China’s Automotive Market – How Carmakers Compete Using Digital Marketing

In terms of car ownership, China overtook the U.S. to become the largest new car market in 2019, with 24 million cars sold in 2018, compared with about 17 million in the U.S. Chinese demand for mobility products and services has continued to rise thanks to:

  • a growing population of urban residents who earn higher wages
  • increasing economic activities that require people to move around.
  • the growing availability of good-quality cars and brands.

 China’s Auto market becomes the largest in the world

In terms of market penetration, the U.S. has 910 cars per 1,000 people, whereas China only has 171 cars per 1,000 people, so China is still far from being a saturated market yet.

However, auto sales has slowed down this year

Sales in China continue to be suppressed since the second half of 2018 as the world’s second-largest economy slows and negotiations with the U.S. for a trade-war solution continue on.

The wholesale decline in January 2019, to 2.02 million units, accelerated from a 15.8 percent slump in December, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. For last year as a whole, the drop was 4.1 percent, the first decrease since the early 1990s.

Apart from the trade tensions, many market factors have stalled sales in a country that has historically been a considerable source of growth for the industry:

Used car market expanding: A decade ago, China’s used-car market barely existed, but today, the ratio of used car sales to new car sales is 1:2. As the Chinese market matures, used cars are becoming an important part of the mix.

New car license plates limited: Limiting new car license plates is a way to control traffic jams and air pollution. So far 8 cities and one small province have implemented this policy and more cities are likely to follow.

New energy vehicles (NEVs) preferred: Sales of new energy vehicles (battery-electric, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell vehicles) jumped 62% to 1.26 million, with a share of 4,5% of the total car market in 2018. Chinese demand for electric cars could eventually become an attractive market for foreign carmakers.

Ride-Sharing Apps rising: The growing popularity of transformative technologies like ride-sharing apps poses a great challenge to automakers. China’s version of Uber – Didi Chuxing (DIDI) – is already a significant power with 550 million users making 11 billion rides in 2018. That means a declining demand in car ownership and thus car sales.

We have reasons to believe that China’s auto market would bounce back later this year

Although tariffs and trade wars could disrupt China’s automobile market, there are grounds for optimism.

The hopes are largely based on a steadying economy, government stimulus, the electric and sport utility markets, and plans to develop models specifically for domestic consumers, while the luxury groups aim to benefit from the rapidly growing wealth of the richest Chinese consumers.

Even though Beijing has delayed its plan to cut tax to stimulate purchases, its commitment to smaller initiatives such as the introduction of subsidies for rural residents to trade in their old vehicles is likely to help revenues.

Additionally, a cut to value-added tax for the business that will allow companies to cut prices without eroding their profits is also likely to stimulate sales.

Finally, China’s top economic planning body said it would encourage large cities to relax licensing policies for residents.

Read also: Automotive is going digital in China


When it comes to deciding which car to buy, Chinese consumers rely predominantly on four factors: friends and colleagues, family members, manufacturer websites, and social media.

Chinese consumers, in general, are considerably more likely to rely on the Internet when deciding what and whether to buy.

In 2011, 43% of Chinese consumers purchased products offline after looking online for pricing, product and brand information, as well as for customer reviews.

Chinese consumers’ prolific use of social media is particularly important

  • More than 90 percent Chinese consumers use social media and microblogs (like Weibo) to learn about companies’ products or services.
  • 60 percent interact directly with companies on social media sites about their products or customer service.
  • Two-thirds say that positive or negative comments have some impact on their decision to buy a given product.
  • 72 percent Chinese consumers read about companies’ products or services on social media sites at least several times a month.
  • Nearly 25 percent post their opinions about a company’s products or services several times a week.
  • Two-thirds think that a company’s presence on social media sites increases the likelihood that they will do business with them.

