Ma Zhenshan: Early Consideration of Brand and Marketing Ideas is an Essential Part of the “User-Centric” Practice

Core views:

1. The entrants of the current automobile industry are commonly anxious

2. Marketing is the last link in the product development process of traditional automobile enterprises; either win or lose

3. Being “user centric”, it is not easy to unite knowledge and action in the value chain of automobile products

4. Early consideration of brand and marketing ideas is an essential part of the “user-centric” practice

Main body

It is normal to be anxious: a general piece of advice for the entrants of the automobile industry

At this time, if you still insist that the success or failure of a product depends only on selecting a proper sales team, it is nothing but a fantasy.

At present, the macro-economy is basically stable in the basic platform area, the growth of the automobile market is slowing down, the characteristics of stock market is obvious, trade-ups are gradually becoming the mainstream, the transition from oil vehicles to new energy vehicles is accelerating, and entrants will not be blocked outside by any threshold. As the fierce market is in the state of “meat grinder level”, it is believed that everyone in the game will have the same feeling: anxious.

Every anxious CEO at an automobile enterprise should consider why their brand can exist. Where is the moat? Will it be recognized by the market? Is the river deep or not? From the results of the current market competition, there are several types of capability deployment for winners (who can be temporary) to overcome anxiety, which are: ecological thinking, industrial chain layout, technology innovation guidance, user operation, strong brands, basic systems, etc.

We often encounter such a scenario: when the marketing position in an automobile enterprise system is no longer a “sweet pastry” but a “scapegoat”…

Every OEM of an automobile enterprise has an automobile product development process. Volkswagen’s system is called PEP, Toyota’s is called IPD, GM’s is called GVDP, and Ford’s is called GPDS. The development cycle of a new product varies from 48 months to 60 months.

This mode is applicable to the market universally before 2020. But it has become increasingly inapplicable, as we are facing with the transition to intelligent electric vehicles in the current market environment.

The product development process of traditional automobile enterprises is roughly born in the automobile era centered on hardware such as modules/platforms/models. The core logic is a relay baton mode centered on hardware product development. Although customer research has been a little advanced, from the perspective of rapidly changing digitalization, it was like fortune telling more than 40 months ago.

After concept development, development in batches, tests and verification, and manufacturing, they are handed over to the Sales Department, which often requires secondary positioning. Whether the product sells well or not, the final responsibility goes to the sales. As long as there is a department with power and corresponding responsibilities, the sales results have nothing to do with me.

The above is caused by the progress in the era of intelligent new energy vehicles; in the context of software defining cars, traditional automobile enterprises and new energy automobile enterprises are also trying to tread very carefully. How to combine the hardware development and software development of automobile products to form Digital Lifecycle Management (DLCM) similar to the development of mobile phone software and hardware for intelligent new energy vehicles? This topic is not only different from mobile phones, but also different from traditional vehicles. It must be an integrated, iterative and interactive development process, which requires us to not only have engineering thinking to seek truths, but also to prove falsehood by standing in customers’ shoes. To balance the relationship between the two, we may have to seek the answer from philosophy. Here comes the question: how to get customers to pay?

Being “user centric” seems to be a unity of knowledge and action, but it is easier to know than to practice

Being user centric is a proposition rather than a slogan. We may as well break down its sub-topics:

In previous research on customer groups, different surveys have come to several conclusions: 70% are men, 25-45 years old, from a family of three. However, with the development and change of China’s society and population, the automobile customer group has undergone tremendous changes: clustering. The elderly group (fishing, retirement and long-distance travel), the single group (Internet coders, science geeks, young men living in towns, rich kids and officiallings), the female group (young mums, housewives, tough girls, and women in the financial industry), and the middle-aged group (middle-aged men, civil servants, young dads, off-road riding and camping). Each group has specific needs for brands, technologies and functions. Customers are evolving in the process of change, and the speed of change is beyond the imagination of OEMs.

The development history of the automobile market in the past 20 years shows that products have gone from product shortage to a great variety of brand models. Customers buying cars have also gone through the process from getting written approval, mark-ups to promotions nowadays. This is a very normal and logical evolution process. Now e-commerce has also developed from search e-commerce to interest e-commerce, and results will be matched and shown on platforms according to interest tags. As cars are bulk commodities, they have a logic very similar to the process of spouse selection. At present, young people select spouse not only based on their family circumstances, education background and income, but also on their feelings about another person’s taste, appearance and charisma. It is better to be short than excessive. With the development of society, economy and culture, buying a car and choosing a spouse are basically the same. This shows that customers’ selection criteria are typically decentralized.

And the TOC we are talking about right now is basically on-line, socialized and associated with interests. It will be hard for a brand to locate customers without online contact points, social circles and common interests, not even mentioning finding a common language for communication. Therefore, from this perspective, the basic threshold for branding and marketing is to know how to play, integrate into the social circle and operate with customers. This shows that the concept and method of TOC are faced with profound changes.

Keep “equal and reverent” curiosity for customer research

Customer research is no easy task. Many cases have proved that customer research is not as simple as doing questionnaires, one-to-one interviews or online questions. Sometimes customers don’t know what they want, and what they say may not always be true. The real customer insight needs to be supported by a system: a customer experience system, such as touch point analysis, peak-end moment design, pain point analysis, problem hypothesis and validation. Customers do not want pain point research experts. What customers need is the perfect experience solution. Therefore, OEMs are expected to develop a continuous customer experience insight mechanism.

At its best, the brand and the customer become “lovers” with long-lasting affection for each other. This relationship maximizes value for both parties. It is not always easy to walk the talk with “user orientation”. Things are changing in the blink of eye, which echoes the VUCA characteristics. This calls for systems support to enable the right things, the right way of thinking and perception.

