Following a disappointing year of ONLY 3.5% growth in the world's car market, TNS has published a study that aims to help international automotive brands gain a stronger foothold in the fast-growth markets of the East - particularly in China.
The 'Automotive Path to Purchase Study' (TAPPS) presents a real-time analysis of the car-buying process, tracking every influence affecting consumer decision-making, and observed that, in China, weak branding and an incomplete understanding of the buying process is undermining many companies' efforts to build a presence in the world's largest car market.
"China represents a massive growth opportunity for automotive manufacturers but we know that, in this vast and disparate market, there are very different influences in the car-buyer's path to purchase," explained Andy Turton, global development director for TNS.
With 470 models struggling to compete in China, promotional activity is everywhere. However, TAPPS found that these efforts may be compromised if manufacturers don't take time to understand the ways in which Chinese consumers shop for new vehicles and how this differs from more mature markets.
Drawing on conversations with over 1,200 car buyers in 184 cities over a 6-month period, the study highlight five key rules for car companies hoping to grow their presence in China:
- The dealer is your new best friend
Forget the Western perception of car salesmen out to make a quick profit at the consumer's expense; in China, car dealers are viewed as the most reliable source of advice throughout the buying process. This is partly because the used car market is only now starting to emerge in China; in the West, trust is often eroded by the conflicting interests of dealer and consumer. Manufacturers who protect this trust by engaging with their dealer network in China to ensure a fair deal for customers will reap dividends.
- 'We' matters more than 'me'
In a nation where 80% of people are first-time buyers, people rely heavily on the advice of friends and family, as well as on social media, when it comes to choosing a car. Manufacturers need to understand how to mobilise customers and fans to become brand ambassadors, for instance by providing practical advice for new drivers via social media and customer support. Becoming indispensable to current owners and fans is key to strengthening perceptions of the brand and generating powerful third party endorsement.
- Once consumers start looking, it's too late
Brand loyalty toward cars in China is low and fewer people have fixed ideas about what they want at the outset. In fact, a third of those shopping after four months still have no idea what model or even type of car they are looking to buy. However, the average purchase period in China is far shorter than previously thought, with 40% of consumers deciding on a make and model within one month. Manufacturers can't afford to wait until consumers start looking before engaging them with a compelling brand story.
- Offer the right deal
Getting a good deal is extremely important to Chinese buyers: 80% buy a car having secured a discount, compared to around 40% in Europe. However, manufacturers must ensure promotions and discounts don't undermine the brand's integrity. Reducing prices too much can be negatively interpreted by consumers and could create a commoditised market where people care more about price than the brand they are buying into.
- Ignore the digital channel at your peril!
Most Chinese consumers (95%) use online sources during the buying process, and around a quarter are classed as heavy users. People who buy within 1-2 weeks are more likely to be digitally engaged and are also more likely to buy premium brands. If manufacturers don't invest in their online presence, they risk losing out on a lucrative segment of the market.
"The speed of decision-making, the rules governing discounts, and the great influence of social media create market dynamics in China unlike any in Europe," Turton concluded. "The key to growth in China is an understanding of how to harness these in the right ways and at the right stages of the buying process."