Brand Innovators 2021 Outlook: Automotive

In the first installment of our new 2021 Outlook Series, Brand Innovators talk to Automotive CMOs and marketing leaders for insights into what to expect next year, and how the industry’s digital acceleration will continue as more car buying goes online.

As automotive marketers look ahead to 2021, one thing is clear: There is no going back to a pre-covid world. People have changed, consumption behaviors are different, and the new normal will continue into next year and beyond.

The accelerated digital transformation that hit every category in 2020 will guide the industry’s roadmap for next year and beyond. Expect refinement, innovation and low contact customer experiences.

“The future of the automotive industry has never been so exciting,” says Angela Zepeda, CMO, Hyundai Motor America. “With fast advances in technology, autonomy and ride sharing, the way people use cars is changing rapidly and we are well prepared at Hyundai to take advantage of those transformations.”

Unlike other categories in which people can simply add a product to their carts and hit the order button, car shopping has always been more nuanced and usually requires a series of in-person visits to a dealership. But 2020 changed all of that. Now, consumers are more willing than ever to order a car online. Next year, watch for advances in digital car experiences and an increase in ecommerce shopping in the category.

“We saw the automotive industry completely change in 2020, and people are thinking differently about cars now – we’re seeing increased demand and consideration, especially among first-time buyers, as they look to cars to help provide a sense of certainty during a difficult time,” says Allyson Witherspoon, vice president marketing communications and media, Nissan North America. “In this ever-changing environment, we’ve maintained the ability to react and pivot quickly, ensuring that we remain mindful of what consumers need from Nissan at any given moment.”

Car sales slowed last spring when the pandemic hit, as uncertain consumers held off on large purchases and people were simply staying home and driving less. But as time has passed, more people have come into the market to buy a car. Some 20 percent of consumers who were not planning to buy a car before the pandemic say that they are now, according to a CarGurus survey.

For some consumers, buying a new car offers a more hygienic alternative to ride-sharing or public transformation. Thirty-nine percent of those who previously used ride-sharing and 45% of those who previously used public transportation expect to stop using these modes of transportation when life returns, said the study.

As consumers look to cut down on physical contact while test driving and shopping for cars, their reliance on augmented reality experiences and online forums is increasing. Brands are taking note and are improving their digital experiences and connecting with consumers where they are, be it social media, an app or an ecommerce site.

“In 2020, the pandemic has accelerated the automotive industry’s digital retail transformation and we believe that is here to stay,” Zepeda says. “Consumers have more options in how they shop for and purchase a vehicle. Transactions can now be completely fully online with home delivery and remote test drives.”

But cars are a big ticket item and not everyone is willing to buy a car completely online without having touched it in person. For those consumers, dealers are offering safety precautions.

“Many consumers still want to shop in-person and dealers are providing that safely with robust precautions and new innovations,” Zepeda continues. “ I’m proud of how quickly all of our Hyundai dealerships have adapted and elevated the consumer experience. In 2021, we will continue to hone and refine that experience to make it more digital and seamless than ever before.”

Nissan is in the middle of launching 10 new products within 20 months – with the all-new 2021 Rogue on its way to dealerships this fall. The company is pivoting the shopping experience to make it easier to experience these new cars digitally through virtual tours and augmented reality experiences.

“Looking ahead to 2021, one of the biggest opportunities lies in further accelerating online shopping in the automotive industry, and working closely with dealers to do so,” said Witherspoon. “We’re prioritizing our online retailing and e-commerce capabilities with programs such as Shop @Home, knowing that’s how consumers are primarily shopping at this point.”

As consumers look to buying new cars, they are also expanding the types of vehicles which they are considering buying. Some people are investing in new vehicles for recreation.

“In 2020, we saw that a lot of people were not flying or taking international trips but we saw a return to the outdoors,” says Dan Gray, Digital Shopper Content Manager, Ford Motor Company. “We saw a return to roadtrips in a 30 mile radius from where people lived for mini-vacations. Some of that was because they didn’t feel comfortable getting on a plane. A lot of them were camping because they didn’t feel comfortable staying in a hotel. A lot of people were staying with their core family unit.”

For car makers, this means the opportunity to market comfortable cars and vans that can help serve as the anchor of a vacation or excursion.

“What we are seeing industry wide is that people are investing in camper vans or trailers or things that they don’t have to get into a plane and go do but things that are fun,” Gray said. “In 2021, I predict that people are still going to be returning to the outside. People are going to want to go on vacations. Road trips will stay. Gas prices will fluctuate but in 2021, people will try to stick to their family unit and continue going on these trips.”

As auto brands prepare for the unknowns of the new year, if 2020 taught us anything it is the need to be agile.

“It’s tough to look at 2021 and not expect more change, not just in automotive but across all categories,” said Kimberley Gardiner, VP & Chief Marketing Officer at Mitsubishi Motors North America. “Flexibility has to be at the core of our planning and go-to-market strategies, with multiple playbooks both at the brand and dealer levels, meeting customers where they are, and simplifying the steps involved in vehicle shopping, buying and servicing.”

Keep an eye out for future installments of the “Brand Innovators 2021 Outlook” weekly editorial series, where we’ll look at what to expect in CPG, Retail, Direct to Consumer, Entertainment and other industries.

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