Digital transformation is typically the domain of technologists: those fluent in the intricacies of software and app development, data analytics and machine languages. Occasionally, when business users are brought into the conversation, mobile-savvy social-media visionaries and IT leaders may be included.
Increasingly, however, business executives are taking the reins and recognizing that digital transformation affects every aspect of their operations. At BMW, for instance, “marketing is really embracing digital” and becoming a key part of the corporate transformation under way, according to Steven Althaus, Senior Vice President, Director, Brand Management and Marketing Services.
Althaus (pictured), who joined the German luxury carmaker in 2013, has a business degree and was CEO of a communications firm before he arrived at BMW. That background lets him take a wide-angle, integrated view of the auto industry and the current state of digital technologies. He isn’t thinking of digital transformation as a one-off communication strategy where ad dollars are spent on different media than in the past.
“We think about how digitization affects our business model” and the future of the auto industry. “We are no longer just car sellers,” he said at a recent MIT IDE annual meeting, “People think differently about getting from point A to Point B; they consider cost, comfort, the environment and lifestyle. This requires new business models.”
For example, BMW now is considering new ways to provide mobility services, not just producing cars—a revolutionary idea for a 100-year-old company. That includes rethinking basics like R&D, manufacturing, sales, design and classic supply-side product development. “There is a transformation of marketing” taking place, too, Althaus said, where the definition of customers and their role has changed dramatically.
For instance, BMW is selling directly to customers for the first time, which Althaus calls a “game-changer” precipitated by the Internet. Customers pre-shop on the Web and have huge expectations and knowledgeability which are “redefining retail.”
And while BMW is taking aggressive, bold actions with its the BMW i3 all-electric car and i8 hybrid cars, a corporate restructuring and revamped sales plans, it must keep pace with competitors that are also taking swift actions to hold onto profits in a fickle marketplace. BMW has long been in a horse race with its two German rivals, Daimler’s Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen’s Audi for the high-end market. But new competitors, such as Tesla, and even Cadillac and Volvo, are luring customers with features like semi-autonomous driving, safety sensors and smart apps, that are often more appealing to customers today than leather headrests and reclining seats. IT’s what one New York Times blog calls a new tipping point in transit.
Althaus noted that demographic shifts-- such as the resurgence in urban living, emergence of car-sharing and the idea of car ownership as a burden—are causing some of the disruption to traditional car companies.
So is digital technology. The goal is to use these technologies and Web services—such as twitter and personalization—to connect directly with customers; car producers, like most other producers, are rapidly becoming service providers. How quickly they get there will be the difference between driving competitive advantage rather than lagging behind the curve.
(Also see this recent interview with Althaus and CMO.com here for more background information.)