According to Accenture’s 2011 and 2012 Global Consumer Research studies

Digital marketing will soon be the dominant method for automakers looking to build strong consumer relationships and ultimately sell more cars. A better interactive digital marketing capability is “a must” for those in the auto industry to remain competitive and relevant in China’s technology-driven customers.

Build a more Design & Functional Website 

A quality website is critical for automobile brands. This is where Chinese customers do extensive research on your products and services to judge whether you will move on to their driving test phase or be filtered out of their consideration list.

Almost half of consumers obtain information about cars from automotive websites, since those websites usually have comprehensive knowledge about car brands and models.

A (nice) Website must be created keeping the Chinese audience in mind rather than simply providing an adaptive version of your Western website.

The content should be written in native simplified Chinese, hosted in China or Hongkong to ensure fast access for local people.

Mobile-friendly is necessary considering that more than 90% of Chinese Internet users access the Internet via mobile devices.

Besides product and brand information, consider adding these content and digital features to your website:

  • easier and clearer pricing to help expedite the car-buying process
  • news about automobile technologies
  • compare additional options within an automaker’s product line
  • more integration with dealer sites and inventory search functions.
  • more intuitive content, customized to users’ different preferences.
  • the ability to chat online with a dealer.

Use social media to strengthen relationship and brand loyalty

On social media, young auto enthusiasts (post-90s and younger) have a strong willingness to share content about vehicles with others. Half of the auto enthusiasts spend 5-15 minutes on every online post (website and social media) about vehicles.

Read 10 most powerful social media in China (updated 2021)

Automakers can take advantage of social media for these purposes:

  • Brand awareness: users look for brands on social media to learn more about them via their official accounts as well as reviews, comments, mentions that brands collect from the general audience. The interactive elements of social media such as like/comment/share… would bring your brand far to reach a bigger audience and much beyond your official account.
  • Engage with customers: excite followers with company news, interactive activities or promotion; reply to them, talk to them and nurture them into future buyers
  • Customer service: Chinese consumers tend to contact brands via their social media like Wechat rather than meeting offline or calling. This is an important channel to answer all concerns and questions as well as solve problems that customers have
  • E-reputation: As mentioned, Chinese consumers look at you on social media to check other people’s experiences with your brands. Chinese consumers tend to share their opinions about a product/ service to their network on social media. Therefore, it is necessary to regulate, manage and influence these conversations. Scandals spread like virus on social media in China. You should keep an eye on your e-reputation to have actions on time.

KOLs will boost your sales

More than 70% of vehicle consumers follow at least three KOLs, KOL influences their purchasing behaviors and experience.

You properly have heard about a fashion blogger selling 100 cars on Wechat in just 5 minutes.

The cars sold were 100 limited edition bright turquoise MINI Coopers. Each car having the recommended sales price of 285,000 RMB ($42,215). They were sold via the WeChat account of mega-popular fashion blogger Becky Li (黎贝卡).

Chinese consumers trust their favorite Internet KOLs. These KOLs have been doing a good job in providing useful information, in-depth review, and thoughtful advice to their followers. Therefore, their opinions influence significantly the buying decisions of their followers. This is true for the automobile industry.

The above successful campaign doesn’t only showcase the extensive power of influencer marketing in China for vehicles but also proves the feasibility of conducting such flash-sale campaigns on mobile commerce for high valued products like cars.

Optimize your SEO for Baidu to attract quality traffic

If you ignore Baidu, you would miss more than 16 percent of targeted customers.

Baidu is China’s most powerful search engine, with a dominant market share of over 80%.

To promote a domain on Baidu, there are a few necessary points to follow:

  • A locally hosted domain (.cn) leads to a higher ranking on the Baidu search results
  • Thorough keyword research is absolutely necessary
  • The page description (meta-tag) plays an important role
  • Well-written and keyword-optimized content is your 90% of SEO success
  • Backlinks leads to a higher ranking

Leverage e-commerce and virtual selling

E-commerce has weakened the traditional selling process of the auto market in China. While consumers elsewhere are still visiting brick-and-mortar shops to buy cars, shoppers in the world’s largest auto market – where 28 million vehicles were sold last year – are increasingly doing it online, prompting brands to open virtual showrooms, partner with e-commerce sites to promote new models and re-examine their investment in the traditional dealership Business model.

