DS Automobiles in the UK: inside the brand-building offensive

Published: 27 February 2019

► How it's gaining a foothold in the UK
► We speak to new UK managing director, Alain Descat
► DS3 and DS7 will spearhead the offensive

DS Automobiles is a cult, and we’ve come to the temple, to hear about the French premium brand’s approach to pampering customers and the new car to draw them in, the 3 Crossback.

The temple is the DS Store in Salford, Manchester, one of just four grand showrooms currently operating in the UK (alongside 31 smaller ‘salons’ inside Citroën retailers). In the background, a chanteuse languidly croons, as I’m ushered to a cream sofa in front of a Nespresso machine. Leather swatches in burgundy, blue and tan hang on the far wall, next to bespoke-coloured threads and saddler’s tools for trimming and upholstering.

Such traditional leather-craft is inspired by the handbags and belts of Chanel and Hermes, the couture French fashion brands to which DS aspires to be the automotive equivalent. The opposite end of the showroom is a dichotomy, with a cutting-edge virtual reality headset enabling customers to ‘step’ into their configured car, to inspect the materials and craftmanship in pin-sharp detail.

The high priest of DS Automobiles in the UK, Alain Descat, speaks. ‘My priority for this year is to install DS as a credible premium brand. To grow awareness and explain what it stands for.’

DS Automobiles' UK boss Alain Descat

There’s nothing dismissive about describing DS as a cult: it registered just 5000 cars in the UK last year, and 50,000 worldwide. Like oxygen and carbon dioxide, the German premium brands are everywhere: in contrast DS is a solitary squirt of distinctive parfum.

In the UK, sales have fallen by 40 per cent two years running. Why? The product tap has barely dripped: the ageing DS 3 supermini is in its final few months before bowing out this summer, and the anonymous DS 4 and wondrous-looking but harsh-riding 5 ceased production last year. And DS is building a brand from scratch with a nascent retail network: its 35 dealers need to double in size for the brand to be within 35 minutes of the big population centres. 

That left the DS 7 Crossback, the firm’s flagship SUV, to spearhead the new era. Just 1000 found homes in the UK last year – establishing credibility is a long, hard road. The genial Descat gamely reminds me that the group is coming from a low base, with the DS 7’s executive car forerunners being the Peugeot 607 and Citroën C6 flops.

How has the UK taken to the DS 7 Crossback?

So why should consumers consider the DS 7 Crossback? ‘Some have a total crush on the car,’ says Descat, recounting the story of one Home Counties driver who clocked a 7 on the road, drove past to identify it, then went to a dealer the next day to buy one. ‘Others want to stand out, they don’t want the same car as their neighbours. One thing that unites every DS customer: they want to be different.’

But rational foundations have to underpin this emotional connection. Descat vows his number one priority is to protect residual values, so he’s averse to using daily rental channels and has created a safety net where the few used cars coming on stream are sold through the DS retailer network – they need the stock.

Strong residuals are vital on a monthly rental where lessors merely pay off the depreciation. If a 7 is £20–40 a month more expensive than the equivalent Audi or BMW, the car will struggle to break the glass ceiling.

‘Two years ago DS residuals were 10 percentage points off our benchmark, Audi,’ shoots back Descat. ‘Now it’s 2-3 points.’ These are Europe-wide figures, including countries where the DS 7 is a strong performer: in France it’s the best-selling premium SUV.

It’s a mixed picture in the UK. DS benchmarks the 7 against the smaller Audi Q3, a model on changeover last year when its residual values would have weakened. Research from our sister brand Parkers shows retail customers can lease a DS 7 2.0 BlueHDI Performance Line for £564 per month (with the manufacturer quote pricing in a retained value of 43.7 per cent), whereas the outgoing Q3 35 TDI S Line would cost £522 per month (48.3 per cent retained value). That’s a £42 per month advantage for the Audi.

