Detroit auto show epitomizes global comms

This week in Detroit is all about cars, cars, cars (and a few trucks) as representatives of the automotive industry from all over the world gather in the Motor City for the North American International Auto Show.

This week in Detroit is all about cars, cars, cars (and a few trucks) as representatives of the automotive industry from all over the world gather in the Motor City for the North American International Auto Show.

Attending the show for the first time, as I am, emphasizes a number of things about this incredible industry. It is a truly global business, underlined as soon as you arrive in town by the ubiquitous Japanese signage on display in Detroit's Wayne County Airport.

As well as Japanese auto powerhouses such as Toyota and Nissan, mega-manufacturers from places such as China, Korea, and Germany join their US counterparts on the expansive show floor at the COBO Center in the downtown riverside area of Detroit.

Next thing you notice is how passionate everyone is about the auto industry. Most people spend their lives in it, including those execs in marketing and communications. The likes of Julie Hamp started out at GM before a sabbatical at Pepsi prior to returning “home” to Toyota as North American CCO. Volkswagen's EVP, group communications Tony Cervone formerly worked at Chrysler and GM before a spell “away' at United Airlines. Many others have similar track records, and everyone seems to have worked with each other at some point in the past.

For marcomms specialists the annual auto show schedule is one long marathon, which kicks off with Detroit before heading to Chicago in February, Geneva and New York in March, Shanghai and Beijing in April, Frankfurt and Paris in September, and Tokyo and LA in November. And now they have to add in non-specialist events such as CES and SXSW, which are fast becoming must-attends for the auto sector.

Despite its travails as a city and maintaining its place as the spiritual home of the US auto industry, Detroit this week seems to be buzzing and generally positive about the future. There was no doubt the COBO Center needed to upgrade and it has done so, investing $279 million in renovating facilities so it doesn't suffer in comparison with other shows around the world. Detroit is still the place where you're likely to find most CEOs and senior C-suite execs from the automotive manufacturers.

This year, General Motors gave the homegrown auto industry something to shout about when it bagged both the prestigious North American Car and North American Truck/Utility of the year awards for its Chevy Corvette Stingray – the widely regarded hit of last year's Detroit show – and Chevy Silverado respectively.

GM had already kicked off the show positively at a pre-show event I attended on Sunday, where soon-to-be installed CEO Mary Barra – the first female CEO in the auto industry – unveiled the Detroit-headquartered company's new GMC Canyon midsize truck.

Thirty-year-plus GM veteran Barra is one of the big storylines of the show, as evidenced by the huge amount of requests for interview received by VP of global comms and public policy Selim Bingol and his team, and she is expected to bring a new approach to the traditionally male-dominated role of leading an auto company.

But it was Ford that attracted most attention in the truck category with the launch Monday morning of its new F-150 pickup, which has a predominantly aluminum, “military grade” frame as its main selling point, a feature that makes it lighter but stronger and more fuel efficient, with improved acceleration and stopping times.

CEO Alan Mulally – fresh from ending speculation that he is heading for Microsoft to replace Steve Ballmer – and senior execs oversaw a large-scale presentation in the Joe Louis Arena adjoining the COBO Center. Global VP of communications Ray Day was on hand to make sure everything was in order during the media scrum that ensues after each reveal.

Although 95% of the media engagement and sell-in has already been done before the show, the actual reveal still carries a lot of weight, and execs have to be on top form. For example, Ford's global VP of marketing and sales Jim Farley put his foot in it at a panel discussion at CES last week and made headlines with ill-advised comments about the ability of GPS units to track drivers who are speeding and “breaking the law”.

The comms function is on hand to ensure such snafus don't happen, to chaperone the CEO and other senior execs, and to work closely with marketing to construct strategy and implementation. These days, they also have significant social media teams on site rubbing shoulders with broadcast and other journalists from specialist auto, business, and lifestyle outlets – as well as a burgeoning cadre of bloggers – to produce content for their owned media channels. This content is lapped up directly by auto enthusiasts but also leads to third-party follow-ups and extra coverage in mainstream media.

Tomorrow I'll look at some of the specific approaches adopted by the large automakers as they look to stand out above the noise on the COBO Center floor. But, overall, the Detroit show has already provided a fascinating insight into some of the best-resourced and busiest global communications and marketing teams around, plus the agencies and other third-party suppliers that support them.

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