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February, 2024

Dreaming big: BYD’s Australian distributor hires first marketing chief, new CEO, plots advertising offensive in bid for 6x growth in two years, overhaul Toyota by 2030

What you need to know:

  • EVDirect, the sole distributor of BYD vehicles in Australia, has hired its first head of marketing along with a new local CEO as part of hugely ambitious plans to make BYD a top five brand in the Australian market within two years.
  • Kate Hornstein brings out-of-category experience including a stint as category lead for Dyson haircare products, while David Smitherman brings significant credentials from the automotive space and was previously at Ateco.
  • The latest headcount additions comes as the team officially ramps up activity with confirmed media agency, Yango.
  • With more than 15,000 vehicles sold in Australia in a year, despite low brand awareness and media spend, in addition to pent-up demand for electric vehicles, EVDirect and BYD are bullish about their growth in this market with a bit more brand heft behind them.

EVDirect, the distribution company behind BYD Auto in Australia, has brought on its first head of marketing for the local market, hired a new local CEO, and set its sights on becoming a top five car brand in this market as part of bullish and ambitious growth plans. With the brand in calendar 2023 selling 12,348 units, that would require more than 500 per cent growth within the next two years to displace the current number five, Hyundai, all things being equal. 

Kate Hornstein has joined BYD’s exclusive distribution partner from Dyson, where she was a senior marketing manager and the category lead for the hair care business. She officially joined the BYD Australia team on 17 January.

Hornstein’s entry into the electric car company also preceded the appointment of a new local CEO, David Smitherman, who started at EVDirect last week. With a solid automotive background including a previous stint as GM of strategy at Ateco, BYD’s distributor in New Zealand and an indy distributor of a number of other brands, he is tasked with helping scale across Australia. Luke Todd remains MD and founder locally.

In addition, EVDirect has officially confirmed Yango as its media agency to help launch its brand and growing vehicle portfolio in the Australian market after six months working together. Yango is tasked with media strategy, planning and buying, plus working with senior management and marketing on driving acquisition and brand.

BYD, then ‘Build your dreams’, was founded in 2003 by engineer and entrepreneur, Wang Chuanfu, in Shenzhen, China and counts American billionaire, Warren Buffet, as one of its investors. Chuanfu initially started as a lithium battery manufacturer in the late 1990s – and it is the firm’s strength in battery production and vertical integration that has since powered its rise to the top of the EV pile.

BYD itself has been around for several years longer as a next-gen energy company, and has worked across industries including electronics, auto, renewable energy, and rail transit. The company is listed on both the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

The company beat out Tesla in the last three months of 2023 to become the largest EV manufacturer globally, selling more than 3 million EVs and plug-in hybrid cars in 2023, up 61.9 per cent. This puts it into the global top 10 of car sales for the first time. This included more than 340,000 car sales in December, a 45 per cent increase. The company how has reach in 70 countries. 

EVDirect chief operating officer, Mark Harland, who has lead marketing across brands such as Holden and General Motors, has  overseen sales, marketing and dealer relationships in Australia since November 2022.

In just over a year of operation in Australia, BYD has sold over 15,000 vehicles, a figure Harland says makes the business the fast-growing automotive brand in Australia to date. This is despite not investing in any significant marketing activity to date beyond organic and earned efforts. BYD’s most recent model, the Seal, reportedly sold out within weeks.

In December, bullish local CEO of EVDirect, Luke Todd, said the business wants to outsell Toyota by 2030 and be a top five brand by 2025.

Hence the inaugural marketing leader appointment.

We need to understand who they are, how they like to be spoken to and their lifestyles,” she says. “This is an excellent product and a solid price point and the brand has relatively low awareness.

Kate Hornstein, head of marketing, EVDirect

The brand and customer opportunity ahead

While automotive looks different to haircare in this eye of this marketing editor at least, Hornstein cites several similarities, including the fact both Dyson and BYD are battery producers, technology companies and “hugely innovative” manufacturers. Meanwhile, there’s further precedent: Dyson’s former boss, Jim Rowan, now heads up Volvo Cars globally. Hornstein also points to the need to build off a low brand awareness base which to date, has largely found success through owned and earned media and channels as well as B2B deals with the likes of Uber.

“We have had a lot of success to date through this mix of entrepreneurial effort on the belief of the leaders of this business. Mark, Noelle Haddad [EV Direct chief of staff] and our founder and MD, Luke, have been driving this so far and we now have an opportunity that allows us to scale growth,” she tells Mi3. “In this country, it’s exciting this brand has seen such success with next to no brand awareness. Building this brand in Australia is a most exciting opportunity.”

