Car brands take the digital road during virus lockdowns and it shows no signs of stopping

Automotive brands are forced to think on their feet during the Covid-19 pandemic, and many have turned to online car launches instead of physical ones. But this is only one part of the story.

The pandemic also gave them an opportunity to look at other parts of their operations to see what else could be taken online and digitalised. Many big brands like BMW, MercedesBenz and Audi have launched new models online to a global audience since the lockdowns began earlier this year.

In March, supercar brand McLaren launched the 765LT online, which is said was a huge success. Preparing for the digital launch gave the British automaker the chance “to provide an in-depth look inside our company at a time when we can’t facilitate physical access”, McLaren spokesman Piers Scott told Options. One such example is Tech Club (#McLarenTechClub), a new online platform designed for those who want to delve deeper into the core of what every McLaren car is about while also increasing their automotive knowledge.

The club includes a series of new films exploring the innovative technologies developed by McLaren designers and engineers. “We have learned that there is an enormous appetite for information about not just our cars but the people who work on them,” Scott adds. McLaren is gearing up to launch two new models digitally, along with physical driving experiences, “which will always be at the heart of what we do”.

While some have been unveiling their latest offerings on social media, Italian sports car maker Lamborghini launched its latest car, the Huracán EVO RWD Spyder, in augmented reality (AR). Using Apple’s AR Quick Look, fans got an almost lifelike view of the car as images could be expanded up to 1:1 in size.

Unfortunately, only Apple users got to witness the event as Lamborghini made the launch exclusively available on iPhone and iPad. As car brands look to appeal to a younger audience, thinking more digital (including AR and virtual reality) is part of their strategy, and this has accelerated during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Matteo Ortenzi, CEO of Lamborghini Asia-Pacific, says, “The strategic move is very much in line with the brand’s way of opening up aspirational doors to a new audience.” German luxury brand BMW has been busy with new launches online and recently presented its Concept i4 and the 5 Series models. In China, it had online launches of the new BMW X5 M and BMW X6 M models. “This year, we will certainly see a few more launches in a digital form, as physical events are very restricted and travel bans are still ongoing in many countries,” says a BMW China spokesman.

Christophe Koenig, who heads up BMW brand and marketing in Singapore, says the marque does have a longer tradition of digital events and launches, which started before Covid-19, and is always looking at alternative platforms and formats to communicate to its audience. In May, Audi launched a new Audi online showroom (www.audisale.sg) where most of its latest models are available. “Among other things, staying home presents a very interesting opportunity for us to trial online concepts.

Consumers are also becoming much more receptive to this form of shopping,” says Lee Nian Tjoe, a spokesman for Audi. “What happens when more restrictions are lifted will likely be a combination or a hybrid of the physical engagement with the virtual one,” he adds. Audi is also working on a concept to “virtually” meet with a product expert. A customer will be able to interact with the expert, who will be equipped with a video camera at the showroom, to present the car and its features online.

“This will give an added level of interaction and experience in the customer journey, where he or she can get a feel of say, the new Audi Q3, while sitting in the comforts of the sofa at home,” explains Lee.

One of the first casualties of the pandemic for the automotive world was the cancellation of motor shows, which draw thousands of people and give carmakers a chance to launch new models, all in one venue. The Geneva Motor Show was the first major event to be cancelled followed by the Beijing Motor Show, which was due to be held in April.

One of the world’s biggest, the Detroit Auto Show 2020, was postponed from its original January slot to June, but now this has also been cancelled until 2021. Looking further ahead, the Paris Motor Show due to be held in October has also been cancelled. Instead, the event will be in an online format. With brands now launching their own models online, are large-scale and expensive motor shows still relevant?

“Our priority is to ensure maximum visibility for our products, technologies and innovations. In this way, the company has expanded its global commitment to international auto shows and tech and future fairs,” says Koenig. At rival Mercedes-Benz, it says the “scale and size of our brand presence at motor shows and trade fairs will be adjusted more than in the past to better align with our upcoming model launches, new presentation formats and synergies. For sure, a digital world premiere is a complementary, contemporary format to existing physical platforms”.

The consensus seems to be that online launches can easily work alongside physical launches, giving more choice to car fans. Brands are quickly modernising how they interact with their customers, offering the traditional physical experience alongside a new digital one, plus something in between.