Although online purchases in the automotive sector still represent a rather small percentage of overall sales, customer interaction with the brand is already highly digitized. This is why it is interesting to investigate the correlation between the automotive sector and brand experience, focusing on the role that  digital tools play.

The reality, as we will see, is that in the automotive sector, as in other sectors, digital marketing can make a decisive contribution to the overall brand experience, integrating itself into an evolved communication system made possible – and inevitable – by the spread of new technologies.

In this post, we will shed light on the direct relationship that exists between digital marketing and brand experience and explain why this relationship is reshaping the buying process, both online and in a dealership through the traditional “analog” ways. We’ll also see how the association between the automotive sector and brand experience – a close correspondence in which the latter, thanks to digital, profoundly modifies the dynamics of the former – ends up impacting the business models of the automotive world. We’ll show how creating a different and more engaging consumer experience – which the best brand experience tends to do – makes it possible to optimize marketing actions and increase conversions, ultimately resulting in a more successful sales process.

Before we tackle the main topic of our post – “the automotive industry and brand experience” – let’s take a small step back and get clear on what a brand experience is.


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What is brand experience? 

The brand experience is the process through which a company utilizes different types of resources to build an experience: it sets up a series of meaningful encounters with its target audience, with the goal of influencing how the brand is perceived.

It is through the design of a messaging system that the brand’s communicative intention unfolds. In turn, this establishes an emotional connection with the consumer  in order to take root in his or her imagination, guide his or her behavior, and direct his or her choices.

It’s through the brand experience that an organization can influence the most elusive and unpredictable component of its customers’ decision-making processes, the one that has to do with intuition and feeling. That’s why when we talk about brand experience, we shouldn’t think of repetitive activities but rather of targeted initiatives that are designed to increase awareness of the brand among consumers. 

According to Brakus, Schmitt & Zarantonello, who have conducted one of the most cited scientific analyses on the subject, the brand experience is neither intrinsically positive nor negative but refers exclusively to the internal response of the customer to the external stimuli of the brand. The research clearly shows that brand experience affects satisfaction and loyalty. The reason is simple: if a consumer has a positive experience with the brand, they will want to replicate that experience. If he has a negative experience, he will remember it as a mistake to avoid repeating. 

Moreover, brand experiences are viral, such that a negative experience is much more likely to be shared than a positive one. Jeff Bezos is credited with a maxim that sums up the contagious nature of negative brand experiences: “If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends.”

Thus, brand experience affects both how the brand is perceived related to past experiences and to future-oriented consumer loyalty. This implies that while you may not be able to control all points of interaction with the brand, it is critical to make good use of those customer interactions that you can control or influence.


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Why is the brand experience so important?

“The customer experience is the next competitive battleground” – said Jerry Gregoire, former Chief Information Officer of Dell Computers. 

The customer experience is, therefore, the real battleground and at the same time, it’s the object of desire for all companies, which are gradually realizing that providing excellent customer care, although still important, is only one of the aspects that contribute to the total customer experience. 


How to build an effective and meaningful brand experience in the automotive sector?

Investing in the brand experience means first of all “taking it personally:” starting from the knowledge of one’s target – as accurately as possible – in order to create the conditions necessary to provide a product or service capable of satisfying specific needs and increasingly high expectations. Understanding who customers are and what they need is now easier, thanks to the enormous amount of information that flows to the company through its channels. Starting from the available data, the effort of the various corporate functions, marketing must look for opportunities to connect and empathize with customers.

At that point, building an effective and meaningful brand experience requires a shift in focus from the individual interaction to the experience provided throughout the entire customer journey. Only by incorporating knowledge of individual experiences into every piece of content produced and distributed, across different touchpoints and channels, will it be possible to establish internal consistency across all nodes of the funnel. But that’s still not enough.


A more “human” brand experience

In a recent post, we talked about the impact of the Internet of Things in the automotive sector. Thanks to IoT technology, it’s now possible to take advantage of the information generated by various sources and connect them to the vehicle’s computer in order to perform a series of functions more quickly and accurately (for example, recording real-time traffic alerts, offering emergency roadside assistance, replacing manual driving in certain specific situations) and increase the quality of the customer experience. Here, we want to better articulate the concept, leaving aside technology to focus instead on the “human” dimension. 

One of the great contributions that IoT is making to the automotive industry – perhaps the greatest – is the increase in knowledge that organizations can access. But the qualitative and quantitative information that becomes corporate assets loses value if it can’t be used to practically solve real critical issues, that is, that happen in people’s daily lives.

A brand experience created by extracting value from the data available is, necessarily, a more human brand experience, which addresses human beings, and provides concrete answers to their problems.


… for a truly personalized customer experience

Offering content and solutions tailored to meet the preferences and expectations of your customers is the foundation of any personalization initiative. The circle seems to be closing: the contemporary brand experience can only be personalized.

But personalizing customer experiences, if it has proved to be the most advantageous choice over time, today risks becoming a formula devoid of substance unless the brand imposes an integrated strategy between e-commerce and the sales network that can enhance it. 

And so, to be able to offer truly personalized experiences, it’s necessary to “go deeper,” to go beyond, so to speak, the minimum standard of personalization, intervening both in the creation of content, to make it more relevant, and rethinking how it is distributed from the point of view of interactivity and omnicanality.


