Inside Wealth

As Luxury Market Moves East, Carmakers Go Digital

Patti Waldmeir
Chinese consumers select a car at a Porsche dealership in Shanghai.
Hong Wu | Getty Images

In most of the world, it takes a lifetime to get rich, if it happens at all. But China's wealthy get rich on average much more quickly than the affluent of other countries, often well before middle age.

In response, luxury car companies increasingly are turning to social media and digital technology – which tend to appeal more to teens than to the bald pate generation – to peddle their wares in what will soon become the world's largest premium car market.

Daimler, the German group, earlier this year became the first carmaker in China to sell cars through the mainland equivalent of Twitter, Sina Weibo.

In just over eight hours, 666 special edition lunar new year Smart cars sold out on Weibo, with buyers from as far away as the remote provinces of Gansu and Inner Mongolia snapping up the 128,888-renminbi ($20,728) "year of the snake" model.

Around the same time Audi, known in China as the brand for bureaucrats, made an effort to freshen up its stodgy image by opening an interactive digital showroom in a Beijing shopping mall. The German company says its floor-to-ceiling projection walls can showcase hundreds of millions of different bespoke vehicle combinations to please even those for whom owning an Audi is at the moment no more than a "pipe dream".

"Some 80 percent of high net worth individuals in China are 44 or younger, compared to the United States where it is only 30 percent and Japan only 20 percent. And younger people tend to be more internet savvy," says Bill Russo, head of Synergistics auto consultancy in Beijing and former head of Chrysler in China.

Until recently, luxury carmakers could count on growth rates in China that could hardly be matched elsewhere – an average of 36 percent a year over the past decade. But that sales growth has slowed and competition has intensified as foreign and domestic carmakers try to grab market share in this most profitable segment of the Chinese car market, car analysts say.

Appealing to customers means reaching out to them where they like to shop: online, says Klaus Paur, global head of automotive at Ipsos consultancy in Shanghai. "Ninety-five percent of people who go to a dealership in China have already visited the company's website and know exactly what they want," he says.

The need for digital marketing will continue to grow as the Chinese premium car market expands beyond the current 100 cities, to 300 cities by 2020, says Sha Sha, automotive expert at McKinsey. The consultancy recently predicted that China will surpass the US as the world's largest premium car market in just three years. McKinsey forecasts 12 percent growth in the Chinese premium car market through 2020, compared with 8 percent for the overall Chinese passenger vehicle market.

But not every experiment in digital marketing has been a success. Lamborghini closed an online shop set up on Taobao's T-mall to sell the lavish sports car, having failed to make a single sale. A spokesperson for Lamborghini China said the shop was opened by a dealer, who was reprimanded for doing so: "We think this is not proper for a luxury car brand such as Lamborghini. Our targeted customers will not make purchases online."

And one BMW viral marketing campaign in 2011 generated criticism online for tricking the Chinese media into running news stories about the appearance of crop circles in the Gobi desert – which later turned out to be faked by BMW to generate buzz around the launch of its new entry-level 1 series cars in China.

One user on Weibo commented: "The loss outweighed the gain: the product gained publicity, but lost its reputation."

But Liu Yiwei, e-marketing manager at BMW China, defends the campaign, saying BMW likes to "try on fresh ideas" and adding that the campaign was designed to appeal to "young and energetic people who cling to the internet and believe in individualism in China.." BMW's marketing slogan for the new 1 series was "unique for one" – or UFO.

Meanwhile, Chinese carmakers are all racing to move upmarket into the premium segment, 80 per cent of which is controlled by the big three German carmakers – BMW, Audi and Mercedes. But most analysts think a Chinese brand will struggle to break into the top tier: "Chinese companies are likely to deliver luxury products long before Chinese consumers will ever consider them luxury products," says Mr. Russo.