CMO50 2020 #18: Nikki Warburton

  • Name Nikki Warburton
  • Title Chief customer and marketing officer
  • Company Audi Australia
  • Commenced role August 2018
  • Reporting Line Managing director
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 40 staff, 5 direct reports
  • Industry Sector Automotive
  • 2019 ranking 26-50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    If you want to make marketing innovative, embed an owner’s mindset, agility, empowerment and accountability, says Audi Australia’s marketing and customer chief, Nikki Warburton.  

    “Marketing must be seen as an investment and function innovating with a business purpose,” she says. Her other top ingredients for success include frontline obsession, empathy and understanding of customer pain points, and a growth mindset both elastic and iterative.  

    Warburton has been putting all these elements into practice over the last two years as she’s sought to build Audi Australia’s marketing prowess and customer engagement strategy. As she describes it, it’s been a journey of reimagining many different business-to-customer models simultaneously.  

    Just look at online sales and Audi’s store launch, which is shaking up automotive-to-dealer relationships. Or Audi Australia’s virtual press launches to enable 26 product launches this year, lifting the automaker to media relationship. Then there’s overhauling the customer engagement model. This has been transformed through initiatives such as virtual Audi experiences, ecommerce initiatives and the Audi @ home initiatives.


    A number of these were responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet even before the crisis, Audi Australia had been challenged with the desire to be as progressive ‘internally’ as its vehicles.

    “With COVID-19 affecting the business, our people and the customers and network we serve, a collaborative step-change became essential to delivering on outcomes,” Warburton says.

    Warburton’s role has been to lead the business transformation strategy and implementation, with a focus on staff, customers and the dealer network. At the height of the crisis and working collaboratively with the dealer network, Audi transformed its highly anticipated dealer of the year event into a premium digital livestream event. It’s also re-invented the dealer engagement model with video live-stream updates, Zoom workshops and cross-functional Audi Australia /dealer network groups, enabling collaboration and business continuity.

    Employees initiatives over the last six months included enhancing communication, connection and wellbeing through a new employee and dealer intranet, which houses business and departmental updates plus a weekly video communication update from the MD. Wellbeing digital sessions were also rolled out covering nutrition to sleep workshops and mental health advice from Audi foundation partners, RUOK and Reachout.

    On top of having a highly engaged, confident and satisfied employee/dealer network, building these sorts of collaboration capabilities has ensured the launch of 27 models in the middle of a pandemic were successful.  

    “The whole world changed. So we changed with it,” says Warburton says.

    Cross-functional collaboration

    To make this happen, a cross-functional team was formed to re-imagine the customer journey, addressing the emergence of three needs off the back of COVID-19. The first was replacing physical with digital connections.  

    In four weeks and with a small budget, Warburton’s team launched the Vehicle Stock Locator / Online Sales Platform, providing customers with the ability to reserve their Audi from the comfort of their home. Audi became the first premium brand to offer online sales across its range. Results included more than $11 million in revenue.  

    “We launched new digital services including a Vehicle Stock Locator and Online Sales Platform, helping customers purchase a car from their home, nominate a desired price and finance/trade-in preferences,” Warburton explains.    

    “With 27 new models launching, we fast-tracked digital modules, to facilitate training of dealer staff and introduced online livestreams/contactless press launches to permit media launches.” Thirteen launches resulted significant coverage, leading to Audi ranking as the number one brand for PR share of voice in July 2020.  

    On top of this, Warburton and her team modified the Audi Experience program, delighting customers with a range of virtual experiences in the face of lockdown. These include cooking masterclass with Guillaume Brahimi, to a floral workshop with Lisa Wilkinson, which sold out in 24 hours. In all, eight experiences were delivered, and 97 per cent of participants agreed these were a great added value in Audi’s overall CX.

    The second need identified by Warburton’s team was utility to solve the challenges the COVID lifestyle presents. Working in partnership with its network, the team launched virtual consultations, vehicle drop-off for test-drives/delivery and service pick-up/drop-off and priority servicing for essential workers. Six months of financial support, flexible payment solutions and warranty extensions were also delivered to support customers.

    The third need identified was entertainment to stave off the boredom. Audi invested in creating meaningful content to engage fans. The highlight was ‘The Drive’, a four-hour drive of the NSW countryside. This was picked up globally, achieving 100,000 reach worth $770,000 in PR value. Collaborating with SBS, Audi then made its longform award-winning documentary available on broadcast/VOD platforms.

    Other initiatives included the Audi Ambassador Series Check In, as well as launch of the Audi Colouring Book, keeping young and old entertained.  

    Innovative marketing

    You might be reading these thinking such initiatives are a far step removed from how the automotive category has traditionally operated. As Warburton puts it, the automotive industry has long struggled with systemic challenges.

