The Shanghai Motor Show didn’t just wow with scale and style – it showed an increasing appetite for China taking over the direction of the global auto industry.

Prior to last week’s Shanghai Motor Show, the question was how sustainable China’s auto sector growth would prove to be. Would the massive, new National Centre for Exhibition and Convention feel a little hollow inside given challenges such as government restrictions and economic slowdown? By the time you walked out of the event, these questions had been answered. The key drivers for growth looked extremely strong. Shanghai didn’t just feel like the centre of the industry universe this past week; it exuded a sense of purpose and momentum that it’s hard to see stalling.

Walking the floor of the show, three things hit me about the way that brands presented both themselves and their vehicle ranges: there was scale, Tweet this  there was scale, there was style, and above all there was a growing sense of strategic sophistication around the Chinese auto industry.

Bigger – and better

Firstly, the scale: Shanghai was simply enormous. Its more than 500,000 square metres of exhibition space played host to over 2,000 vehicles with individual brands pulling out all the stops when it came to how broad a range of cars they could display. To have a stake in the future of auto, it felt, you really needed to be in Shanghai.

Next, there was the style: impressive vehicle trims, stylish new reinventions and a real panache in the way that brands developed their stories on the booth. This could well be remembered as the show where the Sedan, recently resembling an endangered species thanks to the rise of the SUV and MPV, demanded to come back to the party. And its sporty reinvention was just one of many eye-catching design themes. But the style on display wasn’t restricted to the vehicles themselves. Chinese auto buyers are increasingly given meaningful, differentiated brand stories to engage with and use to guide their vehicle choices. Audi was ready to re-engineer its staid, official image within China through a strong emphasis on performance at its booth. Mini put itself forward as the definitive on-road accessory, with the walls of its stand filled with customisable trim choices: from fashionable side and rear view mirrors to steering wheels and 3D driving glasses. The booth for Citroen-owned DS was more Hermes boutique than garage forecourt, firmly establishing its super-luxury credentials.

Growing up fast

We might expect this from international brands leveraging decades of experience as they seek a bigger slice of the Chinese market. However, perhaps the most impressive feature of the show was the way in which several home-grown competitors have narrowed the gap, demonstrating a strategic sophistication that testifies to the depth and dynamism of the market going forward.

Several were smarter about telling their own brand stories. Haval offered up a premium range of SUVs with features to match those of brands such as Mercedes, all displayed on an eye-catching, three-level, booth that recalled the famous Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, and offered a distinct branded experience. Significantly, there was no reference whatsoever to Great Wall, the parent company of Haval, and a brand associated with a more traditional China, which has dominated local perceptions of Haval vehicles in the past.

It wasn’t just the brands themselves whose presentation had evolved. Consumers buying Chinese increasingly have a choice of exterior bodywork colours, and potentially two-tone colour combinations, to match those offered by international competitors. Interiors can also be customised to suit buyers’ individual taste. And there were far fewer of the blatant copycat designs that used to characterise some Chinese brands’ strategies.

Healthy drivers for the road ahead

The last time the auto industry gathered in Shanghai, you expected to pay a premium to a high-profile international marque to receive a differentiated brand and product experience. Now, in what feels like a fast maturing market, distinct vehicles and meaningful brands can be acquired at a range of competitive price points. As choice increases and innovation becomes more widely available to buyers, the drivers of market growth appear in good shape.

Is China ready to lead?

In many ways, the innovation on offer at Shanghai felt noticeably more purposeful than that displayed at Geneva recently, where new fuel technologies felt pushed into the background of a show focused on supercars. Here the far higher profile for plug-in hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells and fully electric vehicles suggested a very different mindset. Manufacturers are flaunting their over-investment in alternative fuel technologies, in what could be a significant indicator of things to come.

China still has some way to go to claim true auto industry leadership. A few brands (Zoyte in particular) still borrow their design direction from established marques like the Smart, Evoque or Tiguan. And the enthusiasm for the connected technology driving the industry forward doesn’t yet match the attention given to new fuel technologies which is such a burning issue. However, in Shanghai, China confirmed its position as the largest and most exciting auto market on earth; and it showed that it’s not satisfied just with growing quickly. There’s a strong appetite here to own the future direction of the industry as well. By the next time the auto industry gathers in Shanghai, China could be asserting that desire to lead even more.


Guillaume Saint is responsible for Kantar TNS’s Automotive practice for the Asia Pacific region (APAC), where he is instrumental in driving growth, expertise, innovative thinking and best practice.



Related articles