Samuel Yong was a bit stumped by one of the first questions put to him when he joined as marketing director at Inchcape, a Singapore car dealership handling distribution for the likes of Toyota and Lexus.
To be fair to him, it’s the question in question was not an easy one. “The first thing that happened when I came on board was my boss asked me: ‘How do you control Facebook?’," Yong recalls.
That level of understanding around social media and brand messaging needed to be enhanced quickly. So, Yong recalls: “I said, you don’t, you learn to live with Facebook, and if you’re lucky and smart with your planning, Facebook can be a friend. The whole idea is not to try and change the conversation, but keep abreast of it, and share whatever you think is relevant. That’s the best you can do, because there will always be naysayers.”
In a market that's fiercely competitive, coupled with its infamy for being somewhat stuck in its ways, the transformation that Inchcape and others have seen thanks to the digital age has been seismic. Yong says the main part of his job is planning and executing the company’s marketing strategy around this.
Fundamental to this, Yong explains, is customer lifecycle management, a critical element of enhancing customer experience in the car business. He witnessed its importance firsthand during his time in marketing at Nespresso.
“We had a direct-to-consumer model, and because of that, over time we built up a CRM database,” he explains. “So we know what kind of coffee customer A likes, how many times he buys a year, what’s his favourite channel, does he keep abreast of our news and so on.
"With all this analytics, we were able to understand the consumer journey and also how they’re reacting to brand communications. This is what I wanted to bring to the car business.”
Talk of the consumer journey in today’s marketing world is old hat, but Yong says understanding it is vital in an industry where purchasing decisions are that much more serious and expensive. Mapping a consumer’s various touchpoints and considerations means Toyota, via Inchcape, can tailor a brand experience and then, crucially, manage it over what can be a long, long time.
“We now have a single view of the customer, we know the journey that they’ve taken with us, we put in all the communications touchpoints, and serve them information as and when they require it,” he says.
Yong says internal research shows it can take between three weeks and six months for a car purchase decision to be made, and that people change their cars on average every three-to-five years. As such, with today’s data capabilities, Inchcape and its car brands must focus more on the long-term to see success in this highly disrupted market, and that is where experience comes in.
“At Toyota we’re looking at the whole ownership perspective," Yong says. "It’s not just about the instant gratification of selling the car. We tell our consumers that in owning a car, the purchase is just the beginning. Your pain and suffering comes after, but when things go wrong, how we take care of you is different to what others will do.”
That experience, before and after purchase, is where the brand can make its mark, Yong says. Similarly, he believes the entire concept of the showroom needs to be re-examined, so it’s “not a transactional place, but a brand experiential centre, where you’re served by someone not just driven to sell to you, but who will take care of you throughout your product lifecycle.”
Consumer data is telling Inchcape, Toyota and others that this is what people want, Yong explains, and social media means the rewards are tangible for those who get the experience piece right. Toyota had a prime example a few months ago when Singaporean actor Joanna Peh posted that she was in a car accident, hit from behind while driving her Toyota Harrier.
I am deeply thankful for the concern, comfort and support offered by friends and colleagues after the accident. I want to take this opportunity to share that I am well, no superficial injuries except for neck and back pain. Some of you may recall my husband involved in a similar accident years ago — his face suffering cuts as a result of the deployment of the airbag upon collision. When my brother-in-law from Guangzhou saw the pictures of the collision, he noticed the air bags were not deployed and asked if there was something wrong with the car. There is nothing wrong, in fact this is a common misconception. There have been many instances where the deployment of airbags have caused drivers and passengers more injuries than from the collision itself. The team from Borneo Motors have invested in the Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) technology that ensures that the car only deploys the airbags when the impact exceeds the crumple zone of the car. In other words, only when the car is crushed to a point where there is high risk of fatality to driver and passengers, that the airbags will be quickly deployed. In my case, the pre-collision system kicked in and my Harrier had protected me by cushioning most of the impact which was why I had avoided being “punched” by the air bags. The breaking force from the airbag could easily have caused broken ribs and facial cuts. In the past cars are mostly equipped with passive safety technology - features that are activated after collision happens to protect the driver and passengers. The Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) plays a more active role by providing pre-collision warning triggers, automated braking and lane departure alert (LDA). My mind went blank the moment I saw the taxi coming at me from the rear view mirror, but I am glad the Harrier stood up to the real-life safety test. I am definitely more confident in Toyota after this and in case you would like to find out more about TSS you can check out https://www.toyota.com/safety-sense/ @toyotasingapore
Yong and his team immediately sprung into action, ensuring she was safe and well. She asked many questions about the car, which were duly answered, and then everyone at Inchcape waited for the social media storm to break. Peh then wrote an Instagram post—unprompted, Yong assures—explaining the incident and how her Toyota made her feel safe. Needless to say, the majority of social-media reaction was positive, and Toyota never made a statement itself, under Yong’s instruction.
“I can’t think of a better example of how brand-consumer communications and experience works today,” he says. “When you have a real-life, relatable story like this, then the brand needs to shut up. That’s the value of today’s communications, you let the consumers share and decide.”
Inherent to this attitude is being open minded about how marketing, messaging and strategy can change, sometimes instantly, because of shifting consumer behaviour and mindsets. Yong says this open-mindedness needs to be applied to the car industry as a whole, as it goes through one of its biggest disruptions to date.
Mobility is the new buzzword of the moment, and Yong says brands need to change now to remain relevant, although making big bets is difficult with so many factors to consider.
“Today the conversation is driving trends—will electric vehicles take over?” he posits. “But even electric vehicles need a lot of energy, so is fuel cell the next stage? Will we skip electric vehicles and go straight to fuel cell? Will it be driven or driverless? If yes, who is responsible when an accident happens? All these things need the time and space to be answered.
For Inchcape, shifting from transport to mobility is a necessity, Yong says—“change is upon is, it’s not for us to choose”. But among the many telling questions the car industry must answer over the next few years, he remains clear that building brand experiences across the whole of a consumer’s interaction with a car brand will still be a critical advantage in any automotive future.