Digital marketing at the service of the brand experience in the automotive sector

Lead generation and management is at the heart of any digital marketing activity. For the automotive market, companies can implement widespread lead generation activities by putting a value on all the data related to users who have spontaneously initiated communication with the company, interacting with the digital touchpoints set up by the network of dealerships, car manufacturers, and sector companies in various ways (for example, by filling in a form, downloading a catalog, or contacting the website chat). 

E-commerce could also prove to be a driving force for vehicle sales, but only if the sector is able to seize the opportunities. At the moment, in Europe, only one vehicle in a hundred is sold entirely online. While this shows sporadic purchases, it also shows ample room for improvement, and this is an aspect that could prove strategic in the medium term, stimulating the creation of hybrid e-commerce experiences.

Even before the purchase decision phase, car manufacturers, OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), and retailers will have to face each other in the marketplace to win the attention of customers. The “battle” will have to be based on factors that aren’t exclusively about product quality (technical performance and price, to name a few) but that have to do with the quality of the experience, brand, and customer.


Brand experience in the automotive sector: context and perspectives

The digitization process of the automotive sector is not only transforming the way drivers experience their cars, it’s also involving the purchasing process and how the sales network is structured. The main players in the sector must therefore be ready to review their funnel, introducing new methods, new tools, and new marketing techniques, starting with an investment in e-commerce. 


Automotive e-commerce: global growth and some doubts about the Italian market

Research carried out by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts future growth in automotive e-commerce worldwide: 

  • in Europe, online car purchases will increase from the current 1% to 6-8% of the total by 2025, reaching 25-40% by 2035;
  • in the U.S., automotive e-commerce will reach a share of 5-7% in 2025 and 21-33% in 2035;
  • China will remain the most digitally oriented market with an estimated 8-10% share of online purchases in 2025 (today it is already 2% of the total) and 32-43% in 2035. (Source: Volkswagen Financial Services – The Key to mobility)

As for the Italian market, the forecasts are less clear. 

According to Deloitte, Italians are more cautious, and the dealership remains at the center of future buying habits:

  • only 14% would choose to buy a car online, while 78% prefer to go to the dealership in person;
  • among those who prefer online, the dealership website remains the preferred channel for 63% of Italians (highest figure in Europe), followed by the manufacturer’s website (27%), or sites of other retailers and third parties (10%). 

In contrast with Deloitte’s forecasts, this information emerged from a survey by Quintegia conducted on Automotive Dealer Day 2020: 

  • 4 out of 10 Italians would be ready to buy a car on the web,
  • 41% of respondents say they are interested in buying a car entirely online; this number rises to 80% for users defined as early adopters of new technologies 


How the automotive customer experience is changing

In any case, even Italian customers seem to have a different perception of digital automotive tools than in the past. Among the reasons in favor of integrating online and offline are the convenience of home management, the transparency of the offerings, and cost-effectiveness.

There is also no doubt that consumers are increasingly digitized and the majority of them are now accustomed to doing research online and watching video reviews on platforms like YouTube before making a purchase (yes, even for a car).

The customer experience in the automotive sector is therefore becoming largely digital and is enriched by multimedia elements useful for getting to know the product: photo galleries of the car, videos (also capable of simulating a test drive), and immersive or augmented reality experiences, such as 360° virtual tours. 

The brand experience is also enhanced by the ability to use new types of content and new delivery channels to meet the expectations of a generation of customers who are the first to experience integrated forms of mobility.


Transforming the automotive brand experience by meeting customers’ digital shopping expectations

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the retail organization: dealers and showrooms have had to evaluate contactless solutions for navigation, personalization, test drives, and delivery, and now they are faced with the urgency of maintaining innovations that have improved the shopping experience and reduced friction for potential buyers.


Stores and platforms for a holistic brand experience

One of the biggest problems dealers and showrooms face is that they often lack the infrastructure to integrate online and offline data.

Transforming physical locations into modern spaces that function as true brand experience centers is an important part of retail innovation in this regard: places where people can learn more about the brand and the vehicles, using VR-, AR-, video-, and interactive-ready devices. Empowering brick-and-mortar stores with virtual technology solutions serves to meet customer expectations while establishing a strong online brand presence.

The platforms (sites, apps, social channels) of car companies, dealers, and showrooms, in addition to being easy to navigate, should be able to create holistic and on-brand digital experiences, and should ensure an in-store experience that corresponds to the experience available via digital touchpoints. 

Finally, in an increasingly connected and fluid communication system, mobile experiences cannot be neglected and they should be designed with native logic in mind from the outset and not through subsequent adaptations.


“Back to the consumer”: an omnichannel approach to simplify the purchase journey

If automotive companies want to convince their customers, they must move to an omnichannel approach that follows, reflects, and simplifies the consumer’s path to purchase. Therefore, tools and strategies are needed to:

  • map a user’s identity across devices and digital channels
  • use this information to synchronize online and offline behaviors
  • develop an in-depth understanding of customers based on data

Even in the automotive industry, building an effective brand experience means creating consistent and cohesive paths across digital touchpoints throughout the entire customer journey. The best way, once again, is to “go back to the consumer”, study their buying habits and patterns, strive to understand their needs and difficulties, and tune in to their desires.