Auto industry at cutting edge of integrated comms

Last post on this topic (I promise) but I wanted to revisit themes from the Detroit Auto Show once more, this time in the context of global integrated communications.

Last post on this topic (I promise) but I wanted to revisit themes from the Detroit Auto Show once more, this time in the context of global integrated communications.

The auto trade is both truly global and truly regional in nature. Looking at some of the “midsize” trucks being revealed in Detroit (they're huge), or the thirsty Corvette Stingray (can it really do 29 mpg?) I couldn't help wondering how much they'd cost to run in my home country of the UK, where gas (or petrol as they call it over there) costs $10 a gallon.

Clearly, the type of models launched at the European auto shows will be different to the big beasts on display in the Motor City or the nimble runarounds in Beijing and Shanghai (I'm generalizing, but you get my drift.)

Similarly, every automaker proudly displayed its US manufacturing credentials in its messaging in Detroit and will no doubt trumpet its Asian credentials in China and its Euro plants at the Frankfurt and Geneva shows. Whether a brand is American, European, or Asian, you can assume that significant elements of the manufacturing and assembly for the cars actually sold into local markets - and the parts that make up the vehicles - will also be conducted locally.

But while there are differences in the tone and details of regional messaging, there are many commonalities in the auto industry as well, so it is a great case study and learning ground for the techniques being employed at the cutting edge of global marketing and communications.

As one of my new friends in the auto sector, Mary Henige, director of social media, digital communications, research and reputation strategy at GM, pointed out to me, automotive brands are globally loved and followed. There are thousands of bloggers and forums covering every part of the industry, from fan sites such as the Cadillac Owners club to knowledgeable – but very entertaining - cynics such as Autoextremist. Then there are journalist experts such as another new friend, Chuck Tannert, who is extending the auto obsession into lifestyle publications such as Fast Company.

Lifestyle coverage is pure gold to the automakers, as they assume they're going to get covered in the specialist pubs and want to tap in to the new consumer obsession with technology and shiny brands, which is why they were out in force at CES the week prior to the Detroit show and they're now gearing up for SXSW, on top of the usual global auto show circuit.

The automakers have very large in-house PR departments – and they need them. There were 5,500 people from around the globe registered as journalists in Detroit, and in the press room I was rubbing shoulders with everyone from ABC to Al Jazeera, to Autoweek, What Car?, and Car and Driver, to the Detroit Free Press, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and AdAge - plus multifarious videographers and bloggers.

As Henige notes, most industries don't have entire news bureaus devoted to them. Not only do mainstream national and global publications have a transportation or auto writer, they usually also have one or more reporters dedicated to each individual automaker, as well as someone covering dealers and Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers.

But, like comms teams in many other industries, they still struggle to attract large budgets, and they don't receive vast amounts of money from their marketing teams. They are still perceived as being at the value end of the operation.

But as was amply illustrated by our picture of Ford comms chief Ray Day standing side by side with CEO Alan Mulally at the automaker's big reveal of its F-150 truck in Detroit, PR is highly valued by the leaders at all auto companies, across the C-suite and into marketing departments. You can read much more about these trends in the write-up of our inaugural Automotive Roundtable, produced in association with Airfoil, which took place at the Detroit Athletic Club during the show – it will be out on March 1.

OK, time to clear the petrol (gas) out of my nostrils and get back on my bike now I've returned to New York City. But, as you can see, I certainly caught the auto bug in the Motor City and look forward to going back soon. It was truly a melting pot of best-in-class communications and marketing as well as the latest word on the world's latest gleaming car and truck models – and I got to visit Motown on top of all that.

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