Share of Life

A New Model for Automakers: From Car Purchase to Lifetime Relationship

Written by
Sebastian Jespersen
A New Model for Automakers: From Car Purchase to Lifetime Relationship

Buyer or leasing a new car is not a decision you make casually. It’s a big-ticket purchase that will impact your daily life for years to come. Before choosing a model, most buyers carefully research, consider and compare online. What features matter to you most in a car? What criteria would you use to narrow down your choices and make a final decision? How have your requirements evolved since the last time you bought a car?

I recently went through this purchasing process myself. It was a sobering experience. The surprise is in how little the customer model has changed over the years. You go to a dealership, speak to a sales rep, take a test drive, negotiate the price and finalize the deal. For most car companies, that’s it. You won’t be hearing from the brand again for years. The automaker is ready to move onto the next buyer. Only a few brands see this moment as the beginning of a relationship that goes beyond the car. That’s a huge, missed opportunity. Rather than being the start of what could become a lifetime relationship, it’s treated as just another cut-and-dry transaction.

The digital footprint

A lot has changed in the auto industry because of technology. Car technology has advanced rapidly, as tools like smart dashboards, voice command functionality and intuitive navigational maps have become standard, while futuristic features like biometrics and self-driving capabilities get closer to reality. The auto industry was among the first to experience the empowerment of the internet era. Nearly two-thirds of a car buyer’s time shopping is spent online, according to a 2020 study of the Cox Automotive Car Buyer Journey. Other research (study by AutoTrader) shows 86 percent of consumers want to complete at least one step of the car buying process online. Most car brands have altered their marketing models to accommodate this and have invested significantly in digital properties to support the buyer’s journey.

With the buyer’s journey mostly being supported by the brand’s website, Vertic assessed selected websites according to the methodology of our Corporate Website Index. The conclusion is that these websites are generally scoring very well, ranking the overall experience among the top 10% of consumer sites. The overall brand experience, ability to configure and personalization engine are usually quite advanced. As these websites are typically owned by marketing teams, and with those marketing teams’ go-to-market model focused on acquisition, this explains why the brand-to-customer digital interaction is relatively strong during the buyer journey phase.

However, it looks very different post-purchase within the digital customer journey. While a high expectation has been set by the website during the buyer journey, the experience is not continued once the buyer becomes a customer. This evaluation is primarily supported by looking at scores of the apps provided by the car manufacturers through the Apple and Google Play stores. These apps are only relevant for customers that own the car. We assessed the same companies’ apps for whom we assessed their websites. Each one’s app could reinforce positive feelings and find opportunities to integrate with customers’ values, lifestyles, and habits – and most importantly support the experience of owning the car. Yet the low app ratings and poor reviews demonstrate that automakers are missing the mark. Customers find the apps frustrating, buggy and ineffective — not at all a reflection of the luxury and independence they were promised.

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These are companies with whom their customers historically have strong brand affiliation. They are proud of owning a Porsche, Audi, BMW, or Mercedes and what it says about them as drivers. Each brand’s app could reinforce these positive feelings and find opportunities to integrate with customers’ values, lifestyles, and habits. Yet the low app ratings and poor reviews demonstrate that automakers are missing the mark. Customers find the apps frustrating, buggy and ineffective — not at all a reflection of the luxury and craftmanship that the car is projecting.

Automotive companies invest a substantial amount of money in the driving experience. Developing a new platform, engine or a new car design requires significant investment. Creating meaningful digital relationships with their customers, starting with the development of a robust app, is relatively inexpensive. It just has to be made a priority, and automakers will have to understand how they authentically - and in a meaningful way - can be a part of their customers’ digital lives.

At one dealership I asked the salesperson about the car’s app, and he told me without hesitation: “Don’t download the app. It’s not worth it. Everything you need is in the car.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the experience I want as a car owner or with any other brand.

A framework for a new customer model

What would it mean for brand and driver to have a fully intertwined relationship, and increase their Share of Life® with owners in an internet-addicted society? They can put into action the guidelines of the Share of Life ® C.R.E.E.D and start making the brand a vital part of the owner’s life online.  

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The C.R.E.E.D is a five-part process. Create ongoing Commitment. Create nonstop Reinforcement. Create digital Empowerment. Create renewed Excitement. Create continuous Development.

Commitment: Buying a car is a major commitment and for the consumer the beginning of a years-long relationship. Automotive companies have organized their “relationship” model around providing service and maintenance plans, which is largely transactional, rather than relationship building. Entangling a brand in an enduring relationship requires a digital platform that allows the automotive brands to authentically insert themselves into their customer’s digital existence. The app would be a natural platform for automotive companies to service the car owner’s commitment on an ongoing basis.  

