Interview Nick Laird, CEO SsangYong UK
A glance at Nick Laird’s LinkedIn profile, suggests that the UK CEO of SsangYong has chosen a more varied career trajectory compared to most automotive business leaders.
His journey to head the UK distributor of Korea’s fourth largest vehicle manufacturer, has steered a path through telecoms, technology and private equity, with either end of the list bookended by automotive.
His first job post-graduation was at Ford UK, where he was part of the team that launched the Ford Direct used car retail brand.
It’s a blended experience that provides him with the air of a trouble shooter, used to multi-tasking across operational functions.
Certainly, it’s how he describes the challenge of navigating the complexities of a business in the grip of industry change - “SsangYong UK is part way through a journey, that centres on building a credible and well-priced product range, creating an accessible dealer network and, from next year, establishing stronger positive brand awareness.”
When it comes to design aesthetics, the brand has had its fair share of critics. Back in 2015 Jeremy Clarkson described the SsangYong Rodius as a “coupe and a removal van nailed together in the most unholy merger”.
While such associations were once a thorn in the side, slowly but surely the product-range seems to have established a position of strength.
AutoExpress describes the Korando as “miles more attractive than its bland and clunky predecessor…much more solidly built and far better to drive”.
While Whatcar's? verdict on the Musso pickup commands you to “park your preconceptions at the door, because the new Musso is a great pick-up regardless of price.”
Laird suggests that the road to winning future customers is all about building brand associations to fill a void, where awareness and recall are currently low.
At the heart of the process are three key elements designed to “build momentum and potential, not just volume and bottom line”.
Firstly, SsangYong now majority owned by India’s Mahindra, has worked hard to position itself as a brand providing good, honest value for money. Mimicking the strategy that saw Kia cast aside brand snobbery, it offers extended multi-year free warranties that underline the confidence they have in build quality and durability.
Competitive pricing and warranties are further backed by a sure-fired attempt to outgun rivals with cabin tech and luxury features as standard. The Musso pick-up truck for example, is a derivative of the Rexton SUV, transposing the upholstered luxury of a family car into a rugged and robust off-roader.
Global and local
Secondly, the product design team has responded to the principles of global and local adaptation, with Chrome enhanced body-kit and fancy labels designed to appeal to Asian preferences, now toned down or removed for Western tastes.
The same principles are applied to vehicle underpinnings. Where Asian markets prefer a softer, wallowy “spring-based” suspension, the latest Western-market version of the Musso is fitted with leaf suspension to provide a firmer ride and higher load capacity.
It’s an approach that seems to have worked, the Sangyong Musso recently winning the Whatcar 2019 award for best pickup under £25,000. While its stablemate, the SsangYong Korando, regularly wins awards and acclaim from the Caravan and Motorhome Club for its best in class for towing capabilities.
Experience is winning
According to Laird, the third area of competitive contention is experiential marketing; “if we can get potential buyers to feel and experience our product, winning a sale is easy.”
Event marketing – including County Shows, the Blenheim Horse trials and this month's Carfest South - has enabled the brand to connect directly with local customers.
With a stronger product and brand foundation, SsangYong has also turned its attention to building market share through dealers.
Its 60 dealers across the UK should build to 75 by year-end, with the expectation to add a net increase of 20 more each year. The aim: to have a network of 100 in-market, and an available SsangYong outlet within a 30-minute drive from most parts of the UK.
Dealer coverage also includes plugging a hole in the London region, where SsangYong are using a “virtual dealer” model to build access. According to Laird, the focus is “being easy to do business with. Cars delivered to your doorstep for test-driving”.
The easy to do business with mantra also extends to SsangYong UK’s recent decision to move its motor finance products - sold by its dealers - to Northridge Finance. The move was inspired by a desire to partner with a challenger brand able to provide a more flexible customer proposition, compared to the PSA-dominated model offered by its previous provider GMAC.
Having returned to the automotive sector after a break of nearly 20-years in telecoms and financial services, Laird has been surprised by the how little transformational change has occurred.
Despite trends towards mobility as a service, Laird still sees a retail environment in which every day punters have “a deep-seated psychological need for mobility without impediment. Part driven by emotive desires for independence and personal identity, and part driven by rational lifestyle requirements; getting from A to B and how much they trust the person they’re buying from.”
Laird suggests SsangYong customers tend to be “older than average, buying on a rational and functional basis after extensive research. A sale is likely to be less digital and more face to face, with product and value experienced first-hand.”
Getting customer proximity is all important to SsangYong, informing a deep first-hand knowledge of buyers. The Musso, for example, broadly fits into three main groups:
“Firstly, farmers and agricultural users, where value and robustness are critical. Secondly, tradesmen: builders, plumbers and the like, where load capacity is essential. Finally, semi-professional groups who need occasional off-road capability, are less fixated on load but appreciate the higher end cabin experience and additional kit.
He also suggests there is a notable group that shun brand snobbery and actively avoid the most expensive top-end vehicle – “tradesmen who want to be seen by their customers as offering good honest value for money, including one I know who drives a Musso but also owns a Bentley. Employing a builder driving a top-end luxury 4x4 makes you question what exactly you’re funding!”
One area in which SsangYong is trying to change brand perceptions is through its careful choice of brand Ambassadors, using personalities like Fuzz Townshend from the Discovery Channel’s Car SOS.
According to Laird, “Fuzz brings credibility and likability. He also helps establish associations that SsangYong is an accessible, does what it says brand”
What of the future?
When it comes to the challenge of adapting to electrification, autonomy and the business environment, Laird has sympathy with Aston Martin boss, Andy Palmer. In a recent Autocar interview, Palmer: berated the government over its Brexit indecision, casted doubts on the singularity of electrification as the only fuel-choice answer and claimed the idea of full autonomy in his lifetime was “absurd”.
While Laird also suggested dismay over Brexit uncertainty, his broader concerns are tempered by the June 2019 agreement between the UK and South Korean governments to retain the EU’s free trade agreement – effectively securing the current 0% import duties both countries enjoy.
He sees full vehicle autonomy as overrated, with Ssangyong unlikely to progress beyond level 2 in the foreseeable future; buyers not ready for the “hands off” driving options with level 3 and above.
In terms of electrification, SsangYong’s so called E-SIV electric vehicle is expected to launch in early 2021, with a planned 450 kilometre WLTP range. While this date is behind most manufacturers, Laird seems to take comfort in the relative small size and fleet-of-foot nature of SsangYong, suggesting “to some degree SsangYong is able to be a follower rather than a leader, sitting and waiting to see which propulsion choice gains traction, jumping PHEV to Battery, as improvements are made to technology and range.”
It’s a delaying choice that in some way enables SsangYong to retain its focus on value and price, Laird acknowledging that developing EVs requires costs to be passed on to customers.
Product bigger than Brand
Having won plaudits for its products and value, Laird suggests SsangYong is now in a position where its product is bigger than its brand.
Next year will seek to redress that balance, driving customer awareness and acquisition through brand marketing alongside a more extensive dealer network. National television advertising isn’t out of the question, with Laird also citing the need to scale processes to support a broader mix of customers and PCP cycles.
The 7-year warranty should provide buyer confidence, building its association as an honest, sensible brand focused on value.
Clearly the model has worked for fellow Korean brand Kia Motors. The big question: can SsangYong follow suit?