Audi boss Paul Sansom's radical plan to change the way Australians buy cars

Three months into his stint as the local managing director of the German luxury brand, Paul Sansom is worrying less about the double-digit growth Audi has experienced for much of the past decade and focusing more on ensuring the brand is living up to its prestige promise.

The sales experience, after-sales service, brand image and the customer experience are some of the fundamentals British-born Sansom has in his sights.

As part of the plan to become "the best premium brand in Australia" Audi has hauled the brakes on its local growth.

"Being the best doesn't necessarily mean being the biggest," says Sansom, putting the stoppers on the once goal to topple BMW and Mercedes-Benz here by 2020.

"I took it off the table, so you won't hear me quoting that," he says, adding "maybe we tried to run a little bit before we could walk".

Outperform the competition

Sansom essentially admits Audi was chasing volume – a common practise that often leads to discounting – that could eventually risk the health of the brand.

For the first seven months of 2017 Audi sales have dropped 9 per cent.

That said, he still wants to head up. "It's important to grow. You get those building block right … you're going to attract a lot more, that's how you grow."

But he says volume is not as intense a focus.


"We won't be number one just for sales volume, we'll be number for customer service, profitability ... we'll have the whole works."

Big numbers

Part of the problem, according to Sansom, is the aggressive fighting for market share in the luxury space.

"There's an oversupply across the whole market, particularly in the premium end," he says.

Following the long-running Ferrari sales pitch to produce fewer cars that customers are demanding, Sansom wants to swing the needle from pushing cars into the market to having customers fighting over them.

"My philosophy is you have one less car than you have demand for."

If the grand plan comes off you may have to queue for an Audi in future.

Faster, faster…

Sansom clearly doesn't mind revving the coemption up.

In shelving the goal to outsell Mercedes-Benz – the only luxury brand to also sell commercial vehicles – Sansom says big numbers aren't necessarily good for luxury brands.

"If you're number one, doesn't that mean you're a bit mainstream now?"

He also has no plans to leverage the sporty RS sub-brand as hard as Mercedes-Benz has leveraged AMG; AMG has recently begun rolling out what some have called AMG-lite models, which are faster than regular Mercedes-Benz's but nowhere near as potent as the real deal.

Maintaining brand purity

"We'll definitely focus on Audi Sport as an umbrella brand … but we're going to keep it pure, so we won't put the RS badge on any other car in our range. If it's an RS it's an RS, we're committed to making sure that the RS badge stays sacred to a small niche of cars."

Instead, expect a bigger push with the Audi S models and the S-Line packs that add some spark.

"Using S-Line and S is something that we need to expand more … but we don't want it to dilute that RS brand."

It's all about the service

In his few months in Australia Sansom has spent much of his time understanding the Australian market and, in particular, the insatiable demand for luxury cars.

Despite making up more than 10 percent of the 1.2 million cars sold annually, he believes there's more growth yet for luxury vehicles in Australia.

"There's a flight to premium in Australia … that line in the sand doesn't seem to be so clear any more of where premium starts and stops."

While he says "Audi's going to continue to be accessible" it's the top end of the market – large cars such as the upcoming new A8 that will introduce the next phase in autonomous technology – that is key to defining the brand.

"That's critical in terms of our credentials."

From diesel to electric

Sansom concedes "Australian consumers are not too hot with diesels", something that has been demonstrated with various brands ditching lower selling variants.

But he wants to switch the message to electric, something Audi plays in with its e-Tron plug-in hybrids and upcoming electric vehicles.

He's surprised at how far behind Australia is with the imminent move towards electric vehicles.

"At some point there's going to be a very rapid acceleration," he says.

He wants more charging infrastructure and other incentives to encourage the take-up of electric.

"I'll be working hard with government, business, other [car brands] – because it needs to be a collaboration – to get those high speed charging stations in and around the country."

Borrow, not buy

Sansom is preparing to transition Audi to a "mobility service provider".

Instead of owning cars, more people will share cars or pay for them as part of an all-up monthly fee, in much the same way as many people use mobile phones.

"The model's changing completely," says Sansom, admitting there could be less profit in selling cars.

But there will be money to be made elsewhere, including with other digital services that could be offered with the car.

"At some point in the future I would say 30 percent, 40 percent of our revenue will be made through digital services cohabiting with the other industries that provide connected services to our customers," he says. "There's going to be revenue streams that are here now and there's going to be new ones that we don't even know about now."