Automotive News Europe Congress: why brand, Barcelona and Amazon matter

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The big issues facing the automotive industry were all there at last week’s 20th Automotive News Europe Congress Barcelona. But the order of importance is shifting.

Connectivity was the headline act. LYNK & CO’s Alain Visser made sure of that with a punchy presentation to open the event (see previous blog piece, LYNK & CO goes back to the future). Integrated mobility, and how connectivity can facilitate its provision, was a strong support act. Electrification in the form of plug-in vehicles was pushed from centre stage though: as Luca de Meo, President of event host SEAT said, EVs won’t take over until the range is better, charging takes the same time as filling a fuel tank, and the cost of ownership is reduced. And autonomy? That was just a cameo. Toyota’s Executive VP Didier Leroy, the most senior non-Japanese in Toyota Motor Corporation, said autonomous vehicles will become a norm only when an accident-free society has been achieved.

But above all these came the overriding matter of brand. Why? As everyone agreed, the carmakers are under threat. They don’t want to become merely the hardware supplier in a society where the experience and the service are what consumers engage with and what creates affinity and loyalty. If they do, cars will be reduced to mere commodities.

So brands are more important than ever. Luca de Meo said as much in his event-closing presentation, declaring, “Brands have not disappeared – they are levers to respond to different customer demands and needs.”

This was fitting – he made a powerful and effective figurehead for the SEAT brand. He’s an appealing character, with a relaxed, modern delivery and a smartly pragmatic approach. He recognises SEAT’s weaknesses and limitations, acknowledging that if it were not for VW Group parentage the Spanish company wouldn’t have a future. Even with that ownership SEAT is anchored insecurely, positioned somewhere adrift Skoda and acting as a feeder for the other group brands.

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So, to give SEAT relevance, as well as pushing the inevitable SUVs he’s investing in the brand by understanding where its roots are and strengthening them. And not just its national roots. Where others are developing homogenised brands – Skoda isn’t Czech any more, and LYNK & CO emanates not from China or Sweden so much as cyberspace – de Meo is going in the other direction, reconnecting SEAT to its home city of Barcelona.

This is smart thinking, and not just because Barcelona is emerging as one of the world’s leading smart cities. A strong brand has to reflect a company’s culture, and Barcelona – a city renowned for independent thinking, creativity and a life-affirming sense of well-being – lends an authenticity the company has lacked in recent years, when it’s aspired to being a “fun” brand, an antidote to the rest of the VW Group, without substance.

Didier Leroy shared top billing with de Meo at the Congress. He was the only other speaker given slots on both days, and although he’s from a very different background and operates within a polar opposite culture he was a deeply impressive conduit for the Toyota brand. He gave persuasively different perspectives on Toyota’s perceived weaknesses – a corporate reticence, a go-it-alone mentality, a stubborn adherence to hybrid technology – and did it with humility, humour and effortless authority.

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Leroy didn’t understate the challenges facing the industry: he compared the extent to which Toyota is having to reinvent itself to what it faced when it went from making looms to producing cars in the 1930s. But he left the listener feeling that the business is as focused on the challenges, the real issues and the real way forward as any can be. He’s the public face the brand has never had.

In spite of the way Hyundai and Kia have been transformed by a car designer, Peter Schreyer, the appointment of Volvo designer Thomas Ingenlath as CEO of its newly reoriented Polestar EV offshoot and the ongoing use of Land Rover/Range Rover design boss Gerry McGovern as its brand face (“I am the custodian of the brand”, he said in his Congress presentation), this may be a moment when the executive-as-articulator-of-the-brand role swings back from car designer to boardroom leader.

Leroy made an interesting point that, contrary to the assertion that OEMs must not become just the hardware providers, in reality some may well have to. It’s just that Toyota won’t be one of them. So what are the non-carmaker business models he and his OEM counterparts are studying as they look out to the nearing horizon? Uber? Google? No – it’s Amazon.

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For OEMs that ecosystem has to have the provision of services at its heart, which requires a brand extension job. When consumers rent a car they choose a category and, possibly, a rental company. So if the OEMs want customers to choose their products in an emerging landscape where short-term use and sharing are the norm they will have to build and offer the service direct as well as through partners.

And that means investing in technical services and connectivity, which is why the latter is currently a bigger issue than electrification and automation. Customer engagement and ultimately profitability could well be defined by it, and strong brands will be the foundation of it.

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