Automakers must incorporate a fourth dimension into the brand experience

Faced with rapidly changing value propositions, automakers need to quickly and clearly explain the value of in-car tech.

Disruption has come to the motor industry, presenting brands with numerous challenges that have been well documented in the media. From hybrids and electric vehicles to ride-sharing, self-driving and autonomous technology, the landscape is constantly evolving. This has made hot topics of what we will and will not buy or drive — both now and in the near future.

Through launch and showcase work with automakers, our experience is that most brand marketers in the automotive sector use three core product dimensions, each of which influence the perceived value of a vehicle and brand and ultimately shape the way they are marketed.

The first of these is Aesthetic, referring to the design and styling cues, materials and craftmanship; the second, Performance, refers to the engine, the stats and speeds; and the third, Ergonomic, incorporates the interior layout, seating position and how it feels.

“The challenge is how to showcase the real human value of these often-imperceptible tech-led variables that are buried deep in a vehicle’s digital brain”

They’re evocative and tangible and can easily be experienced at any auto show, showroom or brand activation. As the car circles slowly on a turntable, visitors and prospective customers can lift the hood to examine the engine, sit inside and grasp the wheel, feeling the quality of the leather interior, or even simply admire the sporty rake of the windshield from afar — all interactions that provoke the senses.

A new fourth dimension

All that is still as effective as ever, but the pace of disruption is accelerating. To keep up, brands are evolving beyond the vehicle alone into digitally-driven, technology-infused mobility solution providers. This means a new fourth dimension, focused on technology, is required to communicate how newer, tech-enabled variables — software, interactive products, digital interactions, immersive experiences, network connectivity and predictive services — combine to deliver benefit to the owner.

These variables, and the associated experiences used to convey them, will define consumers’ relationships with car brands. Much like tribal loyalties to mobile device brands, as tech capabilities advance, user experience (UX) is increasingly driving consumer preference.

Whilst hardware currently accounts for 90% of the perceived value of a car, a Morgan Stanley report predicts that this figure could drop to just 40%, with the remaining 60% being dominated by the car’s software and digital content. How we ‘connect’, both literally and figuratively, with a car’s systems and services will become the determining factor in terms of how we perceive brand and product value.

“Simply put, it is the benefits and realities of seamless technology and digital integration into our hyper-connected lives that will resonate with audiences”

The challenge, when brands are presenting new cars to key audiences, including press, influencers and potential new customers, is how to showcase the real human value of these often-imperceptible tech-led variables that are buried deep in a vehicle’s digital brain. They cannot be touched, or viewed on a turntable, yet as part of the whole package, the final product, they inform people’s emotional connection and how they use it.

In this fourth technology dimension, brand marketers need to design intentional engagements for audiences to see, experience and connect with every flavour of the latest, most complex systems and services that are set to define the value of the car to the owner and driver.

The priority for all car brands now is to communicate in an accessible and compelling way what it is that technology can help make possible. Just as interface designers found a way to ease the use of digital tools for new computer users with skeuomorphism (the technique that mimics the form of offline originals — think of the original Apple digital calendar that featured ring bound pages on a screen), car brands and vehicle activations will need to use contextual and relatable cues to engage and demonstrate the nonphysical benefits to audiences with real-world needs. Vehicle brands must then present them via engaging delivery mechanisms, including immersive technologies like virtual, artificial and mixed reality. In much the same way, GPJ works with leading tech companies, including IBM and Cisco, to bring digital transformational stories such as cloud computing, machine learning and intuitive networks to life. Brands need help to connect with audiences at a human level to demonstrate the benefits of digital concepts that can feel out-of-reach.

“Whilst hardware currently accounts for 90% of the perceived value of a car, a Morgan Stanley report predicts that this figure could drop to just 40%, with the remaining 60% being dominated by the car’s software and digital content”

This changing value proposition is leading car brands to find new platforms for their experiential marketing activity. Industry vertical events such as GSMA Mobile World Congress and CES are proving popular opportunities for automakers to place themselves amongst new ecosystems of transformational technologies.

In response, established motor shows are rethinking their formats. Both the Detroit auto show (NAIAS) and the Geneva motor show (GIMS) are introducing new interactive and dynamic approaches for brands to showcase their new-energy and tech-infused mobility offerings, to regain interest from both exhibitors and attendees.

Whether exhibiting at a motor show, an adjacent industry showcase or a pop-up activation, the bottomline figures of engine performance or the choice of contrast stitch options are not what should form the product story. Simply put, it is the benefits and realities of seamless technology and digital integration into our hyper-connected lives that will resonate with audiences.

By Matthew Blake, Planning Director at George P. Johnson and as featured in Automotive World.