A unique form of avant-garde branding is helping to set DS Automobiles apart from its rivals, reports Tom Sharpe
For car buyers adapting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the thought of being immersed in a brand experience is clearly at odds with the concept of social distancing.
But, speaking to AM ahead of the health crisis currently gripping the globe, DS Automobiles demonstrated that an immersive brand concept was at the very heart of what it wanted to see from its growing UK franchised dealer network.
Technology such as virtual reality and lifestyle experiences aligned to its uniquely French avant garde marketing message are at the core of the PSA Group-owned brand’s bid to grow awareness and understanding of its stand-alone premium billing following its break-away from Citroen.
As DS Automobiles’ first head of brand – and a man once charged with defining its place within the PSA Group – Alain Descat remains convinced that it will forge a place in the market.
“We’re convinced of the strength of the offer that we have and (chief executive and chairman of the managing board of the PSA Group) Carlos Tavares has spoken openly about his desire to make DS a success,” he said.
“It may not be a rapid process, but we have time to get things right because the group is right behind us.”
Degrees of separation
It has not always been the case that PSA’s franchised retailers have been behind the desire to make DS a success.
A rocky divorce from the Citroen brand, which was completed in July 2018, saw dealers’ pain at the loss of the previously lucrative DS 3 hatchback from their showrooms reflected in a slump in National Franchised Dealers Association’s Dealer Attitude Survey scores.
The 150 franchised partners were trimmed to 25 as the brands split, and the effects were still being felt in the brand’s annual sales figures for 2019.
DS’s annual sales declined 15.3% from 5,074 to 4,299 last year. Descat explained the downward trend was a result of the buoyant run-out sales of the now discontinued DS 3 hatchback, which was sold from the larger Citroen network until the brand’s official separation.
“The transition was even harder in the UK because DS 3 was such a successful project.
With 10,000 annual sales the UK was its second-biggest market,” he said.
“When we started with those 25 dealers in July 2018, only they could sell the new DS models. The shift in volumes has been very strong and, of course, there are fewer dealers able to sell those cars.
“We’ve built (the network) up. We are now 36 and we should be opening four new dealers in the next three to four months. We can go to 40.”
Descat argued that, on average, DS retailers sold twice as many cars in 2019 as they did the year before, adding: “The profit they get from DS is better than they would get from another premium manufacturer.”
The DS Automobiles UK boss would not share a return on sale composite for its network with AM but said: “For me the profit of the dealers is my top KPI because those guys have invested. They understand that it will take time.”
New sites and a CI shift
When AM spoke to Descat, before the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus across Europe in March, he was hopeful that 2020 would herald the start of the new era proper for the brand, with an expanded UK retail network, new CI policy and a range offering hybrids and full EVs.
DS had four new retail locations at the time of our interview.
Three were Robins & Day operations, with Chiswick London West, Romford and Leicester dealerships all in development, while the brand had also partnered with Willmoths in Crayford.
Nine of the 36 DS dealerships in operation in the UK at the time were operated by PSA-owned Robins & Day Group and all four of the planned sites would be attached to a Citroen dealership.
Asked why almost a third of the brand’s UK sites are run by the OEM-owned group, Descat cited the issue of high investment costs in the urban areas the brand saw as its key market areas.
In an effort to combat the issue of affordability and return on investment for new franchised partners, Descat has revisited DS’s corporate identity guidelines.
Prospective retailers are now able to join the French premium brand’s franchise for “as little as £150,000”.
Descat said leveraging the virtual reality (VR) technology initially used to launch the DS 7 Crossback in 2017 would enable new investors to establish a dealership for less.
DS’s original CI gave retailers a choice of a five-car DS Store covering 250 square metres-plus or the DS Salon – inside an existing Citroen franchise – of 125 square metres-plus, which currently accounts for 25 of the brand’s 36 sales points. Now the new DS Store CI concept dictates a 150sq-m showroom with just two cars.
Describing how the brand’s Virtual Vision VR solution works, Descat said: “You sit in the seat and then put on the headset and you are in the car.
"You can configure it how you like. You get out of the car and you’re on Place de la Concorde in Paris, and you can hear birds singing. You can move the car around and change the colours.
“The thinking is that as we expand the range we’ll have a new car each year so we will have a six-car showroom.
"The idea is that in a smaller footprint, such as in a city centre, you can still display more cars.”
Descat argued that DS’s resulting £150,000 development cost made it “the most cost-effective entry-point” to the premium car retail sector.
