The upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic saw KIA, the automotive giant, rethink its customer journey and serve customers in new ways. KIA’s Chief Brand and Experience Officer, Artur Martins, spoke to WARC’s Anna Hamill at Cannes Lions about how experience expectations are changing, and how the category needs to keep up.

You have worked in automotive marketing for most of your career. What have the biggest shifts been in terms of what customers expect from auto brands?

There are a couple of elements that have changed dramatically, and some not so much. Of course, the internet and digitalization have dramatically shifted the way people buy.

[The automotive category] is not the reference for what customer experience stands for, but customers are expecting that car brands deliver to the same level as companies that deliver their best customer experience. If you think about, in the past, how Amazon or even digital companies were trying to replicate the physical business for the customers, now in reality we are the physical business that’s trying to replicate the digital experience.

What type of expectations from e-commerce or digital brand experiences are customers now applying to your brands?

They want convenience and that is the element that has not changed. The ones that still want to go to a dealer to experience and touch the product… they’re expecting much more than we were previously able to give them… They decide to go to a place to look at the car, but then they would probably do a lot of it online. Not necessarily buying online though, I think that we’re still far away from mainly selling online because people have to touch the seats and they have to touch the steering wheel, and there are a lot of elements that are about touch. But the customer experience of buying a car from a dealership, unfortunately, is still not the best experience.

How are you finding the e-commerce landscape with regards to your brand in the auto category? What have you learned so far about that change?

COVID forced us to accelerate a transformation that probably, without COVID, would take 10 years or 15 years. In some regions, we found ourselves not being able to serve our customers or not being able to sell because some of the stores were closed.

So we had to implement very quickly and scale certain tools and certain features to allow consumers to buy. We had situations in some markets where we activated services, like going to get the car of the consumer at his home or office, bring it to be serviced then giving it back or even delivering a car to consumers if they would be willing to purchase it online. We accelerated that a lot, even with the dealers, because the dealers were extremely resistant to the e-commerce trend.

How have you helped dealers navigate those changes in the customer journey?

We implemented a huge number of tools and solutions to be able to keep the business going during COVID that now are in place. The dealers got used to it and now they even want to enhance those solutions. They have seen that there’s value and consumers engage with that – they demand these kinds of solutions.

I think there’s an element of the customer experience that for our industry is extremely complicated and complex. That is the fact that we rely on dealers for the customer experience, so the retail is not really owned by us. COVID was an important element of the transformation of the mindset of the dealers as well, in understanding that the customer experience can generate value and can generate business.

How do you discern what is the right move when it comes to media investment for your brands, from a brand building perspective and further down the sales funnel?

I am not a big believer about [the idea of] brand-building communication versus communication just to activate consumers to buy. I think that they both should play for the brand. If you are doing something that is inconsistent from a communications perspective, then it’s simply not building up the brand.

I think that there are different channels that you could use in order to activate those customers in-market who are prepared to buy a car, and a job that you do from other channels in terms of communication to grow your equity and awareness, for people to understand what your brand stands for, which products they have, and so on and so forth.

It’s very tricky to activate from a global perspective, because [KIA is] extremely complex and decentralized. We have so many different markets, and then you have dealers even communicating by themselves.

The other challenge is the fragmentation of the media itself, i.e. how to build communication at scale that is relevant for the brand construction process and understanding the consumers, understanding who is buying today and who isn’t. Building it for the future is extremely complex.

How do you balance the need for nuance at a regional or market level with consistency across the board with your brands?

The work that we’ve been doing over the last 1 ½ years was to build this roadmap on a regional basis. There are nuances on how the brand communicates in the United States versus in Europe, and if you look at Asia it is completely different.

What I believe is that we have to create a bandwidth for the brand that is consistent from a global perspective, but which allows flexibility and nuance to be applied and the regionalization of the brands to be respected. But then, when we do global communication, it still fits in. Otherwise we are all over the place, and consumers are unable to understand what we stand for.

When it comes to the marketing skills and expertise that are required by you and your team on a day to day basis, what have the biggest changes been?

Data, for me, has been one of the most important – being able to look at data and extract insights from data. With the complexity of our business and all the sources that we can extract data from, it’s extremely difficult for us to get insights from it and it’s very easy to get lost with all that data. That’s one of the elements.

