Welcome to Episode 4 of The Mapendo Talks, our latest series of exclusive interviews with some extremely knowledgeable industry experts who can help shed some light on some of the most highly relevant and interesting topics in the world of digital marketing, advertising, technology, and mobile usage. These topics of focus have become even more relevant during these last few months given the profound effect that the pandemic has had in our online behaviour.
Today we welcome a very special guest, Don Romano. Don Romano is the President and CEO of Hyundai Auto Canada. In addition to overseeing the company’s record setting sales performance over the past seven years, Don has been busy with the development and launch of the new, unique luxury brand Genesis. Genesis represents the first time a major car company in North America has replaced the traditional dealer franchise model with a direct, hassle free, online buying experience.
Prior to joining Hyundai, Don was Senior Managing Director and Corporate Brand Officer for Toyota’s Middle East operations during which Toyota achieved record sales and an unprecedented, record 50 percent share of the automotive market.
Prior to working for Toyota, Don served as President of Mazda Canada and, at the same time, CMO for Mazda North America. He is best known for his contribution to Mazda’s wildly successful global brand campaign, Zoom Zoom, which was launched over a decade ago and is still going strong today.
Don lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife, four children and three dogs. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Business from California State University and an M.B.A. from Pepperdine University. When he’s not working, he’s either skiing, surfing or swimming. Don is a competitive long distance swimmer and an Ontario Masters Swimming gold medalist.
So without further ado, we are very excited to have Don answer our questions and we really look forward to getting into the conversation!
If you’d like to find out more about Don, check out his Social Media Pages below:
First off, thank you Mr. Romano for participating in this series, it’s a privilege and great pleasure having the CEO of Hyundai Canada as one of our guests. We look forward to an interesting discussion on a variety of topics.
Before we go deeper into the more topic-specific questions, we always begin with a couple of introductory questions for all our guests just to break the ice. We pose these first couple questions to all our interviewees, it has sort of become tradition to open our interviews with. So, without any further ado…
How did you end up being part of your specific industry? Did you always plan on getting into automotive or did you “accidentally” get into the sector and then developed a passion for it as a consequence?
DR: Originally, I was planning to be a commercial pilot. I was working for Flying Tiger Airlines while completing my bachelor’s degree when the company went belly up. With no job and a big tuition bill, I had to find another job very fast. While driving home from the airport, I drove past the offices of Nissan North America which was relatively close to my University. I decided to turn around and visit the office to see if they had any open positions. Their first response was they had no need for a pilot. However, I explained that I was a business student with an interest in cars. The gentleman who took my application was a private pilot. After talking about aviation for an hour, he hired me on the spot. The rest is history as I fell in love with the industry and have worked in automotive ever since.
Did you end up doing anything odd or different during your quarantine/ during this Pandemic that you normally wouldn’t have done otherwise? Any new habits that you picked up to pass the time that you may have formally adopted on a longer-term basis?
DR: I’m a second generation musician. So I dusted off my guitars and keyboards and started writing music.
Things have unquestionably been turned upside down in the past year. However, there are some definite positives. Our company has been able to work effectively at home which has helped many of our employees with children that couldn’t go to school due to the pandemic. We also increased our communications and training online. We found time to play games together online and we held parties online. While it may not have been a perfect substitute for physical interaction, we made the best of it and received recognition as one of Canada’s top 50 places to work and one of Hyundai’s highest employee engagement ratings globally. We were also recognized by Hyundai Motor Group when we received their Platinum Award of Excellence, given to the top performing Hyundai operation globally.
Now that we got our initial warm up questions out of the way, let’s get a little deeper into the knitty-gritty of the main subjects at hand.
With the of the Pandemic having had such a major impact on our daily lives do you think that we have crossed a threshold that we will not come back from as far as how consumers interact with, and experience brands? Do you believe that dynamic between consumer and brand has changed forever or will we go back to pre-Pandemic times at some point?
DR: Despite the challenges many have faced during the pandemic, the wellbeing of our customers is always our top priority. We’re looking at all of our activity through the lens of the customer. This pandemic has taught us how to further improve our safety standards on top of our existing protocols at dealerships and offices. We have implemented our Safe and Sound procedures which include: the installation of Plexiglas, available PPE and hand sanitizer, maintaining at least 2 metres distance between individuals, and most importantly, strict sanitization procedures for vehicles before and after each test drive and service.
I think that eventually we will return to a new “modified normal”. Things will relax, people will get more comfortable, but cleanliness will remain a top priority for years to come, and rightfully so. Consequently, our Safe and Sound procedures are here to stay for the long term.
Additionally, we have seen customers’ adoption of digital methods of communication and transactions. Hyundai was already working on omni-channel tools and systems before COVID struck, and that definitely helped us sustain our business when dealerships were mandated to close, but it has certainly made us realize how important offering digital sales and service options are going to be in the future.
What is your opinion on the evolution of marketing strategy and the integration of channels that traditionally were not part of the mix, meaning the continuous evolution towards more and more digital channels? How much will the traditional, non-digital channels play a role in the next few years, particularly in the automotive sector?
DR: Four years ago we were the first major OEM in North America to launch a new brand completely online. The brand is Genesis, the luxury division of Hyundai. Customers learn about our products, chose the products that best fit their lifestyles and buy completely online with no haggling and no hassles. In addition, our brand promise is to make car buying and ownership as easy and enjoyable as possible, so the price of our products included all maintenance as well as pick up and delivery service. Our slogan is “we come to you.” If you want to test a Genesis, just go online and book a test drive. We’ll come to you. And all of this was done years before Covid.