Robins & Day’s DS Automobiles dealership in Birmingham was among the first to make use of the brand’s VR concept when it opened in September last year.
While VR might have appeared ideal for shopping centre car stores, a trial at Stratford’s Westfield Shopping Centre has steered Descat’s opinion against it.
“If you wanted to sell cars that wasn’t the effective set-up,” he said.
“I didn’t renew that because that wasn’t my priority and the cost was quite expensive. I reinvested the money around the open stores and salons across the country, with more geo-marketing and strategic investment like that.
“At the present time, as we are building the network, I would rather focus on the dealers that are open to make sure that DS awareness is raised because our number one problem today is without doubt a lack of awareness of the brand.
“We have very good feedback on the product, customers are happy and they feel like they have made a smart choice. It’s still the best-kept secret so how do we change that?
“The thing is if you live in a part of the country where you don’t have a DS Store within 40 miles you probably wouldn’t be aware of DS.
“That’s why I’m so aware of the role that the press can play in making people aware, but the efforts also have to be targeted – you could invest billion in bazooka marketing, but it has to be effective.”
DS dealer awards
One way DS Automobiles UK has attempted to increase its profile was through sponsorship of the Formula E championship-winning DS TECHEETAH racing team.
For a brand set to feature only electrified vehicles in its line-up from 2025, the alignment looks logical.
On a practical level, Descat is keen to empower his UK franchisees to take an entrepreneurial approach to their business, and awarded the team at WR Davies Motor Group’s DS Salon Stafford with its ‘Entrepreneurial Award’ for outstanding achievement in 2019 as recognition of this.
Descat said: “I think that the DS partners are all entrepreneurs and they did all take a risk – particularly when you take into account the UK market in particular, with all the macro-economic effects at play.
“If you ran your business as you had run your Citroen business then you won’t succeed because you won’t get the right approach.
"For a dealer it means finding new ways to market in your market area.
“In Stafford the guys were very creative. They partnered with local restaurants and created relationships that would build value.
“They would go for a test drive and stop for a coffee in a nice place and come back, so they’ve created local ambassadors like they also did in Edlington, in Northern Ireland.
“Regularly I reward dealers and occasionally people when they have been extremely entrepreneurial. It’s not just dealer
principals it’s the DS expert or the sales manager.
“They write to me and say ‘I have this idea, what do you think?’ I love it. I know the salesman by his first name, they know me. We do live video chats and its very much like a family. It’s like ‘welcome to the DS family’.”
Like many brands still targeting volume growth in the challenging times delivered by economic uncertainty and 2020/21 EU CO2 emissions regulations, which dictate €95-per-gram over a 95g/km fleet average emissions limit per car sold, DS Automobiles is pinning its hope of EVs.
Speaking to AM ahead of the Paris launch of the DS 7 Crossback 4x4 E-TENSE plug-in hybrid and DS 3 Crossback E-TENSE EV, Descat said that he hoped the proportion of electrified vehicles sold by DS “could be something above 20%” in 2020.
“We will push E-TENSE because this really is an opportunity to stand out as a new brand, a new cool brand if you like, which is also a responsible brand. It matters to me personally, but it also matters to all of us,” he said.
He sees the DS 7 as an ideal car for a user-chooser business driver, but added: “DS 3 Crossback E-TENSE is more a retail car, I think.
“The price is roughly £50 more a month than the ICE but then you probably save £50 a month on fuel and that’s not taking into account local regulations such as parking incentives or the congestion charge.
“I was in Brighton the other day and there was this great thing, they had this sheet which they distributed to all car dealers where they compare EV versus petrol and show you all the benefits.
“Local authorities must continue to give clarity on the taxation, which isn’t there right now.”
In order to allow its retailers to share the DS experience, it has created a 24-hour test drive and it wants to continue its positive feedback well into a car’s lifecycle.
It has now developed a DS 35 approved used car programme and its aftersales proposition includes vehicle delivery and collection or a DS courtesy car as a minimum requirement.
Descat wants the brand’s customers to ideally visit their dealership and be served by sales staff all of whom have spent a week in Paris being immersed in the city’s cosmopolitan luxury retail outlets to understand the level of service that DS wants to deliver.
In Paris, the brand showed the assembled journalists how the MyDS smartphone app would also form the gateway to a “privilege club” with restaurant recommendations and exclusive events offered to broaden the lifestyle aspect of the brand.
Descat said: “It’s a competitive market. As an emerging brand we need to compete in the spaces where others are, but deliver in our own way, to trade on our unique appeal.”