Harland says earned media efforts so far have concentrated on leveraging Todd and his enthusiasm and expertise in the market, as well as several influencers and ambassadors including Aussie football icon, Tim Cahill, who is also an investor; gardening celebrity, Jamie Durie; sports broadcaster, Danika Mason; and sports presenter and journalist, Tara Rushton.

BYD has also been investing in a combination of experience centres and traditional stores and has 23 experience centres, several test drive locations and pop-up presence across the country.

“We have not taken a traditional media approach – it’s been very entrepreneurial as we want to do things differently,” Harland says. “My key metric is getting people to drive our cars. We get 100 leads per day at Chadstone – about 25 to 30 per cent take a test drive. Once they’ve done that, then the path to purchase is super easy and all online.”

All BYD sales are done via its online portal, even those made while a customer is in-store. Other carmakers, while keen not to put dealerships offside, are also piling into ecom and direct channels in a bid for first party data firepower and ownership of the customer relationship.

A top priority for Hornstein is doing a broad set of research to understand both BYD’s customer base so far, as well as to understand how the customer opportunity is evolving for the new energy vehicle producer.

“We need to understand who they are, how they like to be spoken to and their lifestyles,” she says. “This is an excellent product and a solid price point and the brand has relatively low awareness.”

According to Harland, the goal is to make EVs affordable for the mainstream – the key barrier to adoption alongside Australia’s lagging public charging infrastructure.

“It’s not a $100,000 car – it’s comparably priced to mainstream electric vehicles and even some petrol-based cars,” he says. The BYD Dolphin model was reportedly Australia’s cheapest electric vehicle when it was released.

Australia’s changing auto market

Harland claims the pent-up demand for EVs is there, with between 60-70 per cent of Australians looking at electric vehicles as their next car purchase. In 2023, 8.4 per cent of all new cars sold were EVs, according to Electric Vehicle Council figures. But numbers are moving quickly – at end of June last year, nearly 47,000 electric vehicles had been sold in Australia, a 269 per cent increase year-on-year. In the top three was BYD’s Atto 3 model with more than 6,000 units.

Having a broader array of models to sell is also critical given the competitive set is heating up. The council’s figures for 2023 showed 91 electric car, van and ute models available in Australia. But this year, there’s an array of other EV and hybrid models due for release locally, including those marking return of the General Motors Cadillac brand, albeit at the much higher end of the market (Mi3 understands the models will only start from $100,000 and work their way upwards). The first Cadillac due here in a large SUV, and it’s expected to be followed by several other EV models.

There are also new EV models coming from Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Jeep, Audi, Volvo and MG while Kia is trying to keep up with demand for its EV6. The growing competition and demand for lower cost options just this past week saw 12 per cent market value wiped of Tesla after the company said sales growth may be “notably lower” than the previous year, attributing this to work on a next-gen vehicle production (it’s long awaited cyber truck). The group also noted a decline in profitability ratios over the last two quarters of the year as a result of reduced vehicle average selling prices and mix.

Supply chain kings

Helping BYD with its 2024 growth plans is the recent launch of its Seal electric sedan model. There’s also a larger SUV on its way in the first half of this year, and there are plans afoot to fit another popular car type in Australia too: A plugin, dual-mode ute.

All of these open the aperture on customers and BYD’s appeal, Hornstein says. What’s more, BYD has already started seeing two-car purchases being made within the same family unit of different models depending on each person’s needs.

Hornstein points to another larger industry issue BYD has a solution for: Stock availability, with Australia often towards the back of the line for US and European-based manufacturers that have only recently cleared Covid backlogs.

“This is not the case for BYD and we can get customers into cars quickly because of our super efficient supply chain – that’s definitely a quick win for us,” she says.

As well as broadening product set, Hornstein’s going to have her hands full building out some of the marketing fundamentals at BYD as its first local marketing leader. As a case in point, she says there’s a lot of data gathering going on right now and focus on pulling in the right insights. Another quick win is optimising the onsite experience to ensure it’s as streamlined as possible as the primary method for conversion.

As for learnings she’s picked up as a marketer so far that Hornstein believes will come in handy at BYD, the top one is letting go of assumption.

“Don’t ever assume who your customer is,” she says, noting research done by the team during her time at Dyson on building in-depth insights as a critical part of the job of marketing. “This is why research is a high priority for me.”