CMO profile: Selling the proposition of buying cars digitally

Cars24 head of marketing shares the unique brand awareness, trust and education challenges she faces and the media play she's employing to build out the digital startup's proposition

When Amy de Groot was initially approached to join startup, Cars24, her first thought was that she didn’t want to become a used car salesman.

“No marketer wants to be that 20 years into their career – it sounds like a fall from grace,” she says. “So it took some convincing. But once I understood the backing of the business, that fact it’s worth nearly US$4bn globally, and understood the opportunity to be first in market influencing one of the most dramatic changes in consumer consumption and buying behaviours in this ecommerce landscape, I saw how super rare an opportunity this was.”

Launched in Australia in September 2021 as Australia’s first 100 per cent online used car buying platform, Cars24 is an Indian unicorn startup now operating across India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Australia. In December last year, the business closed a US$400 million round of funding, including a $300 million Series G equity round. This was on top of raising $850m over the last year, pushing the platform’s market valuation up to $3.3 billion by December 2021.

De Groot joined Cars24 as Australian brand manager in August 2021. By April, de Groot had overseen a dynamic set of test-and-learn marketing tactics that included flying a helicopter over the Northern Beaches to debut Cars24’s seven-day delivery guarantee, to city-by-city out-of-home (OOH) and radio campaigns. In June this year, she launched Cars24’s Australian brand campaign, ‘That’s a Shame’ across TV and digital. The turnaround from concept to TV ad debut was four weeks.

“That’s testament to how fast startups move. I always joke working for a startup is an extreme sport,” de Groot says.

The brand challenge

As de Groot puts it, Cars24 is trying to influence a seismic shift in consumer behaviour: From buying used cars in the traditional way in a car yard, to buying them online, sight unseen.

“My role has been working out what needs to be done in different intervals - to first launch a brand no one has ever heard of, to building an appetite and convincing consumers to spend $30,000 with us for a car,” she says. “It's a big ask and there’s nothing else like it in the Australian ecommerce landscape. That was challenge coming in: How we get everyone in Australia to know who we are, to trust us, and to like us.”

Cars24 positions itself as a digital dealership. Unlike marketplaces such as Gumtree or Carsales, where anyone can advertise their cars on the platform, Cars24 has its own inventory of about 1500 cars. It also owns the digital platform, operational processes and services around the user car purchase.

Adding to the challenge is the fact the business model for Cars24 locally is somewhat distinct. For instance, in India, there are physical dealerships where certain types of cars are available to test drive. Customers then choose and pay online for their preferred make and model, like they would a new car. In Australia, Cars24 has begun offering test drives of 45 minutes but does not have the physical dealership footprint. The purchase process digitally or via a mobile phone then follows the same path, resulting in cars delivered directly to the customer’s door.

The key as de Groot sees it is to inject personality into the brand. “Over my entire career, my mantra has been ‘just be human’, don’t just be a big brand,” she says.

“It’s about making this brand fun, relatable and memorable in way that won’t make people uncomfortable to begin with. When the business is the size of a Volvo in 10 years from now, we’ll be able to be extremely cheeky and that’s the way we will continue to be disruptive. Right now, we need to have that relatable experience and great Australian humour.”

It’s this thinking that led to the ‘That’s a Shame’ campaign, which debuted in late June across TV, YouTube and social. It comprises of two films highlighting the pain points of purchasing used cars through traditional used car dealers or private sellers, and introduces the simplicity of purchasing a high-quality, well-priced used car without the scary surprises, directly from the phone with Cars24.

Creative was informed by research showing car salesmen sitting at the top of Australia’s ‘least trusted’ list for the past 36 years. One spot focuses on the experience of buying from a private seller and shows a dodgy used car dealer who puts a young couple through their paces with his sleazy sales pitch. The second spot features a nervous, unassuming first-time car buyer taken for a ride by a woman offloading her lemon in exchange for quick cash. The spots end with the direct-to-door Cars24 delivery. The work was created by Milkman Agency, with production by The Producers.