Reinforcement: In general, automotive brands are not good at digitally reinforcing the initial commitment. Some luxury brands have been good at offline reinforcement by sending physical packages to car owners, yet all have very limited reinforcement through the app or digital means. Through the app, the automotive brand can constantly reinforce the relationship with the driver and their car choice by sharing information and insights on the performance, driving experience and tips on maintaining the car in optimal condition. For example, Volvo could provide data and insights about safety while Porsche could reinforce the commitment with data supporting the driving performance – information and storytelling that is of value to the customer while being true to the brand’s DNA.

Excitement: Car makers should be able to answer a simple, yet fundamental question. What could we authentically digitally entangle with our customers about outside the driving experience? What carmakers want to create is a community of believers who never give up that first flush of excitement in owning their particular car – and then deliver these experiences digitally. The experience is not only when I’m sitting in the driver’s seat; it has to expand into other aspects of our lives to become indispensable. Buying a car is emotional and it should fulfill the owner’s lifestyle and driving interests. The brand could create a sense of excitement among its customers by sharing regular updates on shared objectives. For example, the automaker could combine individual real-time data in support of shared objectives:

This year, you and your fellow drivers made small changes that had a big impact! Together, you wiped out X tons of CO2 just by tweaking how you drive each day. The planet thanks you.

Each message would be a digital communication aligned with the core values of the community.

Empowerment: The carmaker can invent or license high-tech tools that produce exciting opportunities for digitally empowered car owners. What matters to each individual can be brought to life through vehicle apps and provide drivers with an even better overall car experience. This begins with a shift in a traditional, analog mindset. When any brand understands what’s important to their customers and how the brand can help them to achieve it, they provide empowerment. For example, if an automaker’s customers are passionate about seeing the world and keeping it beautiful, why not provide the information and tools needed to adopt greener driving practices. After every drive, an app could offer a few helpful data points and tips related to emissions and fuel efficiency: on this trip, you used X amount of fuel to go Y miles. Did you know that with this small tweak, you could reduce your carbon footprint by Z?  

Development: How can carmakers continue to deepen the relationship with the driver in cyberspace year after year? A digitally entangled relationship between the car brand and the customer requires an ongoing and organic enrichment of the digital experience. Such experience can’t take place without complete integration between the car and the app. The customer should have access to the same data in the app as in the car. Tesla regularly provides “upgrades” through new firmware and interface updates. Yet, there’s room to offer a subscription with ongoing benefits through an app that could use driving data to enhance simple trips or great adventures through curated road trip discoveries or exclusive communities. This creates an ongoing commitment between the customer and car brand.

Avoid an analog-era mindset

The Share of Life ® C.R.E.E.D is the model for automakers to change the customer interactions from solely car purchase to lifetime relationship. In the digital age, a marketer in any business category can attain truly granular insights about their audiences – what we know as Zero Degrees of Separation - from digitally empowered customers. Gaining Share-of-Life ® online is about much more than triggering an immediate sale. It can entangle the brand and the customer in a mutually beneficial relationship that is virtually unbreakable.

The new standard for marketers is how well the brand creates powerful digital experiences that thrill customers over and over again. Think of the Share of Life ® platform as weaving the brand into the fabric of a person’s multi-screen existence. What warning signs should you pay attention to? How can you make sure you are focusing on your customers’ top priorities?

Which car brand will You rather Share Your Life with?

By and large, automakers have failed to build a business model around Share of Life® They are quick to highlight the extraordinary driving experience you will have if you buy one, but they consistently fall short when it comes to delivering an ongoing relevant digital experience. Auto brands must figure out what is important to their customers and find ways to empower them to do more of what that is. Since we live online now, to be successful, brands must become an essential part the customer’s digital existence. The rise of self-driven cars that potentially will be introduced by powerful technology companies could further disrupt the automotive industry. Google and Apple will not only be promoting the driving experience but they already understand how to create unique customer experiences. Technology companies that intuitively understand the Share of Life C.R.E.E.D model and will enter the automotive industry with a ‘SaaS operating model’. Take Alphabet as an example: it operates Waze, has Google Maps, and understands from search engine data what is important to users. This enables them to provide customers with a superior driving experience, converting some of that “dead” commute time to meaningful time with their many digital touch points across entertainment (Google Play), business productivity (Gmail/ Docs) and communication (Hangouts). For automotive companies to thrive in the competitive landscape that is heading their way, they must transform their customer relationship from a transactional one to an entangled one. It’s only a matter of time before the vehicle itself becomes more of a commodity and the ongoing value creation is the true asset to the customer.

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