year I spoke with a Chinese car manufacturer as well as a private
equity firm looking to support the launch of a Chinese auto
manufacturer in the US.
In both cases, I spoke of a few key items that I believe are necessary for their success:
1. Make Friends Before You Try To Sell Us
Involve the customer BEFORE you bring the car to market. Introducing
the company and the prototypes (or even the Chinese version of the car)
that you plan to sell to the US at least a year in advance is key. In
the US, you’re likely to find a lot of people who are skeptical about
the intentions of some Chinese companies. They are skeptical about the
quality of the cars built in China (regardless of manufacturer) as well
as the safety, durability and reliability of them.
There has been so much in the press about the US debt that is owned
by the Chinese that some are worried about what that means for our
future (although, it seems every country has a little US debt on their
books these days). So while I have no idea what the larger plans are
for Chinese companies, I do know that to have any chance at success in
the US, they have to get people here comfortable with their car
companies and their cars.
2. Be Social
Any new manufacturer — or one that’s trying to reclaim a position
in the market — should use social sites and tools as a way to spread
the word and to gain some insight about how to launch.
Social networking and social sites are all the rage, I realize. But
what many don’t realize is that they are terrific marketing tools for
getting deep insights about the customer and the market. They are also
great ways to listen to what consumer concerns are and how to overcome
them. NetworkedInsights is one such social listening company.
ListenLogic is another. Firms like these help companies take that
information and act upon it. The tools are out there and are far more
efficient, and much more timely and accurate than focus groups.
3. Invite Customers to be your Advocates
If a few of the vehicles could be circulated through the right
markets and the right types of people, the kind of viral marketing
benefits would be second to none. Ford’s recent “Fiesta Movement”
campaign is one such example that (at least based on the early orders
placed for the car) appears successful.
But again, this has to be done early, not after the cars are being
sold. For unknown entities like the Chinese car makers will be to most
Americans, their ability to get the “average Joe” talking about the
cars will not only be far more effective than a traditional ad
campaign, it will be mandatory. If the Koreans had employed this
strategy 15 or 20 years ago, they may have realized success a lot
sooner than they did.
4. Fix or Create a Better Internal Corporate Structure
This is probably the most boring of the points but one of the most important in my experience.
One of the major issues within the Detroit auto companies (and
others as well) is the real lack of coordination between marketing,
sales and manufacturing. The incentives for each group are so varied
that it makes it almost impossible to get them on the same page.
Marketers are the voice of the customer, looking to build brand and
increase margin. Sales are thinking short term goals to move the metal
and keep the factories humming and love a good sales event to get
things moving. Manufacturers are looking to deliver what you need at
the lowest possible cost. They will endlessly try to get the marketers
to agree to eliminate a feature, reduce the quality in a material, or
whatever to bring the cost per unit down.
You would think that these tensions are necessary and each important
(and they are) to keep things in check but the reality is that these
three groups are not equal in most auto companies so the balance is
never achieved. The hierarchy is typically: manufacturing, sales and
then marketing at a distant third. This lopsidedness is what usually
spells disaster. So, getting this right at the get-go would be huge!
5. Understand and Become The World’s First Customer-Driven Car Company
This one extends beyond just the Chinese and their attempts to launch in our market.
I am of the belief that there has never been a customer focused car
company and I would love to hope that the Chinese might be interested
in becoming the first. And because they are launching for the first
time in the US, with a clean slate for the most part, this is a huge
opportunity for them.
Many would argue that Saturn was the first real customer driven car
company. I would agree from a marketing standpoint, but not from a
company standpoint. They built cars and supported them well at the
onset but they stopped listening to the customer shortly thereafter.
The needs of the customer were not part of the cycle plans. To be truly
customer driven, you have to listen to the customer and constantly
evolve the product to meet their needs.
This does not have to be costly and today, versus when Saturn
launched, that information is almost perfect. If you are starting from
scratch, there are far fewer excuses against having supply flow with
demand in a flexible manner, or for innovating based on customers wants
and needs. And why not be the first to have your customers dictate the
way you go to market and to support it? I am not saying this is easy,
but without the constraints faced by the current US manufacturers, the
ability to start fresh and focused on the customer is a far better