With sales tripling in the last three years and brand rank soaring, Ford has become one of China’s hottest manufacturer names.
Jason Liu, Changan Ford deputy general manager, who heads the company’s sales and marketing, attributes the rise to new and improved products and better marketing.
Success has also come at a time when the company — a 50:50 joint-venture between Ford Motor Company and Changan Automotive — started to bet heavily on digital. This year it embarked on a “digital and mobile first” strategy, accounting for almost half its media budget.
An industry veteran, Liu began as a product planner at Ford Lio Ho Motor in Taiwan in 1989, has been at Changan Ford since April 2012. He was previously deputy general manager of Jiangling Motors Co.
In his current post, he is in charge of consumer and product marketing, the dealer network, training and market research.
He explains that digital and mobile enable the company to reach consumers across China’s vastness. Geographically, China is “a combination of western Europe, eastern Europe and North Africa”, he says, with an enormous social and economic gap between Tier 1 and Tier 6 cities.
Today, lower-ranking cities are the source of demand. Liu expects them to grow threefold in the next 10 years, while growth in big cities has plateaued, for economic and environmental reasons. In Beijing, the government has applied licence plate restrictions, which has damped car sales in the city.
Even in lower tiers, digital is more promising than television, Liu says. Recent research shows that although consumers in those cities may not have desktop computers or landline phones, most have an iPad or laptop and they all have mobile phones or smartphones.
But one driver for the company’s growing digital budget is rising costs. Liu says while most media inflation is near 15 per cent, digital prices are climbing 50% or so a year.
“The cost is a huge challenge,” Liu says. Ford is trying to respond through greater marketing efficiency and “trying to get leaner growth”.
That applies especially in the critical online-video market, which involves not just sites like Tudou and Youku but the big internet platforms Tencent and Sohu as well.
“Video is very important and growing very fast,” Liu says. “People want something interactive, which doesn’t take too much time or too much effort. It is a tool with huge potential.”
But the challenge is getting value for money. “We’re still watching how to make it cost-effective for us. We’re one of the few automotive players spending tons of money on online video so we do recognise it is the future.”
One video campaign issued at Chinese Lunar New Year pushed a message of having a “fun and interesting” New Year by driving an Eco Sport instead of enduring the epic transport crush. The videos racked up 1.4 million views, which Liu’s team used to chase up leads.
The company has deployed online-to-offline campaigns as well. One, still underway, involves finding the best drivers and letting them try out the Ford New Focus.
Handling is one of the key purchase reasons for the model, explains Liu, so the company organised a dozen events around China where drivers could test their skills. The best won the chance to drive the New Focus on the Shanghai F1 track; leaders from that set go to Nürburgring.
“The result was 12,000 people took part and we collected 150,000 leads. It was a great O2O event.”
Beyond campaigns, Changan Ford is experimenting with real-time bidding, offered in China by the big three, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.
“We are using some of our media budget to test that,” Liu says. “We are not fully engaged right now. Sometimes we need to work through the process.”
- 2012 Deputy general manager, Changan Ford Automobile Company
- 2009 Deputy general manager, Jiangling Motors Company
- 2005 Chief executive, Mazda Taiwan
- 2004 Regional marketing director, Ford Asia-Pacific & Africa
- 2001 Managing director, Ford Vietnam
WeChat connects users, devices and brands through O2O integration. In the automotive sector, online campaigns using a mobile phone’s gravity sensor system for ‘360-degree panoramic test-drives’ can lead to social sharing. Offline, users are motivated to apply for actual test-drives or pay deposits. Selling cars on WeChat shortens the user purchase path as well as creating a new communication experience. Combing mobile marketing with e-commerce is a valuable innovation for the entire automotive industry.
Sophia Ong is national planning GM at Tencent Online Media Group