It’s well known that drivers are using the internet to do more car research than ever before. Webrooming is the new showrooming. And while the dealership may be where money changes hands, online is where the bulk of research now takes place. We recently completed a major qualitative and quantitative study of the car purchase journey in China, which shows that the internet is the most used source of information during initial car research. In fact, almost 80% of Chinese drivers research cars online. And the majority of that research is done on their smartphone. The internet is increasingly, a trading hub for cars in China. During double 11 (Nov 11th) shopping festival last November, around 14.3 billion RMB of car sales were made through online automobile websites.
Smartphones are getting bigger and faster
At the same time, the smartphone is growing in size. Our global smartphone study (see press release) reveals that 5”+ devices accounted for 57% of the Chinese market in Q1 2015. Cheaper, large screen models flooding the market have contributed to a dramatic growth in take up from one third (32%) of the market in Q1 2014.
We’ve also seen mobile phone connection speeds increase. Around 20% of Chinese smartphone users are on 4G and by 2016 this will rise to almost 50%. By then, more than half of all Chinese mobile phone owners will have a bigger screen.
So what does a bigger, faster phone mean when researching a car purchase?
Just as standard definition TV suddenly seemed second rate when HD arrived (and now 4K is making HD look old), the result of a bigger screen and faster connections is escalating expectations.
And when connected cars become a mainstream reality, smartphone performance will be even more critical. The phone will take on a new vital role as car controller. And it won’t just be convenience at stake, but personal safety.
Manufacturers don’t measure up
Yet our study of the Chinese purchase journey shows that automotive manufacturer websites and online services fail to satisfy consumers. The Chinese driver feels let down, because instead of substantial experiences, they are served just bare bones information. To make matters worse, a ‘slanging’ culture pervades, as automotive brands spread negative PR about their competitors in social media.
So it’s not surprising that the Chinese driver moves offline once they start to evaluate their options in depth, and instead consults their friends.
There are, thankfully, exceptions to the rule. A handful of brands are making more of bigger, faster smartphones, such as Volkswagen China, who last year collected over 300 qualified sales leads in just 10 weeks with a mobile game. In ‘Sports Car Challenge’, players – virtually– test drive a real Volkswagen model, then request contact from the company to find out more.
In the view of Markus Nels, Head of Sports Car, Motorsport and Car Culture at Volkswagen Group China, it’s the start of great things: “Now we’re looking at the beginning of a data-led ROI capability for Volkswagen Group China where we can follow the entire sales journey from initial app download to final purchase, and that is very exciting.”
More virtual showrooms as brands realize their potential
Other virtual showrooms are springing up around the world as brands realize their potential. Nissan Canada’s is typical. As well as the usual specifications, it offers visitors a 3D, 360 degree model to manipulate. Over in the United States, Toyota is evolving the virtual showroom model in new and interesting directions. Their ‘SaleMove’ service allows the driver to configure vehicles, check stock, select a dealer, and pre-negotiate financing, all before setting foot in the dealership. Should they wish to, they can can also chat directly with a dealer using text or audio functions. Simply put, ‘SaleMove’ brings the showroom to you.
So here’s the opportunity. Chinese automotive brands – and brands everywhere – should consider the smartphone less as a brand notice board and more as a brand experience. The Chinese driver wants content that exploits the size and speed of their smartphone. They want experiences that get them closer to the unfiltered, hands-on, real world. They want to test drive, talk to dealers and access unbiased opinions. They want bigger thinking. And now it’s up to brands to raise their game.
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Simon Wang is General Manager Automotive APAC & China for GfK.