Over the past few years, automotive companies have made major strides in terms of technology, innovation, and sustainability. And with 15 brands represented in this year’s Best Global Brands report, auto is the dominant sector by number. Together, auto brands make up 13.7 percent (USD $234,439 million) of the table’s total value, second only to the technology sector in collective worth. These are significant stats for an industry that is often seen as sluggish and which faces major challenges moving forward, due to evolving customer expectations and the changing role of driving.
An analysis of the 15 automotive brands in this year’s Top 100 offers key insights on why they’re holding strong—and what they need to do to stay on top.
1. Auto brands are fueled by broad markets and vast economic impact
The auto industry is huge, with more than 60 million (and counting) cars sold this year, and is still cycling off levels that predate the financial crisis. For many buyers, cars are more than a mode of transportation: they are emotional investments, status symbols, or even a source of livelihood.
Auto companies also serve an increasingly large segment of the world’s population. Generating high returns and massive sales, they’ve become the backbone of both global and local economies. Though they are being consolidated on the holding-company level, giving them truly global scope, there are still many major, distinct brands, pulling millions of dollars in sales each year.
In emerging markets, the ambition to own a car is growing. A large part of the world’s population has remained carless, but as the middle class rises, brands such as Nissan, Ford, and General Motors are expanding into new regions like India, China, and Brazil. In these newly developing areas of the world, automotive companies’ existing business models will likely still be relevant in 20 years, but in developed countries, staying competitive will call for significant evolution. Automotive companies will need to continue to invest in technological advancements to keep up with new and existing drivers who are preparing themselves for the next phase of mobility.
2. Differentiation and relevance will drive continued success for auto brands
As brands across the board become more focused on individuals’ needs, the auto sector—with its especially broad market—faces two distinct challenges: differentiation and relevance. Auto brands used to be highly differentiated, but now buyers are more interested in individual models and how those vehicles fit into their lives. With so much information at consumers’ fingertips, brand awareness is not enough—organizations need to not only innovate products but to create a truly differentiated brand experience.
Top Ten brand Toyota, for example, is tapping into smart technologies like its Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), which enables the real-time exchange of data between vehicles and infrastructures. And Korean brand Hyundai is figuring out how to tailor its brand message to diverse global audiences by creating localized social media experiences that enhance individuals’ interactions with the brand.
As the average age of new car buyers climbs to 51.7 (according to Auto News) and the number of driver’s license applications among millennials declines, there is a concern about decreasing relevance within the automotive sector. In the race to increase their presence in people’s lives, connectivity is key, as carmakers integrate with customers’ devices, homes, and things. Relevance also means rolling with changing preferences—automotive brands must learn how to harness new technologies to anticipate the needs of diverse drivers.
3. The future of the auto sector revolves around ownership and mobility
To do this, auto companies must shift their focus from selling products to delivering a service, as driving itself begins to look different. As the current car-buying generation begins to retire, how will the behaviors of upcoming generations of buyers change? Major shifts in this sector will revolve around two pillars: ownership and mobility.
Car ownership might not be as relevant in the future as conversations evolve around fractional (i.e., shared) ownership models and ride-sharing grows with increasing speed. Since its launch in 2010, for example, Uber’s staggering statistics reveal that it now has more than eight million users in over 290 cities around the world and is expected to process USD $10.84 billion in bookings in 2015. In its home city of San Francisco, Uber is now tripling the revenue of the local taxi market, at about USD $500 million per year.
Major auto brands like Mercedes-Benz and Ford are also beginning to enter and experiment in the ride-sharing space. Nissan likewise announced plans to supply cars to college students through a campus car-sharing venture with Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
While many auto companies are harnessing new vehicle technologies to stay ahead of the curve, a true test of innovation is whether or not these advancements can actually change driving behaviors. In an attempt to lead the driverless-car revolution, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and BMW collectively spent USD $3 billion to acquire Nokia’s Here, a service comparable to Google Maps. The auto sector also faces the impending entry of nontraditional car manufacturers—Apple’s Project Titan and Google’s self-driving car project both represent strategic investments by technology giants in autonomous driving’s future. While increasingly feasible, the large-scale adoption of autonomous driving rides on major regulatory considerations and customers’ behavioral shifts.
In the meantime, however, auto brands are also working toward the future of smart mobility. Mercedes-Benz, for example, has adopted moovel, which integrates car2go, mytaxi, Flinkster, train services, public transport, and bicycle data all into one simple app that guides users on the smartest path through any city.
In a letter to Business Life, economist Ross Parker wrote, “I would not be surprised if today’s car becomes tomorrow’s horse: a recreational pleasure, sporting discipline, and an increasingly rare sight on the road.” This prescient view underlines the changing role of vehicles, as cars move away from being functional necessities to becoming tech-enabled extensions of personality, shareable assets, or even sources of entertainment. Powerful automotive brands will have to take a more holistic view of mobility to maintain their stronghold and balance their strategies to meet desires in diversified markets—that are moving at much different speeds.