Early consideration of brand and marketing ideas is an essential part of the “user-centric” practice

At the birth of a product, it is necessary to roughly initiate the brand system building, which is now seen as a prerequisite for the project success.

The brand is fundamental to the company and its products, since customers rely on it to determine whether it meets their tastes. Brand includes positioning, character, mission, values and story. The anthropomorphic style and spirit displayed by an attractive brand will ultimately form the impression and feeling in customers’ mind. Brand tone is particularly important because it is the communication logic between the brand and customers. Whether it feels right eventually comes down to this. Brand tone consists of visual tone, textual tone, auditory tone, behavioral tone and verbal tone. A company’s brand system is of extreme significance for its products. It is easy to see whether a brand system has been carefully crafted and honed.

Product development has to feature distinctive design ideas while at the same time stay in line with the trends of times. The highest level of product success is to be able to get its product development ideas. Take the All New Range Rover as an example, with the guiding concept of modern luxury. Evolved from classic luxury, how can luxuryism be interpreted for the digital economy? Range Rover gives the exactly right answer: simplicity and refinement. This mirrors the brand’s insight into creative thinking and its dedication to excellence, creating an aura of prestige and the unique charm of modern luxury. 

The interior and exterior decoration style of products must bear distinctive DNA differences and brand value propositions. Such as those familiar examples of the BMW’s grilles nicknamed as double kidneys, the Golf’s wide C-strut, and the Range Rover LSUV’s body proportions. The DNA needs to be inherited and innovated with sound transitions. Catching one and losing another is not acceptable.

The design style must be consistent with the process achievability as well. Automotive products are the compromising result of design and engineering. There’s immense pressure to bring knowledge and action all in one. Again, Range Rover is the perfect example and interpretation of modern luxury. Range Rover has introduced a special process to create door glass almost flush with the door frame, giving the overall appearance a sense of power. This further demonstrates Land Rover’s ingenuity for detail. This process is called ‘zero flushness’, which allows the A, B, C and D struts to fit seamlessly into the window and door glass. This process adopts a new seal design, with the seal strip hidden inside the door plate work. Although the cost is increased, it has a greater boost on the overall car prestige.

The design style of interior and exterior decoration should also be consistent. In 1912 Wertheimer proposed the Gestalt theory, according to which people are accustomed to organizing different elements in a regular, ordered, symmetrical and simple way. This is a process of constant organization, simplification and unification. It is through this process that an easily understood, harmonious whole is produced. To explain in modern terms, this means that people are willing to accept things that are entropically reduced and ordered, which is the fundamental motivation for human quest for beauty. The Gestalt principle has several laws: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, symmetry, common region, and common fate. The uniformity of style and tonality for interior and exterior decoration is the embodiment of Gestalt psychology. This is also something customers will definitely feel during the aesthetic process. Violation of this principle will result in discordance or failure.

The brand appeal to the target customer boils down to the degree of attraction. At present, customers can be classified according to wealth, stage of life, social class, usage scenarios, interests and so on in N-dimensional overlap, which fails the three-dimensional coordinates. But even so, due to the importance of automotive products, the industry landscape is now so vast that it is hard to find a brand without competitor. The only difference lies in the intensity of competition. It is crucial for brand to win the favor of customers and firmly attract them. This comprises a series of brand systems such as product design, technological innovation, ecological creation and customer operation. Without system support and brand management practice, you have to shoot dice in sales after production. It looks like traffic leads to sales, but in fact it is brand attraction that contributes to sales.

Change of thought creates top leadership projects

Times are quite different now with no trial and mistake on market anymore. When products hit the market, they have to be the best. Otherwise, how could they win out without ultimate quality?

The product technological innovation has to be integrated into the idea of product development. Entropy reduction theory tells us that order is the key to value realization, and order is only obtained through actual work. Product development ideas need the support of style design and technical innovation. Under the guidance of product development ideas, you will know what kind of technology to go for. Piles of technical equipment and parameters PK won’t make the brand perform better or last longer.

Feature development also has to match scenario and customers’ psychological aspirations. This is where you can make a difference. There is no shortage of such scenarios as OEMs organize media and customers to work together on scenarios, features, verbal tactics and communication strategies around car. Just like when we invite distinguished guests to dinner, where we eat is as vital as what kind of cuisine we offer. Strong resonance in tone is a must to hit the customers’ stimuli.

The aforementioned brand and marketing ideas are covered in early stage, transforming them into top leadership projects. This requires big investments and shares equal importance with hard investments in product development. It also entails cutting-edge talents, attention from all walks of life and support from various areas, such as public opinion, industry and education.

Believe in law, believe in science

Everyone in car industry shares the dream that the products we have worked so hard for will be well recognized in market and highly approved by customers. The wish is very good, but one must also believe in science, follow logic and stay close to truth.

Just like human body is composed of neural, respiratory, digestive, circulatory, motor, immune and endocrine systems. Those systems are controlled by DNA and neural system algorithms to interact and synergize with each other. An enterprise is constituted by R&D, manufacturing, control, project, procurement and marketing systems. It is the intelligent and digital management system that achieves the interaction and synergy between systems.

There is only expertise rather than authority before truth. Brand and marketing ideas, as humanities, exist for reasons. They are also globally recognized social sciences. The way that can be explained is not the unchanging way. Only by mastering, harnessing and applying it well, can we be closer to the way of success in our hearts. In this age of anxiety, we look forward to sharing, enlightening and acknowledging with you all.