    “It’s a slow-moving category, innovation is driven by HQ and dealers play a critical role in experience due to franchise sales/servicing models,” Warburton says. “Then the global pandemic shut down industries. Applying a customer-first lens, our brand’s values and CX strategy became central for guiding rapid transformation.”

    Yet four weeks after the pandemic stuck, Audi Australia had created a contactless experience that delivered record results.

    For a frictionless end-to-end experience, ‘Audi At Home’ was launched, to address customer needs including ‘virtual consultations’, ‘vehicle test-drive drop-off’ and ‘home-delivery'. As the online platform was initially slow to takeoff, a series of agile test-and-learn initiatives were implemented to optimise platforms.   

    Only in market for 12 weeks, the platform has delivered more than 285,000 visitors, $11 million in revenue and over 12,000 per cent ROI.  

    Business smarts

    Prior to the pandemic hitting globally, Warburton says nine years of growth had ended in 2017.

    “This presented an opportunity to re-imagine our team, purpose and partner models to drive greater efficiencies, value and impact for the business, through an expanded marketing function,” she says.

    Warburton’s role was to align the business on ambition to unlock opportunity, empower cross-functional teams to explore/prototype new models for partner collaboration, and seek leadership buy in to drive action.

    From a marketing perspective, this has seen Audi Australia move from agencies of record to a progressive agency roster while insourcing digital and social resources, strengthening internal capabilities and creating leadership capability. Development of a central brand, customer experience and data toolkits have also been vital to aligning internal and external teams on single-source truth.

    These efforts have seen Audi Australia reduce agency fees to find efficiencies and increase effectiveness, lift employee satisfaction from 72 per cent to 85 per cent and empowered teams so they feel they add value.  

    Global best practice recognition has ensued, and Warburton notes global take-up of six locally created campaigns. Gaps to premium competitors have closed in brand consideration, the first time in two-and-a-half years, while Audi commands the number one premium brand in terms of social and digital engagement. Importantly, it’s chalked up year-on-yar sales growth in a declining premium market.  

    Data-driven approach

    With a desire for a single and accurate view of the customer, another journey Audi Australia has been over the last two years is consolidating customer data. Warburton’s role has been to formulate strategy, seek leadership and network buy-in on digital transformation journey, then empower teams to action.

    Since January, the group has implemented a Salesforce ecosystem with Sales, Service, Marketing and Social Cloud, kicked off a multi-channel integration project with 40 dealers, providing end-to-end visibility of the customer, and worked to upskill teams on capabilities, with use cases prioritised to advance outcomes.

    A big short-term win is effective targeting and conversion, Warburton says. “With a sophisticated automation platform now in place, 70 tailored journeys have been developed and a lead-nurture program designed, to convert prospects into leads, leads into sales, resulting in 60 per cent uplift in test-drive lead conversion to sales,” she says.

    “In addition to social listening, we are integrating social escalation with the customer team, allowing us to streamline case management and improve experience.”  

    Media effectiveness is another winner, and Audi is tapping first-party data to increase the pool of new customers, minimising wastage/increasing effectiveness.  

    Commercial acumen

    Even with all this going on, Warburton has been able to turn her attention to Audi’s sponsorships as a way of further demonstrating commercial impact. As she points out, sponsorships are historically difficult to attribute ROI to. Facing a huge reduction in budget, applying a customer-lens became vital in re-strategising the sponsorship department.

    The result was re-aligning the business around the customer. This included transforming the team to a retention and loyalty team and extending the remit to include CRM as well as in-sourcing the call-centre/social team. Employee listening via the call centre was introduced, as were customer research panels.

    “We re-shaped our experiential portfolio and built measurement capability, delivering on customer outcomes such as NPS, ownership experience and re-purchase. We invested in Salesforce, enabling single-source truth with tailored journeys, trigger comms and sales programs to increase re-purchase,” Warburton says.    

    “And we elevated our reward program, with bespoke experiences and offers, to enhance customers’ lifestyles. This extended to digital experiences, reinforcing Audi’s progressive positioning and creating additional value for our customers.”   

    The work has resulted in increase in repurchase of 5 per cent this year, contributing to sales growth. Audi Experience Members are also 40 per cent more likely to re-purchase compared to all Audi customers.  

    At a wider level, Warburton points to greater team connection, trust and respect at all levels this year. She notes a sense of comradery over achievements and wins, the excitement that comes with adaptability and agility, and greater awareness of individual team strengths

    Moving forward, Warburton says leaders now have a great opportunity and a significant responsibility “to ensure we have learnt from this pandemic and we don’t just revert back to old ways”.

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