New mobility: are mobility brands losing their identity?

Imagine you're playing a game of Forehead Detective, trying to guess which automobile brand is written on the piece of paper taped to your brow. What you know is that you offer both performance diesel SUVs and 0-emission solar vehicles. They have voice interfaces and feature autonomous driving. And you are also planning to offer driverless shuttle buses plus an app. Do you already know what brand you are? No? In fact, automotive brands are becoming more and more difficult to distinguish from each other – so you and your teammates are sure to have trouble guessing.

A comment by Florian Köppen, Brand Strategist, Peter Schmidt Group

For a long time, branding was a pretty clear-cut proposition, especially for the automotive industry. Brands designated clearly defined areas – with easy-to-recognize positioning coordinates. They also faced off against clearly defined competitors. Target groups had clearly identifiable needs. Everybody knew the rules of the game. But now things are changing. Given the enormous speed of disruptive developments, automotive companies are becoming tech companies. As indeed they must. Because the rapid pace at which the industry is transforming means those who move too slowly and cling to what made them successful in the past will soon find themselves left behind.

All well and good! But the unanswered question is, what do these developments mean for the brand? What is largely missing from the technical developments within the automotive industry is a cogent idea and a coherent plan for entering the new era. In concrete terms, questions are already being asked, including the following: How do I translate the driving experience into digital services? How can I make artificial intelligence brand-specific? And how can I achieve a consistent brand experience across all the new interfaces and channels?

Status quo: Brands are uniform and inflexible

The credo of automobile companies so far seems to be focused entirely on technology and features. If you look at the advertising promises of the individual brands, for example, they all paint an identical picture of the future: connectivity, automation, electrification as well as service and sharing. The result is technical background noise that makes differentiation difficult.

But there's more: An approach grounded in technology not only blurs the brand personality, it also fails to account for the changes affecting the relationship between brand and customer. For a long time this relationship was generally only relevant when drivers were looking for a new product. In between one purchase and the next, there was generally little or no communication, and neither customers nor companies seemed to be bothered by this state of affairs. In the future, however, there will a be permanent and very individual connection between the carmaker and the car owner. This will require a great deal of flexibility of the part of car brands. As a central interface, they must create a seamless, very personal experience for every customer. And this applies to the entire ecosystem – from cars and accessories, digital products and on-demand services, to services and offers that are far removed from mobility.

To see how high the bar is for a constant, consistent brand experience, we need look no further than the large tech companies such as Amazon or Spotify. They are in constant, omnipresent dialogue with their customers, and offer independent yet customer-specific brand experiences – regardless of which services or products are involved and which devices are being used. But a brand that defines itself exclusively on the basis of technological features lacks the tools to be able to respond individually to each customer, to create and maintain an emotional bond.

Mobility brands need a sharp profile and maximum flexibility

For automotive brands, the transformation to digital service companies therefore calls for a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, they must sharpen their profile and communicate clearly what they stand for. On the other hand, they must become more flexible, so they can adapt to their different customers and create brand experiences that appeal to each consumer according to their personal habits, expectations and needs. How do you get both at once? It's not really that complicated, because the one determines the other.

Mobility brands that take a position remain flexible

What is more important than ever for brands today is a position that, in addition to "Who am I?", answers "Why am I?" – that explains why they exist and takes a firm standpoint on important topics, opportunities and challenges. This is what enables brands to remain viable in an age of ever faster emerging innovations and hyperindividualized customer orientations. They do this by making the right brand management decisions more quickly – for example, on design, communication, service offerings, the portfolio, and questions like, "What is the personality of artificial intelligence?". With a strong perspective, this can be translated into credible offerings and consistent brand interfaces that offer customers the clarity and orientation they seek today.

Let's take a look at Tesla, for example. Their course is set by their mission to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy. It doesn't really matter which technology is used to achieve this. What really sets them apart is that they consistently implement all measures – including the product itself, the company communication and the design of voice interfaces – with a view toward maximizing performance, acceleration and driving pleasure on the basis of the zero-emission credo. The brand therefore fully stands its ground – and that is what makes it so successful, not only with regard to customers, but also for investors and employees.

Sounds kind of logical. But it also means automotive companies have to be courageous enough to leave behind the idea that their brand functions as a constant, unchangeable construct that is always the same, for everyone and everyone, and which generally only needs a facelift every few years. Those who manage to live up to the challenge can really give their brand the opportunity to become more flexible. They can establish a two-way relationship with the customer, and create completely individualized brand worlds without losing credibility and brand specificity. Because what is right and authentic is remaining true to the brand's standpoint – and thus adding value and credibility to the brand – as opposed to following a set of rules that takes too long to adapt to new technological conditions or rapidly changing customer needs.

With a strong perspective and the flexibility it allows, automotive brands remain relevant in the everyday lives of a wide variety of people. And in the Forehead Detective game, it's easy to pinpoint who they are.