“From a creative perspective, it’s about being relatable. It’s a huge, emotional and financial investment to buy a car. It was about trying to resonate at that emotive level,” de Groot says.

Cars24’s customer sweet spot is younger buyers between 24-45 years of age who don’t know much about cars or have experiences spending this amount of money before. The focus is particularly on the younger end of the spectrum using social channels.

A key campaign measurement for de Groot has been via Google brand search. “The day the campaign launched with two spots, our brand traffic went up 35 per cent. It was 95 per cent in five days and by 10 days over 130 per cent,” she says. “We watched that fall into conversions plus repeat traffic.”

Prior to this, de Groot had conducted testing using radio, BVOD and YouTube in different markets under a city-by-city strategy to work out an optimum media mix.

“With the new ‘That’s a Shame’ commercials coming in, we knew where to allocate that spend,” she explains. “We have withdrawn from OOH for now as it’s hard to attribute. We know radio works, particularly in Brisbane, but we needed to see the impact TV alone would have [with this initial brand campaign]. We are having our first burst in six weeks with just TV, then based on outcomes, we’ll decide whether we layer up in different markets.

“It’s done us good to test a lot of things, and we now have a magical combination that’s doing so well – I have never seen something do so well on TV so quickly.”  

Building brand awareness appetite

De Groot has experience bringing new concepts to market over her career, especially through her 10 years based in Asia. During this time, she worked for Mastercard in Tokyo, building out its loyalty program proposition, website, getting merchants onboard, and conducting its launch campaign. De Groot also helped wrestling entertainment business, WWE, debut new sub-brands for next-generation talent throughout Asia. The work included a nine-city live tour in Australia, as well as introducing the brand concept to countries across Asia-Pacific.

Credit: Cars24

“What drew me to this brand [Cars24] is it’s established in other markets but no one in Australia knows about it,” de Groot comments. “But as a marketer, I can use my learnings, particularly around brand awareness, from other markets where I helped bring in new products or brands.”

As de Groot has already made plain, establishing brand trust is critical to Cars24’s success. Ensuring the business and founders understand the importance of brand marketing has been integral to achieving internal buy-in.

“That huge change in behaviour isn’t going to happen overnight. There are pillars of trust we need to work on over a long time,” she says. “Buying a car is like entering a new relationship. I have made a huge infographic on this to explain how dating and how buying a car is similar. I don’t sit in my house waiting for Mr right to walk through the door, nor are consumers doing the same with the Cars24 offering.

“This is the purpose of brand marketing. When someone is ready to date, they see you are available – if they don’t, they go somewhere else. Brand marketing is about staying top of mind. The analogy has been well received internally - everyone understands and has gotten on-board.”  

Nevertheless, de Groot stresses how important it is to be commercially minded. “For a startup coming from Asia, most people in the company are data analysts. But the attribution software we have is very different in India versus Australia,” she continues.

“In India, they buy individual TV spots, which tells them the impact of every single TV ad. Here it’s evolving, but TARPs don’t work like that. So we have done a lot of testing, isolating individual markets and with target markets and above-the-line tactics to see where our lowest CPA is.”

De Groot also notes the helicopter stunt in April led to earned media reaching 180 million people globally.

“That shows the flex I have as a marketer and in this environment - you get thrown into ridiculous situations and you either sink or swim,” she adds.

Supporting de Groot is a set of agency partners including creative agency, Milkman (formerly 33 Mullen Lowe). Cars24 has also invested in specialists in-house including a graphic designer, head of CRM, head of content and head of digital commerce.

Six weeks into the new launch, de Groot is now turning her attention to mid-funnel and filling in the missing information gaps. She points out the Cars24’s website speaks more to the USPs of the business model.

“These aren’t things you’d take in the first time you hear about the brand, such as seven-day return guarantee if you don’t like the car, an extended six-month warranty, 12-month roadside assist,” she says. “We also do 360-degree, 3D internal and external inspections and we also talk about our safety and 300-point inspection all vehicles go through. I’m also pulling something together on recalls now.

“We know we have a big educational priority to address, which will lead to consideration and conversion over time.”

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