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Published September 11th 2017

Consumer Trends in the Auto Industry: Disruption, Millennials and Changing Buying Behavior

Brand reputations are not set in stone - to succeed going forward, auto brands need to ensure they’re always listening to consumers

It’s no surprise to state that the car market is fiercely competitive. In 2016, 44 automotive brands were offering nearly 400 different model types to UK consumers.

Keeping up with consumer expectations in an increasingly crowded market is difficult, especially as an industry hindered by lengthy production cycles. Time-to-market stretches over many years. A vehicle that looks like a perfect product-market fit at conception, might find that the market has changed by the time it rolls off the product line.

Likewise, once a vehicle is in the market it’s there for many more years.

Manufacturers can’t easily roll back the production line to make changes or iterate at the speed that other industries can.

However, the slow pace of time-to-market can also be a huge opportunity for automotive brands. Innovative vehicles that address gaps in the market can enjoy years of success while the competition scrambles to catch-up.

Case in example, the Nissan Qashqai, the award winning crossover that can lay claim to dramatically changing car buying habits in the UK and beyond.

The competition did eventually react by producing their own crossovers, but the Qashqai still remains the best seller against its 21 direct competitors on sale today. Being first to market has clearly ingrained the Qashqai in the minds of buyers.

The automotive industry has undoubtedly enjoyed a fruitful decade of growth, and has so far been immune to outside disruption experienced by other industries like the hotel industry with AirBnB and video rental with Netflix.

The biggest threats to the automotive industry has mainly come from within, but that might be about to change. Technology driven trends like electric vehicles, self-driving cars, and rideshare apps are set to shake up the industry in a way that has never been seen before.

To remain competitive in such an unchartered landscape requires new methods of understanding consumers and the market.

Today’s businesses need to understand consumer behaviour at scale, faster than ever before.

They need to pinpoint changing buying habits so they react accordingly. And they need to know about the unseen opportunities and threats so they don’t become the next Blockbuster.

The rise of the empowered consumer

The old way of selling cars had much in common with the used car salesman standing on the forecourt. The seller held the power in the relationship determining what information was available to the buyer.

That isn’t the case anymore. Social media and technology has given birth to the empowered customer.

With just a few taps of their smartphones, consumers can get all the information they need on any vehicle. They can quickly access trade journalist reviews, compare it to rival models, and see if anyone else is offering the better deal, all while standing in the showroom.

More informed customers means more factors now come into the purchase decision. Online research is part and parcel of the car buying process and brands need to ensure they’re aligning product positioning, marketing messages and offers with the needs of the consumer and then making in all visible and apparent online.

A new opportunity to understand consumer behavior

While the rise of the empowered consumer might feel like a threat to traditional business methods, it’s actually a seismic opportunity for those who choose to listen.

Every day millions of people take to social media to let the world know about their experiences, thoughts and opinions.

The accumulative effect of all this social chatter has created the largest pool of consumer data that has ever existed. Trillions of consumer conversations spread across the web on any topic imagined.

For an industry full of passionate consumers like the automotive industry, the opportunity presented by listening on social media is huge. In fact, 38% of consumers consult social media before a car purchase. The buyer signals are already there, it’s now on the brands to understand what they mean.

Social listening platforms give brands a way of turning vast unstructured consumer data into digestible and actionable consumer insights.

These insights should be shaping every aspect of the car development cycle from product design to pricing strategy to marketing messages.

The changing face of automotive consumers

By 2020, 40% of new car buyers will be millennials, of which 88% use the internet to research car purchase.  

The conclusions are obvious, automotive brands need to be building a strong, credible presence online to connect with the next generation of buyers.

However if goes far beyond simply being visible during the buyer research process.

Given the lengthy time-to-market times, knowing the needs and buying habits of the next generation of car buyers is vital for the decisions that are being made today.

What factors most influence millennial purchases? How much do millennials favour environmentally friendly cars? How price sensitive are millennials?

These are the types of questions that brands can start to answer with social listening. By tuning into the conversations had by millennials, brands can get a better understanding of how their approach needs to adapt to accommodate their growing financial power.

Competitive intelligence and brand associations

Perhaps one of the most compelling uses for social listening is to gain insights on competitors. We can all look at car sales figures at the end of the year and speculate why certains models performed well, while others floundered. Sales data tells you what happened, but not always why it happened.

By monitoring online conversations about the competition, automotive brands can start to understand what factors influenced purchase decisions and provide insights in time to react.

Measuring share of voice online is a good indicator of which brands are generating the most consumer interest. Furthermore, social listening can surface the common associations with each brand.

Certain brand associations are deeply embedded in the minds of consumers. Volvo produces safe cars. Honda vehicles are reliable. Land Rover has heritage. Jaguar is synonymous with luxury and exclusivity.

Brand associations have informed purchase decisions for years and manufacturers are right to cultivate them through their marketing messages. But what happens when brand associations aren’t positive?

Škoda is a prime example of a brand that was failing due to negative brand associations. In the late 90s, despite regularly winning industry awards, Škoda was widely known as an embarrassing car to own.

Research by Millward Brown found that 60% of people would not even consider buying a Škoda.

Škoda’s approach was to tackle these negative associations brand head on. Its advertisements famously used a self-deprecating tone when talking about its reputation, and showed people surprised at the quality of the new models.

In practice this strategy started with a piece of market research that gave Škoda honest look at what consumers thought of the brand. By understanding what consumers were saying, Škoda were able to spot a gap in the market – drivers who weren’t overly brand conscious, who looked for value for their money and a reliable car.

Today, similar market research on brand perception can be conducted quickly, cost efficiently and at scale by using social listening.

Analysing the adjectives and phrases used by consumers online when talking about different car brands can help manufacturers find gaps in the market and a unique ways to position the brand. It can help them spot their existing strengths in the eyes of the consumers, and opportunities to differentiate from the competition.

As Škoda has shown, brand reputations are not set in stone. To stay in control and succeed going forward, automotive brands are going to need to ensure they’re always listening to consumers.

Market research in no longer something that can be commissioned, conducted and filed away. It needs to be continuous, scalable and powered by real-time insights. Social listening delivers that, but it’s up to the manufacturers to take the opportunity and turn it into action.

Learn more by reading the Brandwatch Automotive Report. Discover what four million social conversations reveal about consumer behaviour and industry trends. Access the exclusive report here

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