‘We can do much better in the UK’ Fluent in French automotive iconography, can Arnaud Ribault bring some of that magic to DS?
ARNAUD RIBAULT DS SALES AND MARKETING CHIEF
Arnaud Ribault joined Citroën straight out of business school, captivated by the company’s Traction Avant, the ’30s model that popularised front-wheel drive, the ’50s DS with looks and technology from the future, and its wedgy ’90s tribute act the XM. Having worked for the group all his career, Ribault’s a Citroën guy to the core. Except when he’s not.
Ribault is now the marketing mastermind attempting to establish DS Automobiles as a standalone French luxury brand, spun off from its Citroën parent four years ago. The recipe is a network of bespoke stores offering higher-grade customer service and convenience, to underpin six all-new cars in the space of six years.
The first was last year’s DS 7 Crossback, an Audi Q3 SUV rival; this year’s offering is the DS 3 Crossback – a supermini-sized SUV. It will be the baby of the range, which means no direct replacement for the DS 3 hatchback, a big success in the UK. ‘The marketing playbook says if you have a good product, stick with it,’ explains the 46-year-old executive. ‘But our road map is [only] to have six cars. The decision was not just about replacing DS 3 but building a brand. You can’t build it in small premium hatchbacks; we have more [global] potential with an SUV, a longer car with five doors.’
UK deliveries of the baby Crossback with internal combustion engines start next month, then a pure electric version follows late in the year with around 200 miles of range. DS is charged with being PSA Groupe’s tech incubator, helping amortise R&D expenses with its higher sticker prices; every new DS will have either a plug-in hybrid or pure EV derivative, before solely combustion-engined models die out from 2025.
This is why Ribault is ploughing his marketing budget into the Formula E electric race series. ‘Two things we bring from competition to road cars. One is data management software for energy [flow], the other is energy regeneration. The DS 3 E-Tense will regenerate 25 per cent of its range in city driving.’
But it’s not just about technology transfer. Formula E has a following in the important Chinese market, and DS has doubled down on that by switching its partnership from Virgin Racing to Chinese team Techeeta. Ribault claims the series generates more media exposure than the World Rally Championship, and its big city street races attract a younger, more progressive demographic than circuit racing. And it’s a perfect place for DS to gain legitimacy by competing with rival premium brands: BMW, Jaguar and Audi this season, Mercedes and Porsche factory teams the next.
It can only help boost awareness: the brand registered just 53,300 cars worldwide in 2018, with around 10 per cent coming from the UK. ‘We accept we are a challenger brand. But we can do much better in the UK. We have work to do to gain credibility with customers in the C and D segment. Our early adopters are highly educated with a high level of income who are looking for something exclusive. They understand French luxury but it takes time to grow this customer [base] in the UK.’
One key challenge is to build up DS residual values, to reduce depreciation and make the cars’ monthly leases more competitive. The executive team are judged on their performance in this area, with the brand lagging its Audi benchmark. ‘We have to sustain ourselves [the DS brand], so we have to sustain a higher RV: people don’t want to pay more.’
Despite the desire to get cars on the road, Ribault is adamant the brand won’t force cars into the market with big discounts. ‘Our price elasticity is different to other PSA Groupe brands: the more we decrease in price, the less we sell. If we are not at the price of BMW, premium brand customers get suspicious!’
There are some grounds for optimism: the 7 Crossback is France’s top-selling SUV, at a toppy average transaction price of €49,000 (it’s £37,000 in the UK). And there’s no turning back with 3 Crossback pricing: the £21,550 entry point is noticeably higher than the outgoing hatchback’s.
The funding has been secured for six models covering the heart of the market, perhaps culminating in a flagship EV to take on Tesla. All Ribault will say is that battery and motor developments allow DS to chase the ambition of an EV with 500km (310 miles) of range and 400hp by the end of this product cycle. ‘Volvo is known for safety, Audi for vorsprung durch technik,’ he says. ‘Our dream is in 20 years’ time, customers will say DS stands for refinement and technology.’ PHIL McNAMARA
Six questions only we would ask
Tell us about your first car.
‘I was fascinated by Citroën and cars such as the Traction Avant, DS and XM. I did two internships, one at BMW, the other at Citroën and my first car was a three-door AX 1.5.’
Which achievement makes you most proud?
‘Aside from my family, it’s the ambition to build the new French luxury car brand. The inspiration is Bugatti, Facel-Vega, Delage, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel.’
What’s the best thing you’ve done in a car?
‘All the trips my wife and I did in my Citroën SM between 1999 and 2003. We drove more than 10,000km [6200 miles] and only broke down once! When you overtook at 200km/h [125mph] with a ’70s car, people were quite surprised.’
Supercar or classic car?
‘Classic car. I have a DS23 Pallas.’
Tell us about a time you screwed up…
‘The biggest thing I’m not happy with is the performance of DS in China. I lived there for four years, launched three cars and delivered 75 dealerships. We see the huge potential in China, but we’ve not been able to sustain that level.’
Company curveball: who wrote an essay saying the original DS looked as if it had fallen from the sky?
‘Roland Barthes, the philosopher. He was talking about things that could change a person’s life. Look at the pictures of the DS at the 1955 Grand Palais – all the cars were square except the DS. It was first with disc brakes, power steering, hydraulic suspension, and it took 12,000 orders in a day.’