Interview – Alain Descat, managing director of DS

“Electric car buyers are less brand-loyal, and that is a great opportunity because we can place our credentials in front of them and be judged on our merits.”

From online selling to electric cars, and from the challenges of brand recognition to opportunities in the used car market, managing director of DS Alain Descat tells What Car? about his brand’s big ambitions

To date in 2020, French premium brand DS has taken a 0.14% market share in the UK, down more than a third on last year, but a figure broadly in line with the general market contraction as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The total of 1963 cars it has registered to date puts it ahead of Alfa Romeo, but significantly behind other rivals.

However, as managing director Alain Descat explains, European sales success, new products, brand awareness, racing success, new retailers and strength in the used car arena are all reasons why he remains positive about the future.

How do you view 2020’s sales?

“The first point we must make is that we are on a long journey. The path we have pitched the brand on is a good one, but it cannot be realised in a short time.

“In Europe DS has a market share of more than 1.5% – that’s just above Lexus and very close to Jaguar. So from that perspective we are now performing among the premium brands very quickly since our launch.

“But I must also acknowledge that in the UK we are further away than in some of the other markets, and especially, of course, France. The journey will take longer in the UK, but there have also been positives; up until the lockdown in March we were one of the fastest growing premium brands in the UK. We must regain that momentum.”

You sound comfortable with your position, even if sales are very low?

“Other brands have tried to do what we are doing before. But we have taken our own path, and it is deliberately cautious, not because we aren’t ambitious but because we want to protect the brand. There is no point in forcing volume and damaging residual values; without strong residuals a premium brand is nothing. We are not pushing volumes at all – our market share will be whatever is natural for the market.

“That approach also means that we don’t hold huge volumes of stock that we need to push into the market too. Yes, we believe there is some opportunity with DS3 Crossback E-Tense and DS7 Crossback with the cars we have ready today, but as a rule we prefer to follow a ‘made to order’ approach.”

You chose to make your most recent launch, the DS3 Crossback, an SUV. Why?

“We didn’t replace the hatch, preferring to take a more modern approach. A B-segment SUV conquests from all around it – B-hatch, C-hatch, C-SUV – and we wanted a conquest car. We work in an industry that has typically worked to put customers in boxes; this is a way of trying to break out of our own barriers. Interestingly, one statistic that already stands out is that it has a higher proportion of female buyers than the DS7 Crossback.

“Some – though not all – premium buyers want to buy a car with a certain badge for status reasons, but also want the freedom to be able to express that they are thinking differently. The DS3 Crossback is exactly that kind of car.”

Your products are improving, but do you feel the rest of your offering is gathering pace at the same speed?

“The brand image is on an upwards trajectory – and that is the most important thing for us to focus on for now. Awareness is growing; we are considered as more relevant and stronger by the right audience.

“These are all positives and there are a number of reasons why. The cars are stronger and more relevant for the market, of course we are doing a lot of activity around that, and increasingly we have dealerships that reflect our ambitions. The power of these dealerships cannot be under-estimated because they demonstrate our credibility as a premium brand. Right now, bricks and mortar premises are critical still – they bring visibility, awareness and credibility, which is exactly what we need to continue building. Of course, a virtual capability is also important and I would stress that we have this available with our Virtual Showroom; the option to buy online will launch in early December, and we will have customers who want us to go to them, but it is not yet the way the majority wish to buy their car. ”

Electrification must be an opportunity for you?

“One significant part of the journey is E-Tense. We have a strong opportunity with the rise of hybrid and full EV, and we have seen our share in that sector rise fastest of all. Hybrid is a little more complicated, because there have been mixed messages from the Government around the longevity of the technology that need addressing.

“The biggest traction of all is with fully electric cars, and we are working as hard as we can to take advantage of that. We have won the Formula E title again, against premium manufacturer rivals, and it gives us great pride to put DS in first place in the most competitive EV environment in the world. There is no question the engineers can and do bring the learnings back to our E-Tense road cars, and we must continue to take advantage of that.

“Electric car buyers are less brand loyal, and that is a great opportunity because we can place our credentials in front of them and be judged on our merits.”

Could manufacturers collectively do more to explain the benefits of electrification?

“Yes, we could all do a better job. This is the moment for education around the benefits of electrification, not just in terms of the savings in the total cost of ownership, but also the joys of driving in almost total silence, and how that improves your comfort and your all-round experience. These cars are like cocoons and that is a very premium feeling.

“But we are working on this. We have had a partnership with Harvey Nichols, for instance, to showcase and highlight the luxury angle of EVs. We have partnered with the World EV Day. We can see that most people who test drive EVs are positive so we are trying to do all we can to change perceptions.”

DS is now established enough to make your approved used cars part of your proposition. How is that going?

“We are seeing some interesting activity around approved used sales, especially with DS7 Crossback. The signals there are very encouraging.

“The Approved Used scheme we have in place is acknowledged as one of – if not the best – in the market, including by What Car? and it is encouraging to see the growth there, because these are not cheap cars. People are choosing to buy them as they recognise the quality on offer.”

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