Marketing to play critical role for automakers in post-COVID recovery

Marketing expert Paul Hitchens explores the marketing strategies needed to help companies emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic

The automotive industry is one of many that has felt the brunt of the COVID-19 lockdown. UK car sales, for example, are at the lowest level since 1971 and in June only 145,377 new cars were registered—35% fewer than June 2019. Now with engineering giants such as Jaguar Land Rover and Bentley cutting jobs and profits plunging, how the sector bounces back after this crisis will be of critical importance to both local players and the wider economy.

As markets begin to gradually open up and look forward to life after lockdown, marketing will have a critical role to play. The actions of many brands have been criticised in the court of public opinion during the COVID-19 pandemic and we can expect this focus to continue. It will be up to marketing professionals to balance sensitivities around the virus and consumer worries about visiting forecourts or test driving cars with the critical job of increasing sales.

Sensitive marketing

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak causing the mass closure of car showrooms, automotive brands are working hard to prove the value of sensitive marketing at this time. In a survey conducted in the peak of the coronavirus crisis, Global Web Index found that 50% of people approve of brands running ‘normal’ advertising campaigns that aren’t linked to coronavirus, with only 20% expressing outright disapproval. And brands such as Vauxhall, which have run campaigns that show how they are responding to the virus, have received the highest approval ratings.

In the wake of the debate over whether brands should have continued to market during the COVID-19 pandemic, some have completely changed their plans. Halfords is a great example of a company that has done this well: it ensured it remained relevant by preparing motorists for a return to the roads. This was done through a series of blogs looking at topics such as the perils of flat battery and then shared across social media channels to remind car owners of the different issues they may face. Halfords also joined in the UK-wide initiative to support key workers with free car and bike checks through their Here for the Heroes initiative. In a similar way, Vauxhall’s ‘Keeping Key Workers Moving’ campaign saw the company make its roadside assistance breakdown service free to all Vauxhall-driving NHS staff.

Ford was keen to convey how its Transit Custom was helping with the NHS Blood and Transplant service (NHSBT)

It may seem like a no brainer for brands to get involved with national initiatives such as supporting key workers, but for many, this can be seen as them just jumping on the bandwagon. Brands will need to be cautious about how they withdraw these initiatives, or whether they implement them permanently. One of the best ways to avoiding the appearance of marketing for marketing’s sake is to embed campaigns into the culture of a company, with all marketing decisions revolving around core values and messaging. Those brands that have not done this could risk long-term damage.

In the US, to help minimise the impact on its business, Volvo took record of its regional dealerships and reviewed which ones could remain open for sales and service. It quickly assessed which dealers could move their business online and brainstormed ways in which it could safely continue to deliver and service cars. Based on the pre-virus forecast, Volvo decided to cut all planned media spend for April and May, excluding paid search which is based on consumer intent. It chose to audit its ad copy and messaging to ensure it was sensitive to the current consumer and business climate. Volvo continued to closely monitor the state of the economic recovery across the US to inform when it may decide to relaunch its advertising and encourage consumer spending. This campaign is an example of a brand showing awareness of its audience whilst protecting its bottom lines; it remains to be seen whether this cut in media spend will have a long-term impact on Volvo as consumer spending may not return to ‘normal’ for some time.

Skoda recently opened two virtual showrooms, allowing its customers to get the brand experience online, without the need to personally visit a real showroom

Skoda was another brand that responded quickly to the coronavirus crisis by using advances in technology and making its digital Virtual Showroom fully remote. In doing this, product specialists—which Skoda emphasises are not salespeople—have been working remotely from their homes throughout the week to offer shoppers advice alongside live interactive demos of its latest models. This response shows the brand’s understanding that whilst physical test drives are out of the question and people may not be in a position to buy a car, they certainly may be looking to research a car, and the role of the brand is instead to educate.

Marketing in the ‘new normal’

With many forecourts already opening, and lockdown beginning to ease, how brands behave in the coming weeks and months is of particular importance. Whilst consumers may be reluctant to make big purchases, with the help of brands like Skoda, these purchases will be well informed. Automotive brands should be sensitive to this and a marketing campaign that comes on too strong may be met with a negative reaction. It is also important for brands, at all levels, to continue to follow government guidelines to keep customers and employees safe. Weaving this messaging into a marketing campaign will show a brand’s commitment to a safe return to the ‘new normal’ and again, position it as one a consumer can trust.

It goes without saying, the coming weeks and months are going to be incredibly difficult for many brands, but, the power of a strong marketing campaign could make all the difference when attracting and retaining customers.


About the author: Paul Hitchens is a brand Marketing expert at Chartered Marketer and Course Director of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM)

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