Interview with Rudi Venter
Rudi Venter has been with Audi for a long time. A born and raised South African with a rather German sounding name, he runs the Audi Singapore organisation as General Manager, Marketing since mid-2017.
Rudi Venter started his career as an automotive journalist in 1998 in South Africa. When he was approached to join Audi in 2003 as a PR manager he decided to jump the fence and join the corporate world from what he describes as the ‘care free world’ of car journalism.
He held a number of positions after that in marketing at Audi South Africa. In 2015, he joined the newly started Audi structure in Malaysia in a marketing role, from where he moved in 2017 to become the General Manager for Marketing at Audi Singapore.
Did he join after or during the Audi-Volkswagen brand separation?
“I joined after that separation began, though in South Africa the actual separation was just starting. Audi was setting up its own independent operations, including sales and marketing while also setting up a separate dealer network. The biggest shift came from 2005 onwards with the product expansion. Audi went from a brand selling the A3, A4, A6, the TT and the A8, to a brand with a very diverse product portfolio that includes SUVs by now for all segments. Audi added the Q5, the A5, the R8 and later on a host of other models, to get to the portfolio where they are today.”
What about Audi’s positioning as the premium brand?
“The premium aspirations of the brand have always been there. If you look at the brand history going more than 100 years, there has always been an element of premium to the brand.”
What about Vorsprung durch Technik as a brand mantra and how is this reflected in the marketing strategy? Does this influence how Audi onboards new marketing technology?
“I honestly don’t remember when exactly this was introduced but it was there when I started. It has been the brand’s claim for decades. It is certainly meant as a guiding principle. It has always allowed us to look at and consider some of the cooler stuff for the products, as long as it would also help the premium aspect of the brand. What is important to understand is that Vorsprung durch Technik is not only an ATL claim. It typifies the way we engage with customers and dealers. We are having a big push at the moment to digitalise the retail customer experience for the customer. We are setting up an in-dealer VR private lounge in which you can configure a car in high definition 3D. But at the same time we try to digitalise the paperwork. We are trying to make this easier for the customer.”
Did this not start already in 2011 with Audi City?
“Indeed, it did start there. The Audi City store is still around but the concept has evolved because the technology has evolved. The idea is still the same. The virtual reality technology we use, allows us to be in the high street where space is prohibitively expensive. This is great in locations like London or Beijing. On top of that we have the option of organising test drives because an actual dealership might only be 10 minutes away.”
The Audi dashboard and the built-in technology are becoming more and more digital and complex. Yet the competition is doing similar things. How does Audi ensure they stand out?
“Audi will always approach digital technology with the intent of making living with and using the car easier for the customer. This goes years back, when we introduced the MMI controller and interface. This was developed to make it possible for drivers to use the system safely while driving. This is still very much how we design the new A8 dashboard today.”
How do you stay top of mind in a very digitally cluttered environment how do you determine the mix? Are you actually going completely digital? And finally, how do you build premium-ness in digital, which in and off itself is more and more commoditised?
“Digital is the way the world is going. We were just looking at market data that underscores that mobile is the most important device and people watch less and less television. But for Singapore, which is where my focus is, we still see that physical newspapers and radio are still important channels. So as tactical marketing channels, we need to keep them in the mix.
“Premium in digital is possible and it obviously depends on what you do and where you appear. It is about how you invest programmatically and where you invest it in. You have to be on the right websites and blogs.”
Do you work specifically on ad placement strategy with your agency? How do you deal with the so called digital clutter and the fact that you don’t always control your placement?
“Our media agency is PhD. It depends on the campaign we work on and what we need to communicate but we work closely together with them. The digital marketing and advertising space is cluttered. But you can control the way you present yourself as a brand. As Audi Singapore, the era of programmatic media allows us to target prominent placements or premium customers. Also, we will not add price balloons and other elements that can cheapen the brand.”
What about the Singapore Motorshow? Most brands did not come with anything other than putting the car in the showroom with the scantily clad females next to it. How did Audi do this different?
“This Motorshow is really a trade show to sell cars, so it is not so much to build the brand. Even so, we will always try and bring elements to the booth to stand out. This time around we showed what you can do with the extra time you’re getting in your car when it can drive itself. No one else had anything like it. We had ambassadors next to the cars but they were an equal mix of men and women. We dress them properly and we invest in training them, so they can talk about the car.”
How do you distinguish yourself from the obvious direct competitors; BMW and Mercedes?
“Although we play in the same space, I think each brand has a distinct personality. It is important to understand that Audi is a challenger brand in Singapore, represented by an owned organisation. BMW is e.g. represented by the dealer in Singapore and therefore their marketing efforts are skewed towards selling. But as a challenger brand we have to do branding and brand marketing. We need to close the awareness gap that currently still exists between our main competitors and Audi.”