The other one is digital skills and experiences. It’s very difficult to transform an analogue company, team or group of people into digital natives from one day to the other.

When you talk about digitally-native skills, what type of mindsets or abilities are you thinking about?

Understanding how people consume media on different platforms. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of ‘let’s do it’, even cutting the ad into pieces and publishing it on different social media platforms. But you have to understand how people are consuming media on those specific platforms… it’s not the same for an ad on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok, and so on.

For you to be able to master the communications and develop work that really is relevant in those platforms for the consumers that you want to target, you have to understand the platforms in the first place. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible, even if you are an extremely good creative person.

So dealing with that media fragmentation and really understanding how the media market is changing is important.

Yes, and understanding the consumer that you want to target. What kind of media is relevant for them? How can you put your message across on those platforms in a way that is relevant for consumers? You’re juggling [different] elements together.

In the past, you had this gigantic fragmentation, even between people that were doing media and people doing the creative part. Sometimes the best creative ideas come from the media agency, because they understand the channel better than sometimes the creative agency.

That’s almost like a flip of the traditional model.

It is, and we are doing a lot of work with the platforms themselves – with internal teams – because they have the experience and they know how consumers are using their platforms. It’s really important that we are able to understand that… Sometimes we are the ones trying to drive the creative agencies to understand those media channels better.

Has that transformation changed how you engage with your agencies and what you’re asking them to do for you?

Yeah, definitely. There was a moment in time where all the agencies started saying “oh, we’re going to be full service agencies”… They didn’t want to lose that piece of the cake. Still today, few agencies – even the big ones – [have been] able to crack the model. They are trying to become digital but they are not, in essence, there. They are still not digital.

So the way we are trying to do it – and it’s also not easy, because we have to have the right people to do that – is to be the ones pushing the agency to come with work that respects and understands consumers and the way people consume specific channels.

That’s going to be a trend to watch over the next couple of years – media-first creative thinking, as opposed to brand-first creative thinking.

I think the complexity will be how to do that at scale, because that demands more understanding of those channels. You need broader creative skills, as well, on the agency side and on the client side. Then it’s about how you build content at scale. You want to serve from one to many. Personalization is a key topic, but how you do that in a way that is relevant for consumers without losing the essence of the brand is a gigantic challenge.

I think we’re going to see a lot of changes in the next couple of years because technology is evolving so fast. But I think that more fragmentation of media is inevitable. Keeping that consistency of what the brand stands for in terms of messaging and tone, and how it talks to consumers, is critical.

Automotive brands are especially feeling the pinch of the global supply chain crisis right now. Has this impacted your marketing plans for the next 12 months?

The situation is extremely complex because we have not got out of COVID. It is a very complex situation in terms of the supply chain, mainly with transportation, and now the war in Ukraine and China was locked down for almost two and a half months. All this has an impact on the business. It will have more of an impact on how we start localizing components… Inevitably, we’re going to have to localize more. Globalization is somehow being challenged with all those elements that we have on the table currently.

From a marketing strategy, it’s not [impacting] so much…we are in an extremely good moment for the brand. We are bringing new products into the market. We are really leveraging this moment to keep communicating, even though we have an order backlog for certain products. Consumers are waiting for a lot of electric cars – a lot of brands have the same situation… but we believe electrification is also a gigantic window of opportunity to reposition Kia and that’s one of the key strategies, opportunities and challenges for the next year.

How do you balance reaching people who may not be buying a car for several months, or may not be able to due to supply chain issues, even if they want to buy now?

One of the elements that I think that car manufacturers never invested enough resources in is the ownership of the car. It’s a period of time between five and seven years where you have a gigantic opportunity to keep the customer engaged with the brand. That is one critical element for us: how to increase loyalty, and also how to leverage satisfied customers with our brand as ambassadors to conquer new customers. I believe it’s a huge opportunity.

Again, one of the key elements for the next couple of years is really how to reinforce brand equity. The majority of the investments that we are doing from a global perspective aim really to enhance the equity of the brand. We aren’t only talking with people that are in the market to buy, where you complement with search activities, but really talking to consumers to [help them] understand what the new KIA is all about: for example, where we stand in terms of electrification, sustainability and the importance of that for our industry.

We have a huge opportunity currently to reposition the brand and not only keep our current customers but build a new base of customers for the future.