As the global head of marketing for the Volkswagen Group and its core VW passenger car brand, Luca de Meo is responsible for defining what the group and its products stand for. That message needs to get acrossglobally to VW buyers of all ages and nationalities. In an interview with automotiveIT, the Italian-born executive, who joined VW from Fiat in 2009, talked about how to approach younger buyers, the role of new media in VW's automotive marketing strategy and the success of the brand's Web-based sales approach in the crucial Chinese market.
automotiveIT: Mr. de Meo, the industry seems worried that the younger generation places little or no value on the automobile. Do you share this view?
De Meo: No. We examined the attitudes of 18-to-25-year-olds in a global study with MTV and found that 50 percent of them indeed indicate that they don’t always need a car in the city but more than 70 percent definitely want to buy one in the future.
automotiveIT: How can you influence this?
It is crucial to make mobility affordable for young customers and offer attractive models that allow individuality and connections with consumer electronics such as smartphones. Then you have access to your social network even in your car.
automotiveIT: The cycles of innovation are getting shorter, and the diversity of models and variants is expanding. How do you make sure that interested parties and customers don’t lose their way?
You are absolutely right. The automotive world moves quickly.But by combining features into packages wherever possible and not offering them individually, we provide orientation. The customer gets the features he finds interesting, in a combination that makes sense ”“ for example, the “drive pack plus” on the Up, which includes the city emergency brake function and other options such as cruise control and ParkPilot. Compared to individual features, the total number of clicks to the car of your dreams is cut substantially...
automotiveIT: ”¦ and it's easy to do?
One reason that Volkswagen is “Das Auto” is because our customers can assemble their personal Volkswagen. To keep this manageable, everything has to be integrated rationally. From the design of our catalogs to our configurator, which displays all the rules for buildability online, all the way to the intensive training of our sales team, which assists and advises our customers.
automotiveIT: In Europe, you introduced the Polo GTI to Facebook users first. And in the current commercial for the new Beetle, you attract viewers to an interactive microsite. When will we be able to buy the first Volkswagen on the Internet?
We continue to rely on direct contact with the authorized dealer for the sale of individual new cars to consumers. But the Internet is naturally evolving into the No. 1 communications channel. In the future, our customers won’t just experience our models interactively. There will increasingly be an expansion of the services and accessories offered online. With the exchanges, customers can look for their vehicles and contact the appropriate dealer directly.
automotiveIT: Does that make the interface between the Internet and dealership more seamless than it has been?
Yes, you could say that. Preferences and configurations are transmitted online to the dealer with the appointment.
automotiveIT: In a recent interview with automotiveIT, Professor Willi Diez said: "Smartphones cannot replace the test drive." To put it differently: do such tools at best provide an incentive for a test drive?
Mr. Diez is absolutely right. No digital application can completely replace the haptic experience that a car offers. But new devices will make an increasingly realistic virtual product experience possible. In this way, the customer arriving at the dealership will be steadily better informed and will already have finished a large part of his purchase decision-making. The main task of our future digital features will be to support him in that decision as well as possible.
automotiveIT: Which channels currently give you the greatest input about customer desires?
Today we are in contact with our customers via nearly all the communications channels. This is true for retail as well as our Website and our social media offerings, all the way to personal customer service. But we still get most of our input from personal workshops with committed customers. In our so-called “car clinics,” we show prototypes ”“ meaning the cars of tomorrow ”“ to potential target groups and determine customers’ acceptance as well as ideas for improvements. In this way, we can optimize products from the customers’ standpoint long before they are introduced into the market.
automotiveIT: And in the future?
Customer forums on the Internet and the topic of “netnography” are becoming more important. The latter involves “listening” to relevant tips on products and services on the blogs and forums as well as inviting top bloggers to virtual working groups where new concepts are worked out with moderators and designers.
automotiveIT: Is the classic car brochure on the way out ”“ does the future belong to the iPads?
As they become more prevalent, product apps for tablet PCs will take on more and more importance. This is mainly due to the technical options that, for example, electronic catalogs offer, whether it is the integration of product videos, individualized configuration choices or links to customer relationship management or social media applications.
automotiveIT: Automakers are experimenting with new media in sales and marketing. In retail, people are still relying on bouncy castles and cake in their sales approaches. How do you plan to close these perceived gaps?
Retail is changing a great deal right now. Dealers have been turning to digital technologies and new media, whether by building their own social media presence or employing digital devices in the showroom. The iPad has proven to be a change accelerator here as well. Sales staffs use it for the presentation of product videos, perhaps showing an equipment variation requiring an explanation or vehicles that might not be on hand. In the same way, you can conduct sales discussions alongside the vehicle or even outside the showroom. Or you can call up and deepen the configurations that the customer created at home on the Internet.
automotiveIT: In China, you set up “The People’s Car Project,” an innovative Web-2.0 project, in 2011. What idea are you pursuing here? And why have you decided on China as your pilot market?
It is precisely the large and dynamic markets where social media mechanisms offer tremendous opportunities for a brand like Volkswagen to learn more about its customers and their interests and wishes. Almost nowhere else is the affinity for the active use of social media as great as in China, especially on mobile devices. So we have decided to exploit the opportunities offered by open innovation platforms with our People’s Car Project, so we can ask people what their idea of the perfect car is ”“ in the purest sense of the word, the “Volkswagen.”
automotiveIT: What is the response at this point?
In recent months, several million Chinese have visited the PCP platform and have made tens of thousands of suggestions. We are evaluating the ideas and thus are coming closer to our vision of the perfect car.
automotiveIT: Regardless of the findings that PCP delivers: Do you believe that the tastes of the Chinese buyer will ever rub off on western automakers’ models?
That is hard to anticipate. Many examples from our industry show that the “world car” concept is only rarely successful. It’s certain that the differences in regional tastes, requirements for use and budgets will continue to be too great for the foreseeable future. Thus it is all the more important for a global automaker like Volkswagen to retain the flexibility to react to local customers and their wishes.
automotiveIT: Do you have concrete plans on the shelf to introduce PCP in other markets? If so, where and when?
We will certainly build open innovation platforms in other markets so we can enter into a deeper dialog with our customers. But they don’t have to be copies of PCP. They can allow for the special conditions of the respective market.
automotiveIT: Are you personally active on Twitter or Facebook and are you familiar with the abbreviation "tmi" or too much information?
I am personally inspired again and again when I learn about the opportunities that social media offer for the design of my professional network. One example is that I am active on LinkedIn. Over the last year, Volkswagen has provided us with an internal social network in the sales area where employees can network, communicate, share information and develop new models for cooperation. It enjoys broad popularity among our employees. In the process, it is important not to lose the overall view and for individuals to find the platforms that are relevant to them. In keeping with the motto: “Less is more.”
-Interview by Ralf Bretting and Hilmar Dunker