How do you deal with connectivity and the logical preference of customers to use their own devices in the car?
“It is important to understand what we mean by connectivity. It is much more than just Bluetooth and apps. There is to so-called inter-car connectivity and then there is the car-to-X and the car to car connectivity that is important for autonomous driving. We are moving to autonomously driving vehicles and in order for this to work, the cars need to communicate with each other and with a bigger infrastructure.
“To me there are two distinct part to connectivity. On the one hand, there is entertainment and we are offering this in the car through Apple Carplay and the likes. We take this very seriously because a good integration means you don’t have to keep the phone at hand. It can be in the glove compartment or in your pocket where it won’t cause injury because it is in a holder attached to the dashboard.
“Car-to-car and car-to-X connectivity we are pushing ahead as well and this is a very important topic as well and we are pushing this very hard.”
Is it true that the younger generation is moving away from car ownership? Does your research prove this?
“Younger people might no longer be interested in owning a car but that does not necessarily mean that they are not interested in driving. There are moments where they would definitely prefer driving one privately. On top of this, for a premium brand it is even more difficult to share because of the premium owners have paid.
“But in Singapore we have just introduced a car leasing system called Audi on demand. This allows you to access a fleet of vehicles and you pay per hour for the use of the car, once you have reserved it for a certain amount of time.
“These are all brand new insured Audis and you can pick it up or have it delivered to you.”
Do you consider that to be part of marketing? Could this for instance be a part of demand generation?
“We sure see this as a shot across the bow as to how we want to embrace the change in mobility. We are certainly not saying that car ownership will go away. You see this with music streaming e.g. Hardly anyone buys music anymore these days. With cars, this is certainly more complex but we do realise that elements of the shared economy will make their way into mobility.”
There is a focus on customer experience at Audi. How does Audi make a difference, also in terms of products?
“The thing that is going to separate us from the other players like BMW and, Mercedes, who make very good cars, is the customer experience. You will have to be able to offer something that customers appreciate so much that they will come back to you and not to the competitor. It suits your lifestyle more, both on product and customer experience level. As an element of this we have a sophisticated membership program that provides lifestyle privileges to our customers. Through the data they provide us, we are able to deliver better service, messages and in general a better experience.
“For Audi in terms of products, I want to mention two things, the Audi virtual cockpit and the Matrix LED headlights. The virtual cockpit offers a way to customise your digital dashboard so you can get your navigation information instead of the radio channel or you want to always see certain data on the car, you can configure it. The Matrix LED headlights provide you with maximum illumination under all circumstances, without blinding anyone. Both aspects make living with the car easier and a better experience. These are the small things that we do different from competitors.”
How do you measure marketing success?
“It depends on who you talk to in an automotive organisation. Tactically it is of course about sales. But we are also measuring branding regularly using a lot of KPIs, specifically in Singapore. We know that in Singapore we have a gap in un-aided brand awareness. This means that we have to do more to boost that area. Our brand campaign last year was about educating the public about Audi technology. To change perception we went mass, meaning we went onto television and radio, things we normally do not do at the scale we decided to roll it out with.”
As branding is so important, how is this centrally driven from Ingolstadt? How much freedom does Audi in Singapore have to deviate from their guidelines?
“We are allowed to adapt to local requirements. That is good. But at the same time what we get from headquarters is usually very good and easy to adapt to the Singapore market.”
How do you work with agencies?
“Agencies provide a different perspective of your own business. We are sometimes too deep into things and they can come forward with fresh ideas. We foster the relationships with them and see them as partners.”
What about innovation. Do you have a certain autonomy to drive that?
“I suppose you have to define what you consider innovation because even in the online space it is a bit of a hit and miss. Innovation for us is very much about campaign execution. Last year we tackled a very difficult topic, Artificial Intelligence, trying to make it more understandable.”
VR is part of that, right?
“VR is innovative and it will help getting customers to experience stuff, like certain colour combinations that we very likely will not have in stock. But again, it needs to serve a customer purpose.”
What do you consider a good campaign, does it have to be an Audi campaign?
“I consider the Uber campaign where they used boxes to illustrate how mobility can change society. That in my mind is an example of a campaign that is extremely clear and effective through great creative.”
What about the competitor in the US, Tesla?
“Let’s be honest, Tesla has done a good job and we can learn from them. Audi has a different approach. We will always look at the total car experience and create something that will be different.”
What is your favourite Audi model?
“I have had the pleasure during my tenure at Audi to drive pretty much every model. But the one has eluded and is also my favourite is the RS 4 Avant. Unfortunately, in Singapore estate cars are not very popular and it wouldn’t fit also where I am currently in my life. But it remains my favourite Audi nonetheless!”
Editor: Matthieu Vermeulen