Why digital is the key to driving preference outside of the dealership

How the automotive industry is embracing digital transformation and looking to enhance the online experience for its customers

James Wallingford, Client Director


Car buying is changing. In the past six months, 63% of car buyers have admitted to being fully decided on a vehicle before they’ve even visited a dealership. This means automotive brands now face an interesting challenge - how to connect with their customers earlier on in their journey in order to drive preference outside of the showroom.

With 54% of buyers admitting they would pay more for a better buying experience, the efforts of automotive marketers should be firmly shifting from investing in flashy ads to creating engaging experiences that connect with audiences on a more meaningful level. And the power of digital is allowing these experiences to reach customers wherever they are, encouraging discovery on their own terms.

As a sector fuelled by constant evolution in design, engineering and technology, car brands are perfectly poised to embrace this digital transformation. And in the wider context of a post-pandemic, tech-savvy global audience, there’s never been a better time to explore these new digital avenues. 

Online experiences are a fantastic way for consumers to learn about new models from the comfort of their own homes. Older Millennials are now touching their 40s, and therefore starting to fall into many car brands’ priority target group. With the Millennial contingent nearly twice as likely as Boomers to shop and buy a vehicle entirely online, it’s become increasingly important to allow this group to envisage themselves in the driver's seat without necessarily being there. Toyota’s brand new Joy Ride experience on Pinterest does exactly that, taking users on a scenic 360° virtual test drive through a series of locations in the new Toyota Highlander, with a customisable route and collectable audio-visual moments to make the experience memorable.

When it comes to pre-purchase browsing, it’s just as important for shoppers to understand how a vehicle can match their lifestyle as it is their driving needs. In fact, Millennial homebuyers say they would pay more money for a car that matches their personality and aesthetic. Digital experiences have the huge advantage of being able to provide personalisation options with a simple tap or swipe. Volvo’s Style Finder experience is a great example, giving users bespoke recommendations on which car they should go for based on their quiz responses and data drawn from their saved Pinterest pins.

These AI-driven personalised experiences can also unlock invaluable insights about products or customers by tracking preferences and choice patterns. This data can go back into crafting even more tailored experiences next time round - and so the cycle of personalised engagement continues. There’s much to be explored in the psychology of car buying, digital is providing brands with the tools they need to tap into these consumer behaviours.

Another tool that puts car discovery directly in the user’s hands is augmented reality. AR technology is already revolutionising the fashion and beauty sectors, and automotive is next. Toyota was one of the first auto brands to experiment with this, launching its series of accessible WebAR cars back in 2019. With an added layer of interactivity, prospective buyers are able to explore the latest models in their own time, connect with the brand on a deeper level and form their opinions - all through their smartphones.

AR also offers the chance to elevate a physical experience and make a real impact. This year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed marked a special moment in the event’s history - it was the first year that the iconic Central Feature didn’t include physical car sculptures. In a digital overhaul reflective of the transformation of the wider industry, the latest supercars from brand partner Lotus Cars were added to the feature in the form of AR assets that raced around the sculpture, viewed using the Lotus Aeroad smartphone app. Using AR in this way helps to disrupt traditional methods and leave a lasting impression on audiences, who value having greater agency over their viewing experience. 

There’s another key smartphone activity that provides brands with a unique opportunity to connect with the buyers of tomorrow: mobile gaming and the Metaverse. The worlds of motorsport and gaming have long been intertwined, making branded ventures in this space particularly exciting. This activity also provides brands with the ability to evolve their messages into richer storytelling and explore educational initiatives. Whilst the gaming demographic is expanding, with older audiences increasingly getting involved, it’s Gen Z who are really driving this trend - integrating gaming into core marketing strategy is a must for any car brand wanting to remain relevant.

The "Hyundai Mobility Adventure" is the first Roblox activation of its kind from a global car brand. The shared virtual space, which contains five themed parks, will launch in October after a beta test, showcasing the company's future mobility products. Hyundai is wise to familiarise young consumers with these offerings in the hope that it can forge long-lasting customer relationships in the future.

It’s clear that digital is key to understanding consumer psychology, driving their preference, and reaching them wherever they are. There’s huge potential for automotive brands to leverage technology and create tailored and immersive experiences that catch consumers early in the purchase cycle to educate, engage and influence their purchase decisions. The race to become the most creative and innovative car brand now has a new digital focus which is incredibly exciting. 

Guest Author

James Wallingford, Client Director



James has 17 years experience agency side working for leading global brands in Automotive, Tech, Lifestyle, Alcohol and FMCG, and his role as Client Director at UNIT9 involves driving client collaboration and helping brands make sense of emerging creative technology. Specialising in leveraging the power of shared experiences to build brands, launch new products and drive sales, James has repeatedly built teams that have delivered some of the most dynamic and strategic integrated campaigns out there. He also enjoys a spot of ultra-marathon running.

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