Thursday, June 21, 2012

Vroom Vroom, Ding, Ding Part III

Pity the new car buyer of the 1960s or 1970s.  He or she had to worry about things many drivers today don’t know anything about, such as vapor lock or adding water to the battery.  Care to guess what ranks as the number one complaint of new car buyers today?  According to J.D. Power, they complain about their vehicle’s electronics more than anything else.

Moreover, the complaints may only increase.  Just two weeks ago, Apple announced that it had struck deals with several carmakers to integrate Siri, their voice-response app, into new vehicles starting within a year.

Siri, please tell them to shut the hell up

These developments, while no secret to auto industry watchers, should fall with a thud on the desks of the automakers’ marketing departments and agencies.  Marketing cars with these new features depends on a close study of autobuyer data and, in turn, setting proper expectations.

Cars have had radios since the 1930s, of course, but the bulk of complaints arose from relatively new features, such as navigation systems and hands-free technology.  J.D. Power reported that 80% of new cars bought in 2012 have some form of hands-free technology, doubtlessly encouraged by the many states that have enacted hands-free cell phone laws.  Overall, complaints about vehicle electronics have increased at a rate roughly double that of other vehicle systems.

In some previous columns, I wrote about the lessons that auto and consumer electronics manufacturers could learn from one another.  In this case, I think the lessons should all flow from the Consumer Electronics Show to the Auto Show.  More specifically, the one marketing book really worth a damn, Crossing the Chasm, holds the key.  Or, rather, the electronic key fob, given how most cars start these days.

Do yourself a favor; read this book and burn everything else about marketing except this blog

In the book, author Geoffrey Moore identifies the crippling difficulty of marketing technology products: every new generation of computers, gadgets or software inherently is fasterbettercheaper than its predecessors.  Most technology marketers, in turn, try to pack every new feature into their marketing materials.  All this information generally causes the buyers’ heads to spin.

Instead, Moore suggests, find one thing that the new technology does demonstrably better than its predecessors.  As an example, he used Apple (who else?), which focused on desktop publishing and educational markets in the early 90s to great success.  Really, Moore recommended Marketing 101 (thou shalt have a universal sales proposition) to the speeds-and-feeds sorts who populate the marketing departments of technology companies.

So what does Moore’s advice portend for the automakers?

First, the data.  The manufacturers should get a good sense of who drives their cars in terms of their needs.  Some cars, notably less expensive ones, tend to appeal to younger and generally more tech-savvy buyers.  Most carmakers maintain robust databases on owners and lessees, however, and can thus go a bit deeper.    For instance, the databases should have information on occupation and income (either asked directly or appended).  From this analysis, the marketers should be able to determine an overall tech-savviness for the model’s buyers.

Next comes the hard part, the part Moore discussed in his book.  As these automotive electronics suites increase in sophistication, they continue to add features.  How can the marketer figure out what to zero in on?

Here, the tech-savviness analysis should shed some light.  Does the analysis indicate that the driver wants to do anything more than sync up her phone?  Does he really want to make dinner reservations without removing his hands from the wheel?  Do the needs of the kids in the back (and their video screens) matter more than the adults up front?  These questions require answers.

Once answered, the marketer can use the information in a few ways.

  • Most obviously, only the most important aspects of the in-vehicle technology need to appear in mass media advertising or at higher levels on the website.  Other details can live elsewhere in owners’ manuals (do they still print those?) or deeper on the site.
  • The most important aspects of the technology should also loom large in the training of the salesmen.  The sales manager should not let a customer leave the showroom in his or her new car without knowing how the key features work.
  • Finally, these important aspects belong in any follow-up communications to the new buyer or lessee (you are sending emails, texts or direct mail to new customers, aren’t you?).  Simple online tutorials can go a long way in getting the new customer up to speed.

And while you’re at it, carmakers, can we have our vent windows back?

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