, consisting of seven different models (3 door, 5 door, Countryman, Paceman, Convertible, Roadster and Coupe). And they’re not alone. BMW’s recent re-shuffle of their naming conventions illustrates a similar pattern with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, X, Z4 and i Series. Within these groups there are also new sub-niches such as the 2 Series Active Tourer (the first front wheel drive BMW ever). The 4 and 6 series Gran Coupes have also recently arrived – essentially 4 door versions of 2 door coupe versions of 4 door saloons. Still with me?

So amongst all the niches and sub-niches, one particular group of consumers interests me – the ‘petrol head’. The enthusiastic car owners who blog, vlog and are members of multiple online forums debating the (mis)fortunes of their automotive experiences. It’s not a small group either. The Pistonheads forum (the largest automotive forum in the UK) has an estimated 5.1m page views per month with approximately 920k users monthly. And there are many other brand-oriented forums to choose from which are frequented by car enthusiasts discussing their shared buying/ownership/roadtrip/mechanical/personal automotive experiences. In real terms, their impact on the new car registrations might be a drop in the ocean but for some manufacturers these customers are their lifeblood (think Caterham, Lotus, Porsche and the performance oriented offerings from the largest global brands such as Audi S and R-S, BMW M and M-Performance, Mercedes AMG and so on). They also have the potential to form a large highly influential group online, providing advice and real world experiences to the wider consumer audience.

The petrol head audience is an eclectic bunch by all accounts – not obviously segmented by their disposable income or social status, job role or industry but they do have a few common traits when it comes to buying cars and the role that marketing and advertising has in the process. A very short survey that I put together for two forums of such enthusiasts on Pistonheads.com and BabyBMW.net showed some interesting outcomes. Not statistically viable due to small volumes of responders (less than 50 and counting), but interesting on an anecdotal level nonetheless.

The first learning is that they appear to be extremely proactive in deciding what car they want to buy next. 30% of responders to the survey admitted that they create a spreadsheet of facts and figures from online sources before buying a car. 36% also admitted using car magazine websites for research and using the journalists’ recommendations as a source of inspiration. Only 12% admitted that their shortlist of cars to buy next are influenced by what marketing materials and ads have shown them despite the fact that they aren’t loyal to one brand (0% admitting that they’d only buy one brand of car).

The petrol head audience aren’t however immune from the powers of marketing. Whilst they may have a greater level of cynicism for advertising and are armed with a wealth of relevant stats with which to make their decisions, 50% admitted that they’d read a direct mail pack out of curiosity, with 35% saying they’d throw it in the bin without reading it. Only 12% said they’d go online to do more research after receiving a direct mail pack though, so the creative needs to be particularly compelling to offer up a change of perception to drive this behaviour. 4% admitted that they would send off a reply to request a test drive.

And this is where a key interesting part of the buying process amongst petrol heads comes to the fore. 62% admit they buy their cars online via such sites as eBay, Autotrader, or via online brokers and lease companies. However, the importance of the dealership experience and particularly the test drive is still the most influential conversion tactic for making a purchase.

Whilst the actual purchasing mechanics of this audience may not be the traditional offline route of utilising the manufacturers’ dealer network face to face, it is this experience which will most greatly influence their decision when they decide to place an order (most likely online).

This is born out in the survey results. When offered the choice of three cars which are almost identical on paper, it wasn’t the stats, the journalists’ recommendations or the biggest discounts available which would clinch a deal. It’s would be the test drive. 60% agreed that if they were in that particular buying dilemma, they would test drive all three cars and make a buying decision based on the experience. That seems like common sense of course as it’s the only personal subjective way of making a decision if there’s no rational difference between the choices. However, when asked what influences their choice of car most, the top two answers were the test drive experience and the way the dealer treats them.

It’s perhaps here that the sweet spot for the petrol head enthusiast can be met by canny manufacturers. Customer service extends well beyond the showroom in the age of online click to chat offerings on owned web properties or through sales teams frequenting automotive forums. By utilising owned online channels to provide a dynamic and accessible buying process, and offering top class customer service both online (including forums) and in the showroom the petrol head could become a vital influencer for manufacturers’ brands, nameplates or sub niches. And who’s to say that within this large group there’s not a new Chris Harris or Matt Farah, who command vast audiences on YouTube and in printed media, reviewing and extolling the virtues of the latest and greatest offerings from Stuttgart, Bavaria and beyond (usually whilst driving sideways and a tightly controlled drift).

Who’s to know whether the theory could work in practice, but as manufacturers continue to foray into new sub niches and push boundaries from an engineering perspective, surely an opportunity has opened up for new marketing strategies that reflect the diversity of the consumer landscape. The knock on effect could thereby give all of us consumers better, more bespoke buying experiences and ultimately lubricate the wheels of automotive commerce in 2015 and beyond.