While premium carmakers have tinkered with new ways of finding customers for at least a decade, it was the Covid-induced lockdown that led social-media channels and digital marketing to develop at warp-speed. The end result has been innovation that capitalised on growing demand, and a sum total where the growth of the luxury car segment in India, while still relatively small, has been the highest ever for 2022.
So who is the new buyer? Vikram Pawah, president of BMW India, says that for one of BMW's best-sellers the X1, around 30% of the consumers are aged between 20 and 40 years. "Also 57% of these are first-timers to the premium segment."
Peer brands agree. "Our current customer age for the top-end S-Class is 38 years which is significantly lower than even 5 years back," says Mercedes-Benz India's head of marketing Pradeep Srinivas.
Does that impact product roll-out? Pawah says it does lead to one making sure the product is much more digital like the X1 that was just launched. "The younger audience wants seamless integration of their smartphones on the watch, with the car and also with the backend service and network," he says. His point is customers don't take phones inside a workshop to get it updated, so the software in this car gets updated over there as well. Other elements include "convenience factors will include operability with your smartphone or smartwatch and you can share it with people in your family."
The other part is new format events. Joytown, a BMW-specific youth-targeted festival with music, food and drinks was curated across three cities to tap such customers and even had a commercial upside with tickets being sold. "This was a test event here and the response has been phenomenal. In both Delhi and Mumbai, we had over 10,000 people coming through each of those events that we've never seen," Pawah said.
Lamborghini India has brought a few international formats such as Esperienza GIRO, Esperienza Dynamic, Lamborghini Day, and Bull Run events, and unexpected Italian experiences in the Indian environment. Sharad Agarwal, country head, Lamborghini India, says "that owners can immerse themselves in authentic Lamborghini driving pleasure."
For other German brands it's been about capitalising the services space over the last few years with initiatives like the Audi Concierge: for anything luxury beyond the car - call Audi Concierge. Balbir Dhillon Head Audi India says they also have a Rewards programme. "We believe that loyalty programmes lead to brand loyalty, and this can indirectly boost sales for the brand. We also have several experiential events."
Regardless, spending has shifted towards social and digital channels.
"Very targeted marketing through digital means has become the prime method of reaching out to the customer. So we have introduced a lot of new technologies, where we are able to have a one-on-one dialogue and find out where they are in their purchase cycle," Pawah says. "It's not only the ads. It's a dialogue and a narrative."
Social media (SM) is a very critical part of the overall media mix for Mercedes-Benz as well, as it is two-way communication, highly targeted and more measurable than any other forms of advertisement. Srinivas says that "The action in SM marketing is faster and easier compared to any other medium of advertisement." IG is one of the fastest-growing platforms to engage with auto enthusiasts, influencers, and media alike."
Merc has also been using creative formats like reels and stories.
"I would say that the fastest growing media for us would be social media," Pawah says but it will be different targets for different categories. So for our 7 series, for example, BMW may do a culinary event and get a chef from a Michelin Star eatery to offer a high-level experience."
In other words, it's all about tapping the emotion and setting the vibe.
Srinivas says for AMG or high performance cars all marketing efforts provide an immersive experience to the customers. "These would include exclusive drive events, exclusive experiences for witnessing F1 from the paddock and even a chance to interact with Mercedes-Benz F1 drivers," he says. "For products like E-Class, C-Class, efforts are more directed towards product highlights."
So will the future change how luxury cars are sold?
Pawah says it'll become a longer term individual dialogue with the customer. "Absolute personalisation which means we know a consumer stays in this area and what he or she likes and will prefer as a driver likes this kind of thing. That's what will happen."
But there's a clear difference between regular luxury cars and supercars. Christian Cahn Von Seelen, board member and executive director overseeing all car brands sales and marketing at Skoda Auto Volkswagen India says, "If you talk about Audi we are very digital. We try to have brand ambassadors; we try to position the car in environments where a segment of the population is watching. But for Porsche and for Lamborghini, it's really focused on experience and events, he says. "Last year, we did driving events with the entire Porsche range on the racetrack, and even charged to do that, and that was sold out in minutes, basically."
Cahn Von Seelen adds the difference is that for Porsche and Lamborghini, they do marketing events; talk to customers, and engage more with actual customers than potential customers. "On the Audi and Skoda side, it's a little bit more, say normal. So of course you do the advertisement, you do events, you do drives."
However he goes on to add "I wouldn't pay a penny for a Lamborghini advertisement anywhere, it doesn't work in that specific segment. Instead what works is to tell stories about the brands, the people who have their cars on the road. That is very impactful. Because people ask, can you even drive a Lamborghini in India? And the answer is Yes."
Additionally social media is also being seen as a way for the brand to stay connected to the customer directly. Jean-Phillipe Parain, BMW's senior vice-president Sales for Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Middle East launched a BMW app in December. "It's really cool tool to have a bidirectional communication, you can send information, you can see status of your cars, you can see what's the charging status of your car, you can send a navigation to your destination to your car and you get also messages from the OEM so that will be another communication channel."
Even so, one thing that everyone is clear on is that car sales will never lose the delivery and the showroom experience.
Pawah says that "the pre-purchase dialogue and engagement is moving towards digital, but the actual purchase still happens on the ground, because I think it's still a touch and feel product. Customers also love the delivery experience when a purchase actually happens."
"So, people want to come into a showroom, with their families and friends because they want that feeling of buying a new car in a fantastic way in that celebratory mode," he adds.
So carmakers will have to fish where the fish are online but there's another step. "After that we have to channel that through back to our dealerships to our salesmen so that these leads that we generate online are not lost," Parrain summarises.