Citroën boss Linda Jackson has set out her vision for the future of the brand
Perhaps the best way to experience the new Citroën C4 Cactus is to be driven, at night, through central Paris.
On my way back from interviewing Linda Jackson, the Briton who is now head of the Citroën brand, I’m getting a first-hand experience of what the C4 Cactus is all about and what Jackson says is the essential new character of Citroën.
The Cactus I’m travelling in is being driven by Citroën’s press head of international relations and, despite being born an Austrian, she looks and drives like the classic Parisian career woman. Ignoring the combination of rain and cobbles, she presses on into the wild rush-hour traffic unconcerned by the near-collisions.
“I have my Air Bumps,” she laughs as we avoid a Renault Scenic. We whizz across the city in a manner that is both urgent and yet somehow languid. I get out of the Cactus marvelling at the live demonstration of what Jackson has just been telling me about.
“Citroën will become all about the feelgood factor,” Jackson says. “The driver needs to feel relaxed and good about the car.” Which is precisely what I’ve just experienced. I think the French call it ‘insouciance’.
The big question is: will this new, very French interpretation of Citroën translate to other countries in Europe, including the UK, and as far afield as China and South America as the maker pushes to increase its international presence?
Jackson’s route to the top
Jackson became the MD of Citroën in June, having led Citroën in the UK and Ireland since 2010. Before that, she was the finance director of both Citroën UK and Citroën France. She has been in the automotive industry since a pre-university summer job at Jaguar turned into a full-time job.
Jackson worked through the final years of the calamitous British Leyland empire, Austin-Rover, BMW’s ownership of the Rover Group and the Phoenix Four’s ‘rescue’ of the company in 2000, ending her long years in the British car industry when she was head-hunted by Citroën in 2003.
It has been a very fractious few years for PSA Peugeot-Citroën. In 2012 and 2013 the company lost £6 billion, which resulted in a multinational rescue plan for the ailing car maker earlier this year.
A deal brokered with the French government and Chinese car maker Dongfeng brought investments of about £470 million from each and existing investors stumped up another £1bn or so. The upshot is that the Peugeot family found itself in a three-way ownership mix, with just 14 per cent of the company, along with the French government and Dongfeng owning stakes of the same size.
The future of PSA's brands
Former Renault number two Carlos Tavares joined PSA in April and quickly set out his ‘Back in the Race’ plan. Under this, the two brands will become much more well defined, with Peugeot aiming for the ‘upper mainstream’ as a Volkswagen rival and Citroën competing in the mainstream but defining itself by distinctiveness.
DS will now be a stand-alone premium brand and pushed heavily in China, where Peugeot, DS and Citroën are expected to triple combined sales volumes by 2020. Globally, PSA will reduce its combined output to just 26 models. Perhaps the best illustration of just how hard pressed PSA is today is that a profit margin target of just two per cent is pencilled in for 2018.
Tavares had been in the chair for only a matter of weeks before he appointed Jackson to oversee the reinvention of Citroën. She arrived on 1 June and is talking to Autocar after less than four months in charge.
“I’ve taken time to understand what’s coming [in the product pipeline],” says Jackson. “I’ve been meeting the team, the people who are already in position, taking account of what’s happening. I’ve been to China to meet our people. It’s important because one out of every four new Citroëns are sold in China.
“The Cactus is the first product that illustrates where the brand is going. It is modern but also has the basic Citroën DNA that combines creativity and technology.” Jackson points out that this seemingly innocuous combination applies as much to the original DS or CX as it does the Cactus.
“The new Citroën is also about the feelgood factor, being at ease and relaxed – feeling relaxed and good about the car,” she says. “A lot of this will come from the way you buy a car and the experience you have in a Citroën dealer.”
Jackson says future Citroën models will have much more modern design and be “innovative” (although she refuses to give any clues about the form of the C4 replacement).
“There’ll be an emphasis on comfort; Citroën has been historically good at comfort. And we’ll only fit useful technology to our cars, like the [Cactus’s] screen that encompasses everything you need to know. Citroën values will be precisely targeted to each market segment.” It seems to be working already with the current C4 Picasso, which is the best-selling car its segment.
Citroën will focus on buyers
But it becomes clear that Jackson’s emphasis will be making buyers feel “relaxed and good” about their purchase from the showroom floor upwards, rather than trying to force the message downwards by advertising.
She was the brain behind turning around the Citroën brand image in the UK from being one associated with budget cashback deals. Jackson says that selling the first Picasso MPVs at budget prices was a success in the sense that 250,000 were on the roads of the UK.
The downside, however, was that Citroën had pushed itself into budget brand status, which played havoc with residual values, in turn making it more expensive for existing customers who wanted to trade into a new car.
Jackson’s straightforward tactic was to walk away from selling cars purely on cost and instead concentrate on setting out the product attributes and introducing more options, such as better colour choices and nice alloy wheels. As a result, the cars started to be viewed as attractive in themselves.
Apparently, Jackson’s presentation of Citroën UK’s brand-shifting tactics to the main board impressed Tavares sufficiently to appoint her to head up Citroën globally. Indeed, it is refreshing to talk to Jackson, not because she is a rare female car boss but because she views the business from the showroom.
She wants to make people feel good about their purchase and their experience with the brand, rather than pushing a top-down menu of Nürburgring lap times and ever more sophisticated engineering.
New car-selling innovations
Jackson reveals that there are some very interesting customer-centric innovations being introduced throughout Citroën dealers. In cash-strapped Spain, buyers can buy a C4 Cactus on the pay-as-you-drive ‘Flexidrive’ deal, which sends you a bill via an on-board black box.
‘Simply Drive’ will allow a customer to put together a buying package, which could take in finance, insurance and a service contract to meet their monthly budget. Jackson is big on customer service – who in the industry isn’t? – but Citroën is clearly very serious about it.
It is rolling out a website called Citroën Advisor, which allows customers to leave reviews of their dealership experience. Dealers have 24 hours to respond to complaints. Citroën Advisor is already in France and is being launched in the UK and Germany.
“It is a cliché, but satisfied customers are our best ambassadors,” says Jackson. “With the advent of social media, there is nowhere to hide. We have to get it right.”
It is great, finally, to find a car maker stating simply that if multi-link rear axles and ever-more sophisticated interior treatments are not adding enough value to make a customer willing to pay for them, it is best not to try to force the issue. In a buyers' market, mainstream car makers will only come off worse.
Replacing that engineering ‘value’ with low running costs and a strong feelgood factor might be a no-brainer in Paris, but selling that very French approach to motoring might be more difficult in Preston or Portsmouth. But surely any student of the motor industry would be delighted to see Citroën successfully swimming against the high-tech tide.