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  • Tania Hodgkinson

Reframing Automotive Marketing Leadership: The Automotive Industry’s Path to Customer-Centric Transformation

Updated: Mar 23

A practical look at what’s working or not as car brands continue on their digital transformation paths based on our experience working with all major car brands in Europe



Introduction

In the midst of the automotive industry’s (relative) rapid evolution, marketing - and digital marketing in particular - emerges not just as a tool, but as the crucial nexus between OEMs and their customers. This pivotal area is where customer needs are intricately understood and where the brand’s promise and offerings are dynamically communicated. Realising the value from that however rests on the shoulders of automotive leaders, who are as much holders of the solution as keepers of the status quo.


Automotive leadership development needs are not just about enhancing understanding around the impact of new tools, like AI, but about nurturing a broader organisational mindset shift towards a common data-centric language to create a shared understanding of the changing customer needs and a genuine customer-centric transformation.


Oliver Maletz, who brings immense experience from his roles as Global and then European head of marketing & digital at Volkswagen but also from working with 20+ car brands when heading up Omnicom‘s automotive practice, and who co-reflected on this topic with me, adds:  „In working through automotive marketing transformation, it’s essential to focus on people (soon to be + existing customers) and the experiences you want them to have at each stage of their automotive lifecycle.  Digital data informs these experiences and digital channels deliver them in ways that were not possible even 10 years ago.   This transformation is fundamentally about redefining the very essence of automotive marketing and, by extension, the business’s core mission of delivering value to customers.“


Digital Marketing at the Heart of Transformation


This fundamental return to the core of marketing—understanding and meeting customer needs in every interaction requires car brands to reconsider not just the means of communication but the very essence of how value is conveyed and experienced by customers. Particularly, digital marketing emerges not merely as a channel, but as a strategic tool to again realign the entire organisation around the customer, bridging traditional corporate gaps and refocusing efforts on delivering exceptional customer experiences. 


This causality—digital as the driving force behind a return to marketing’s customer-centric roots—invites a deeper exploration of the business’s dialogue. It underscores the importance of reexamining our approach from the ground up, justifying an expanded narrative, from the outset, to ensure digital transformation is harnessed as an opportunity to reinvigorate the fundamental promise of marketing within the automotive industry.


Digital marketing is therefore pivotal in the industry’s shift, offering insights into customer behaviours for the entire business as they reshape the business model (eCommerce, Subscription & Mobility Services etc) and enabling the delivery of innovative brand solutions to competitively position it and to meet the customer’s needs. 


What’s Working and the Persistent Challenges


OEMs are actively adopting varying strategies to embrace digital transformation, from centralising digital efforts, moving them to the edge of the organisation, to integrating or setting up customer experience (CX) departments and teams. However, in my experience with Sophus3 in working with digital marketing teams across more than 20 car brands, success is varied. 


The digital challenge transcends the siloed approach still prevalent in many OEMs. Siloes that create boundaries across functions but also across geographies, as well as between regional and national teams. True digital transformation is of course a comprehensive and systemic business challenge, demanding cross-silo collaboration, both inside the organisation as well as with critical partners like dealers, for example, to leverage a wide range of expertise and create a shared perspective on both the challenges and the solutions.


Despite the recognition of this strategic role, OEMs still face challenges that hinder the full realisation of its potential: how to constantly evolve digital platforms as customer expectations shift, how to collaborate seamlessly and inclusively across functions despite decades of increasingly functional specialisation and territoriality, and how to balance a brand promise vision with the agility to respond to and anticipate market trends effectively. The only way we have seen this work is when it is internally understood, embodied and driven by the leadership team across the organisation.


Towards a Data-Centric and Customer-Centric Culture


The journey therefore involves two significant shifts: adopting a data-centric approach to ensure a shared understanding through common KPIs, focusing on all customers (not just your existing ones, ie ensuring you have an outside-in perspective of the customer in relation to you), and working future-back to anticipate tomorrow’s needs. This shift facilitates the second broader move towards a truly customer-centric culture, especially as OEMs explore digital sales channels in a traditional franchise-driven business. This transformation requires more than the creation of a CX function; it demands co-creative collaboration across the entire business, from compliance to sales, fulfilment, even the dealer network and beyond.


Here, says Maletz, “the concept of the Next Best Experience (NBE) emerges as a natural progression of becoming more data-centric and people-focused. By leveraging data and AI/ algorithm led decisioning to anticipate customer needs and preferences, automotive brands can orchestrate digital and traditional experiences that minimize pain-points and create love-points to drive both revenue and brand growth.“


Just as clothing manufacturers constantly adapt their offerings to align with evolving customer tastes, the automotive industry stands at the threshold of a similar transformation. The advent of technologies such as electrification that significantly simplifies the vehicle production complexity, 3D printing and advancements in material science challenges the traditional notion of permanence in production capabilities. This flexibility in manufacturing, combined with a data-driven understanding of customer preferences, opens new avenues for automotive brands to tailor their vehicles to meet specific customer demands more closely. Thus, reflects Maletz, „digital transformation—viewed through the lens of business transformation—extends its influence beyond marketing, seeding customer-centric principles into the very core of product development.“


Leadership Development: Bridging the Shifts


If automotive leadership is critical to driving this evolution, then addressing these intertwined shifts demands leadership development that:


  • Encourages the adoption of a data-centric language for unified decision-making.

  • Fosters an organisational culture that truly places the customer at the core of all activities, breaking down traditional barriers to collaboration.

  • Equips leaders across departments with the foresight, adaptability and autonomy to steer their teams through these evolving digital landscapes.


The Impact of Comprehensive Leadership Development


Focused leadership development prepares marketing leadership and teams across the OEMs to navigate and lead in automotive transformation by:


  • Achieving strategic alignment across all levels, embedding a unified digital marketing strategy that resonates from the boardroom to the frontline.

  • Enhancing organisational agility, enabling rapid response to digital trends and customer demands through distributed autonomy.

  • Empowering leaders to foster a culture of innovation, ensuring OEMs remain competitive and forward-thinking.


Conclusion


As the automotive industry navigates towards a direct-to-customer ie e-Commerce future, the dual shift towards data-centricity and customer-centricity, supported by strategic leadership development, is arguably existential. This approach ensures that OEMs can exceed customer expectations, leveraging digital marketing not just as a functional challenge but as a strategic advantage, and thereby creating sustainable business continuity and success.


Engage with Us


Discover how our leadership development program can support your OEM in this transformative journey. 


Note: thank you Oliver for the enriching co-reflection! It was a pleasure.


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