In 2016, 1 million vehicles worth a whopping $15 billion were sold online in China, according to consultancy Frost & Sullivan. On Singles Day, e-commerce giant Alibaba create an annual shopping gala, and 100,000 cars were sold on its Taobao and Tmall shopping platforms.

Back in 2010, Mercedes-Benz sold 205 Smart models in about 3.5 hours on Taobao. In May 2011, Lamborghini chose to exhibit several models on Tmall to offer netizens the ultimate thrill to shop (they could book, but there were no transactions online). Mercedes-Benz renewed the experience in February 2012 on Jingdong (JD): 300 Smart cars were sold in 89 minutes while 17,000 new users added the model to their watch list. They did it again in January 2013, this time on Weibo, selling 666 units within nine hours.

Or take the case of Ford’s amazing omnichannel marketing campaign. Ford decided to implement a partnership with Alibaba: they launched the Super Test-Drive Center in Guangzhou to allow people to buy a car from a staff-less machine in under 10 minutes.

Customers just have to go to the Tmall app and choose the model they want to test-drive via the online catalog. To register, customers must take a picture of their face, and once in the store, once the customer shows their face to facial recognition, the car is chosen online arrives from the multistory structure. Then, the customer can test the car for a few days (3 days max) and order it online.

Be creative, customer-centric, and technology-minded to bring extraordinary experiences to your customers.

Reinforce your expertise in automobility on Zhihu

Zhihu is a Chinese question-and-answer platform similar to Quora. Its motto is “Share your knowledge, experiences, and thoughts with the world.”

As of June 2018, it had 180 million registered users and 35 million monthly active users.

In addition to its basic question-and-answer feature, Zhihu has also developed other functions. Users can write articles, participate in discussions, read e-magazines, or give online presentations about specific topics while interacting with an audience in real-time.

Most brands start marketing on Zhihu using its basic question-and-answer function.

  • look for and answer questions related to cars industry. Answering questions on Zhihu allows you to showcase your expertise and connect with both industry experts and general users.
  • Encourage users to ask questions or post questions yourself. This allows you to get high-quality user-generated content, improve your user engagement and amplify your influence on social media

German automobile manufacturer Audi is a good example of how to use the site. In China, Audi was called “The Headlight Company (灯厂)” by Chinese consumers because it’s most famous for its headlights. So, soon after creating their organization account on Zhihu, Audi answered the question Why is Audi called “The Headlight Company”? (为什么说奥迪是灯厂?)

In their answer, Audi delved into the history of automobile lighting and how its headlights have evolved since the 1990s when they first started to use xenon lights in their cars. Technical principles and the performance of each type of light were also explained. The answer got more than 5,400 likes (“upvotes” in Quora) and nearly 600 comments.



The core DNA of GMA is bringing Results to our clients. We work to optimize conversion. maximize Exposure, develop Leads/sales and develop online Branding


We have expertise in Market Business in China, know the best Channels, best influencers, and understand the communication among the new Chinese Middle Class.


As a pure Digital Player, we perform with Digital Marketing Campaign and have the Digital Philosophy to Do, learn, Adapt and Optimize. We believe that perfect Results arrive by analyze and nonstop Optimize.


We know that China is a difficult market for new Brands and we are obsessed with delivering Results that bring ROI to our clients.

We provide cost-effective solutions to Maximize Results. It is when we make money that our clients make money.


We have a partnership approach with our clients. We Guide them, give feedback about Campaigns, and like to work in smart partnerships.

Read more about the Chinese Car Industry


  • YUan ZHENG

    I work for a car dealer in center of China, and we would like to have more foreign brands cars.
    please contact me on wechat 🙂

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