For the DS 7 1.6 Pure Tech Performance Line, it’s a different picture: the £462 monthly rental (49.1 per cent RV) is £18 per month cheaper than Audi’s quote for the outgoing Q3 35 TSI S-Line (with a predicted 49.7 per cent RV).

‘Average transaction price, residual values, profit per unit, trade-ins, which brands customers come from: this will tell us if we’re premium or not, simple as that,’ the Frenchman responds. His network has seen a Tesla and Lamborghini traded in, along with the usual German suspects. And the 7’s average transaction price in the UK? Descat says it’s £37,000.

The 7 democratised a high level of technology: night vision, and a camera that scans the road ahead to help the suspension mitigate shocks – both introduced on the Mercedes S-class to much fanfare – plus usefully effective active cruise control that keeps the car pretty central in lane.

Then there are headlamps that adapt to the car’s surroundings, a rock-solid link to the DS 23, the brand’s icon and inspiration which introduced swivelling lamps back in 1967.     

Here comes the cavalry: the DS 3 Crossback

The 3 Crossback, which will arrive in UK retailers from May, will help DS gather momentum. The small SUV’s exterior design is more carismatic than the 7 Crossback’s, and again it makes good on DS’s cutting-edge technology offer. Six-mode adaptive LED headlamps feature, along with pop-out door handles not currently available below a Range Rover Velar.

Then there’s DS’s electrification mission – every one of its six models will be available either as a plug-in hybrid (7 Crossback), or pure electric vehicle in the case of the 3. Some 25 per cent of potential customers have expressed an interest the E-Tense, as the electrified models are badged, with its 200 miles of zero emissions range. 25 per cent of what volume?

‘The Mini Countryman and Audi Q2 sell around 15,000 units a year,’ answers Descat. ‘I won’t be pushing [to that level], company cars and daily rental will be limited. We expect to have more volume than the DS 7, and conquest sales with the car.’

Customer service: another differentiator

The received wisdom is that car dealers have the same effect on customers that Kryptonite has on Superman. But DS’s promise is to make its owners feel warm and fuzzy, thanks to its ‘Only You’ mantra.

A valet will collect and deliver back cars after servicing, returning them in spotless condition. So far, so Vignale, Ford’s premium offshoot that has all the traction of Jose Mourinho at an ice hockey game. DS will go further (ahem) by bringing it on a liveried truck, for a fee. Or by providing a valet to meet you in London’s west end, greeting you outside a theatre before whisking your Crossback away until it’s needed again.   

And customers can enter Club Privilege, getting access to bespoke experiences ranging from a cookery class with a top chef, tailored suits from a Savile Row partner, a Scottish distillery visit and more. Everything is mobilised through a DS smartphone app.

DS is also promising to be a flexible mobility provider, enabling DS 3 owners to hire a 7 Crossback if they need more space for a holiday, or for other people and businesses to sample the its cars.

‘It’s no secret, we want to have the most comprehensive set of services, and raise the bar on each one,’ claims Descat. ‘It’s not that our approach is very different to other brands’, but add them all together and we have a strong proposition. And this will make the difference in the long run.’

The next four years will herald four more models: the board has rubber-stamped a six-year business plan promising to deliver a six-car range in total. Potential retail investors are taken to Paris to see these cars: the brand needs a midsize hatch and crossover or SUV, while a flagship limousine would make sense for the Chinese market. DS dealership staff get the same look into the future in a week-long training course, as well as schooling them in the arts of the luxury customer service at jeweller Van Cleef and Arpels and Michelin-starred restaurants.

And what does 2019 have in store for DS in the UK? ‘I hope to grow the volume this year,’ conculdes Descat. ‘We have 35 finished showrooms, the dealers are business fit, the staff are trained on how to make customers feel welcome. We are a lot stronger than when we launched DS 7 Crossback last year. That car is growing month by month. It’s a slow burn but it’s growing – and then we have the 3 Crossback on top.’

By Phil McNamara

Editor-in-chief of CAR magazine