We have since adopted many of the learnings from Genesis into Hyundai and we continued to do so as we learn what customers like most about our products and services.
The future of our industry is definitely digital when it comes to customer engagement and interaction with automotive brands. The old ways of buying and servicing a vehicle are rapidly disappearing as new, more transparent and efficient systems are quickly becoming the norm.
Being able to do things online is becoming more and more essential. Hyundai has historically been ahead of other brands when it comes to selling online — when Hyundai entered the online sales market only Tesla Inc. was competing. Do you think this advantage will persist long term? Does Hyundai have an upper hand having had online selling experience early on?
DR: We just launched our At-Home Test Drive shopping tool this week which allows customers to complete a test drive of a Hyundai vehicle at their home or workplace. This is the first corporate-lead program of its kind in Canada to be available nationally. We want to provide safe and convenient options for our customers to experience a Hyundai from the comfort of their own homes.
The Genesis model is a success and we’ve only just begun. We are now expanding our product line-up and we expect Genesis to quickly become the most successful and loved brand in the industry.
We have been able to quickly implement some of these practices with our Hyundai brand to allow consumers to complete more of the purchase process online. We are planning to roll out even more digital sales and service tools in 2021 to ensure Hyundai maintains its lead in this digital evolution.
On the topic of the actual purchasing process, back in 2019 you said that “car buying cannot be 100% online” once it became clear that consumers still longed for a physical showroom after the higher-end Genesis line of cars were launched as “online-only” in 2016. Do you think that in the future, technology like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality will be able to bridge this gap? Will Millennial and Gen Z consumers potentially be more open to the possibility of getting that immersive experience of the buying process through this type of tech or will there always be a need for real-life physicality?
DR: Unlike many consumer products, we can’t stream a car or deliver it through Amazon. The technology going into our products is becoming more sophisticated, requiring more time to personalize the instrumentation and properly set the functions to the customer’s preferences. Furthermore, a new car purchase is one of the biggest most important investments a customer makes. So some level of physical contact will continue to be necessary in the foreseeable future.
That said, the need for physical contact will be minimized with the advent and application of various technologies. For instance, virtual and augmented reality can play an important role on the education and service side of the business. When it comes to explaining the various high-tech and safety features available in our vehicles to customers or dealer staff, this is an area with a lot of promise.
Not only will these technologies provide greater transparency and educational support, they’ll save our customers their most precious commodity — time. By saving time in the purchase and ownership processes we can give them more time to do the things they love. And that’s not just progress for business purposes, we see that as progress for humanity.
Artificial Intelligence has been a major topic of discussion in recent times from Elon Musk fearing it might take over the world, to how it will be enhanced and used in the future of mobility. Today, massive amounts of data are being collected from individuals’ daily use of their mobile phones in order to build (anonymous) yet personalized profiles with the help of Artificial Intelligence, which can then be used to target those individuals with extremely relevant and targeted marketing campaigns. Do you think the data generated by autonomous vehicles could be integrated as well to enrich these target audiences? (Such as type or model of vehicle, and travel habits data both being taken into consideration in potential programmatic advertising applications). Or will privacy laws and privacy-enhancing technologies becomes a major hurdle in achieving something like this?
DR: Our Bluelink system allows consumers to connect with their Hyundai or Genesis vehicles to provide a number of services that make their lives easier. The ability to diagnose a vehicle in real time without having to physically bring in the vehicle for an inspection is an amazing time saver. Other services that connect our customers to their vehicle are making car ownership more and more convenient. As such, demand for connected services will continue to grow in the future.
That being said, we will always respect the privacy of our customer’s data by ensuring that any information is collected anonymously and used only for product improvement. Privacy laws cannot be seen as hurdles. They are an essential part of doing business in the 21st century.
Automotive has been hit hard because of the pandemic, do you think there will be a significant comeback for the industry as a whole? What do you think is the future for this key sector?
DR: The pandemic has been a huge challenge for many industries globally due to the closing of many physical stores as well as businesses having to adapt quickly to these new changes. However, there is now an increased need for personal mobility as people question the safety and reliability of mass transit and, as always, Hyundai is dedicated to providing the right product for every customer. In Canada, Hyundai was actually better positioned than most of our competitors to adapt quickly to these changes. Accordingly, as we have learned to adapt and provide a safe and sound purchase and service environment, we are now seeing a full rebound in demand. That said, we cannot become complacent. We don’t know exactly when Covid will be eradicated. So until then, we must continue to be diligent to ensure our employees and customers safety is always top of mind. In doing so, I am confident that with the new products, advanced mobility and eco technologies being introduced by Hyundai and Genesis, the future will be outstanding.
Thank you Don for your outstanding input, and we thank you again for having participated in our Series, The Mapendo Talks and we are happy to have had you as a guest and had to opportunity to discuss all of these very interesting topics and get a deeper insight into the digital future of automotive.
Just a quick reminder to all our readers, like we mentioned in our very first interview with Michael Jessen in Episode 1, this series will feature new interviews on an ongoing basis, so if you don’t want to miss out on any of our future episodes make sure to sign up to our newsletter! You can also write to us directly for questions, comments, or suggestions. Until next time!
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