DS’s first UK MD Alain Descat is on a mission to launch new product, a new dealer network and a new customer experience – fast. Sarah Tooze reports
DS Automobiles is part of Europe’s second biggest vehicle manufacturer, the PSA Group, so to hear its new UK managing director Alain Descat say “we feel like a start-up” might raise a few eyebrows.
But Descat explains that as of July 1, when the brand officially separated from Citroën to become PSA’s stand-alone premium brand, DS has adopted a start-up approach.
“We have to launch new product, a new dealer network and a new customer experience – the three pillars of the brand,” he says. “That is a start-up model, you launch with everything at the same time. We go fast; we have shorter loops.”
He believes that, like a start-up, the team has “an entrepreneurial spirit”. The brand aims to “embody French luxury”, which, in practice, means features like a clock designed by French luxury watchmaker BRM, which appears in the DS 7 Crossback, and the use of high end materials, along with the latest technology (including the semi-autonomous Drive Pilot and smartphone entry).
It also means quirky side projects such as DS design director Thierry Métroz creating the kitchen for three-star Michelin chef Yannick Alléno at his Pavillon Ledoyen restaurant in Paris.
The brand draws on its French heritage with its different interior options – which it calls ‘inspirations’ – named after Parisian landmarks such as the Place de la Bastille (DS Bastille) and Rue de Rivoli (DS Rivoli).
It’s all part of an attempt to appear “different” to the established premium (predominantly German) brands.
Descat says that with DS you “get a good amount of technology plus the difference of the style”.
The DS 7 Crossback is “a car to really stand out; to be different”, he says.
“If you want to stand out today you don’t get the car that everybody has on their driveway.”
Customers will stand out even more if they opt for DS’s delivery service, which sees their new car brought to their home by a DS transporter with a DS ‘expert advisor’ on hand to give them the keys and explain the car’s features.
It’s part of DS’s ‘Only You’ offering (see panel), which is meant to enhance the customer experience.
How much interest there will be from a fleet customer in paying £195 for that kind of service – even from a user-chooser – is questionable but what is likely to pique their interest is the brand’s shift to electric.
From next year, every DS model will have an electrified version, starting with the DS 7 Crossback E-Tense 4x4 plug-in hybrid, which has an electric range of 31 miles, and the pure electric DS 3 Crossback E-Tense, which combines a 50kW battery and 100kW (136PS) motor to deliver a claimed 186-mile range under the new WLTP regime.
Petrol and diesel engines will also be available.
By 2025, new DS models will only be available as a pure electric or hybrid. Descat explains that, at that point, “the market will be ready to make the switch (to electric) in a stronger way”.
“For us, electrification is an enabler of driving pleasure, electric is the next luxury in that sense,” Descat says. “It’s obviously a way to be more environmentally friendly but it’s definitely a way to enjoy your car. We think pleasure will always be at the heart of driving.”
Electrification is expected to account for a third of the brand’s sales by 2025, although it’s too soon to say how that will translate to UK sales and fleet sales in particular.
In fact, Descat won’t talk about any fleet sales expectations – “we don’t communicate volumes because I don’t want to give the perception that the brand is driven by volumes, we need to control our volumes”, he says.
“Yes we could do more volumes easily but that’s not the goal of the brand. I need to build this brand for 30 years.”
However, he does reveal that longer term he would like to see a 50/50 fleet-retail split on the DS 7 Crossback, the first of the brand’s new generation of models.
The previous models – DS 3, DS 4, DS 5 – which ceased production in May this year, were more geared to the retail market; DS 3, in particular, was “very much a car for the retail market”, Descat says.
DS 3 Crossback, the second product of the new generation, enters the compact SUV segment and is being pitted against the Audi Q2 and Mini Countryman.
The main challenge for DS is brand awareness and Descat believes the best way to tackle this is test drives.
DS has a fleet of demonstrators specifically for leasing companies and corporate customers and it has attended events such as Company Car in Action, where the “feedback was brilliant”.
“People don’t know about the brand, they discover it, then they step in the car and say ‘wow, what’s all this? I get so much in this car in terms of technology’,” he says.
“We need to create desirability of the brand and we do this by word of mouth; our best ally is word of mouth.”
Descat says that DS will target all areas of the fleet market – SMEs through its dealer network, and leasing companies and larger corporates through the PSA fleet team, headed by Martin Gurney.
DS is offering 24-hour and 48-hour test drives throughout its dealer network and has an initiative in London and Greater Manchester where a customer can book a test drive online and a professional will bring the car to their home or office.
“One of the promises of DS is to go to the customer or to let the customer come to us, you need to have the choice,” Descat says.
The plan is for a DS dealer to be around a 30-minute drive from premium market hotspots but the network is currently considerably smaller than when it was part of Citroën.
“DS 3, 4 and 5 were sold by roughly 150 Citroën dealers until the end of June. When we made the switch on July 1 we had 25,” Descat says. “We’re at 35 today and I expect to be around 50 by the end of the year and between 60 and 70 at some point, and then we’ll stop, given the current market.”
Currently, the DS network is all Citroën investors but the brand plans to attract new ones.
“We’re at a time when the volumes of DS are the lowest because we’re in a transition so how do we take on board new investors? We bring them to design centre and we show them the future so they can understand what we want to do,” Descat says.
“They see PSA is investing billions to support that, we take them through the full strategy of the brand and the way we look at them is we are looking for partners who are willing to invest for a long time, that are on a longer journey with us and have the entrepreneurial mindset to build the brand so it requires investment. But you see every year there is a new product, we’re preparing for more volumes in the future.”
Descat believes that as a stand-alone brand DS is “more in charge” of the way it collaborates and interacts with its dealer network.
“I want them to have this feeling of being part of something special,” he says. “There is a lot of pride in the DS team. We feel we are the builders of something great.”
Benefits of the ‘only you’ programme
Alain Descat believes that customer service is “as important as the product itself”. DS has created an ‘Only You’ customer service programme, which includes:
- MyDS smartphone app – for connected services, journey information and access to Only You services and benefits.
- DS at your Service – a dedicated phone number or online chat service to answer questions.
- DS Assistance – 24/7 roadside assistance.
- DS Delivery Valet – delivery of your new DS car to your chosen location.
- DS Service Valet – local collection/delivery of your DS for maintenance requirements.
- DS Club Privilège – loyalty club for all DS owners to enjoy exclusive events and privileges.
- DS Rent – for the hire of a chosen DS car.