The first thing to understand about Carl Isenbeck and his team is that Porsche, to them, is more than just a car. A lot more.
“I guess I’m a bit mad, as are most of the people at Porsche,” quips Isenbeck, who is marketing director of the firm in Asia-Pacific. “If they took a step back and said, ‘Hey, this is only a car’, they might approach their job quite differently. But if you believe in something and identify with it, then the work comes a lot easier.”
This attitude is a necessary facet when operating as a world-renowned carmaker in such a fast-paced geographic region, he suggests.
“It’s very challenging but we’re having a lot of fun because we’re selling and promoting a great product,” Isenbeck states.
Selling luxury vehicles is a world away from Isenbeck’s previous marketing history. He worked predominantly at Nielsen for multinational consumer goods companies before joining Porsche’s Singapore office in 2012. The change was part of the appeal — he says he “didn’t have to think twice” about the Porsche role. “I think the easiest way to sum it up is that I know why I’m getting up each morning,” he explains. “It’s really enjoyable and every day is different.”
One of the challenges for his marketing team relates to the structure of Porsche Asia-Pacific (PAP), a wholly owned subsidiary of the parent company Porsche AG. PAP is currently responsible for 13 APAC markets, but this number can fluctuate. If a single market grows significantly, it becomes a separate subsidiary of Porsche AG.
Not so long ago, for example, Porsche sold fewer than 100 cars a year in China, classifying the country as a PAP market. Now, China is Porsche’s biggest market worldwide, with roughly 60,000 units sold last year, hence it is no longer a part of PAP. Similarly Taiwan, which generates 65 percent of overall PAP sales, will become a separate subsidiary as of January next year.
This process of “becoming small before we become big again” means Isenbeck and his team have to be extremely nimble in creating and adjusting their marketing strategy as Porsche’s presence in APAC continues to grow. “When we talk to our headquarters and their agencies, if they take a couple of weeks to make changes to something like our website, in Asia we do those in a day,” he says. “We cannot do business in Asia with a European frame of mind. It’s not possible. You have to adapt to the faster pace, you have to be more flexible and more pragmatic.”
Isenbeck says his team in Singapore — PAP’s regional hub — works very closely with those on the ground in local markets to find out what needs to change and how to implement it quickly.
With Southeast Asia the core of PAP’s business, one of the most significant challenges is calibrating the Porsche brand and its marketing strategy to the preferences of the region’s digitally native audience.
“Asia is not only at the forefront of digital usage, but also the creative ideas that stem from it,” says Isenbeck. “We have for sure become more digital and will continue to do so. At the same time, we sell a physical product and a physical experience. The car is still our strongest sales tool.”
With visits to showrooms dwindling and more pre-purchase research taking place online, Isenbeck says it is crucial to engage with Asian consumers before they come for a test drive. “All consumers want to do when they come to the Porsche centre is to be proven right about their decision,” he says. “Then if the test drive is conducted in the right way, it doesn’t take very much [to convert].”
Such evolutions in mindset have also informed the digital marketing strategy for Porsche’s current campaign, ‘What is courage?’ While retaining one classic advertising facet — celebrity ambassadors — Isenbeck says this campaign is something of a departure for Porsche, and for car brands in general, given that it focuses on a story rather than a product, the new Panamera car.
The campaign was launched in APAC and two of the three celebrities featured — Malaysian actor Michelle Yeoh and Taiwanese chef Andre Chiang — are from Asia, signifying Porsche’s commitment to engaging the region’s consumers. The most important aspect of the campaign for Isenbeck, however, is these stars’ individual stories. Yeoh, for example, went to London to become a ballet dancer, only to suffer a career-ending injury. She then moved to Hong Kong and became an acclaimed martial artist and Hollywood superstar.
“We have selected three celebrities whose life stories all define courage. They were all at a turning point, and this courage they embody has defined them as people,” Isenbeck explains. “The target audience can relate to these three ambassadors and the campaign resonates with them. It’s very authentic: these are true stories, and they reflect the true story of courage that Porsche is all about.”
Cynics might wonder how exactly Porsche and courage fit together. Isenbeck is only too happy to recap the brand’s heritage story, which started in 1931 when the Austrian car designer Ferdinand ‘Ferry’ Porsche couldn’t find the car he wanted, and so ended up building his own.
“We launched the 911 Turbo during an oil crisis; we drove the Paris-Dakar Rally and used what we learned to build an SUV, at a time when the segment didn’t really exist,” Isenbeck says. “The ethos of courage is very deeply ingrained in Porsche’s history.”
The latest campaign is Porsche’s most successful globally in the last year, achieving four times the brand’s average viewership online. It even became the subject of a skit performed on The Ellen Show, a big shot in the arm for brand awareness.
The Panamera itself does not feature heavily, which Isenbeck says is entirely the point. “We didn’t want to be too ‘in your face’,” he states. “It’s crucial that people can relate to a campaign, and that it has authenticity that fits with the brand and its values.” Online traction has been significant for Porsche, particularly through Facebook, which Isenbeck says is a sign the marketing plan is going in the right direction.
Professional CV: Carl Isenbeck
“Viewing a video is one thing. If you like it so much that it creates emotions that mean you interact, that’s almost more important than absolute viewership,” he says.
The battle is not yet won, Isenbeck knows. This campaign’s success means expectations are high for a follow-up. More broadly, Porsche is still a luxury car brand in a part of the world where owning a car can be extremely expensive. A robust digital plan is central to helping address these challenges. Aspirational Porsche owners can turn into buyers at various life stages, he says, and using data to track, target and engage the online community is vital.
The company is keeping a close eye on new technology — VR, AR — to see how it can help advance its marketing strategy, but Isenbeck says it is early days yet. “We can only be successful in APAC if we look at all the options around generating awareness and getting people into the sales funnel,” he says. “But we need to be closer to the pulse of the Asian consumer by digitalising all our means of communication.”