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How Dealerships Can Drive the Brand Experience

How Dealerships Can Drive Brand Experience

Though most of today’s car dealerships have not yet taken a quantum leap forward in terms of technology and customer experience, leading automotive brands are succeeding in differentiating themselves by way of facility design.

And, when it comes to modernizing the dealership experience, top auto manufacturers have come to recognize that their brands play a critical role.

Rapid—but incomplete—advancement

Climbing into a classic car from the 1950’s or 1960’s can be like slipping into a time machine. You are transported back to a time of “anything goes” styling—the catalyst for the underpinnings of the modern car as we know it.

Vehicles back then were designed by hand, engineered on paper and, in many ways, were much more simple than the models we have today. Constant advances in the technologies used to design vehicles, as well as the technologies incorporated into them, have made today’s vehicles far more efficient, safe and user-friendly than those of the past. While they still get us from point A to point B, just as those earlier models did, the similarities diminish a bit more with each model year. In light of this fact, the ways in which customers buy or lease those vehicles has not advanced as dramatically.

Dealerships are still playing catch-up

Outside of being able to purchase a vehicle over the internet, the in-store dealership experience is largely what it was 20 years ago. The customer experience and in-store technology offered within many dealerships has not evolved at the same pace as the vehicles themselves. The sales process at many dealerships, for instance, can be complicated and time-consuming. Managers have to be consulted and appeased, deals must be struck, and the paperwork involved can be intimidating. At a time when customer demands and expectations are soaring (particularly in terms of experience and ease-of-use), there is tremendous opportunity for auto brands to streamline and upgrade the car-buying experience.

There are many aspects of the in-dealership user experience to consider—and many are ripe for a revolutionary overhaul. Ideally, the whole experience should heighten the anticipation of driving a new vehicle off the lot for the first time, and minimize any factors that could diminish enthusiasm—from ensuring that vehicles are tuned up and driver-ready to putting customers at ease during the sales process.

Are sales offices enclosed or out in the open? Is the sales staff accommodating or overbearing? When do customers really need support—and when should they be left to browse (or even pay) on their own? As this year’s CES made clear, the age of autonomous vehicles is already upon us—and so is the age of mobile payments. An Apple Pay-esque way to finalize a transaction, even for big-ticket items like cars, is probably not far off. From the moment the customer arrives to the moment they accept the keys to their new car or truck, every detail of the journey matters—and anything that makes the process easier and more enjoyable could give one auto brand competitive advantage over another

Upgrading the customer experience is key

Many types of customers come into dealerships, and they each have their own ideas of how they would prefer to interact with the brand. Generally, customers are more knowledgeable than ever and a highly-involved one may spend hours researching vehicles and knows exactly what he wants when he sets foot in the dealership. Vehicle information is readily available online—complete with user reviews, third party ratings, specs and performance figures from seemingly endless sources. On the other hand, some customers still need a lot of guidance—from which model suits his/her needs best to financing options. Other customers might not want to interact with a human at all. While customers have different levels of knowledge and engagement, they all share at least one thing in common: they’re coming to the facility to experience tangible assets of the vehicle that are not evident online. They want to see how light reflects off the paint in person, feel the craft and fit of the leather seating, and test drive the vehicle. Customers returning to a dealership to have a car serviced must also be considered. They are loyal customers and should be treated to an experience that helps solidify their relationship with the brand and not get treated like second-class citizens.  So what needs to change at dealerships to not only drive sales, but to also maintain loyalty and long-term satisfaction?

The dealership of the future: high-tech and personal

Too many dealerships today still tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach to various customer types. One major key to increasing sales and securing loyalty in the future will be for dealerships—and those who work within them—to be more flexible, anticipate individual needs, and enable people to customize their experiences on their own terms. New and emerging technologies will make dealership visits easier, less intimidating, and more efficient—and the process of buying a car will be streamlined and simplified. The dealership of the future should be a place where the brand can be fully realized and experienced—a place where the experience of buying the car is as enjoyable (or almost as enjoyable) as driving it.

Helping to reimagine the dealership experience

Tesla, for example, is making some pretty big waves in the automotive arena with its facilities. By not having a large parcel of real estate, a traditional service department with long rows of bays, or an acre of display stock all parked side-by-side, the new Tesla brand experience breaks many of the traditional rules. Sales associates act more like brand stewards and Tesla is showing up where the customer is—in places like high profile malls and lifestyle centers. Audi, too, is breaking with tradition. One of Interbrand’s top-rising Best Global Brands in 2014, Audi has experience centers popping up worldwide where brand, automotive styling, and technology are colliding to engage customers in unique new ways. It is these innovative approaches that need to find their way from event-type centers into everyday, neighborhood dealerships. Dealerships should be as cutting-edge as the products they’re offering—not relics of the past, frozen in time. The future of business is personal, so it only makes sense for automotive brands to build engaging, dynamic and brand-centric spaces that put the customer in control—and drive growth and profitability in the process.

If you would like to discuss this article with Scott Jeffrey or Interbrand’s automotive sector leader, Daniel Binns, please send an email to


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