MARKET FOCUS AUTOMOTIVE: PR rides shotgun - Automakers aren'tcurbing their PR budgets - but they are demanding smarter ways to spendit. John Frank reports

Although the slowing economy has forced automakers to tighten PR

budgets, product promotion is still a priority. Auto PR people say the

US market is so competitive, a carmaker simply can't afford to slow the

drumbeat of product messages it puts out to consumers, even in a

weakened economy.

PR managers at General Motors, Chrysler and Nissan are operating on

trimmed PR budgets this year as a result of cuts in overall operating


Jim Trainor, Lincoln/Mercury's public affairs manager, has re-examined

travel budgets and taken other operational steps to slice expenses. But

he insists that product PR should remain immune to cuts. "I think

significantly changing the amount of product PR we do would indicate

some panic, and we're not panicking," he says.

The auto industry is not in dire economic straits. Last year, automakers

sold 17.4 million units in the US, an industry record. Sales this year

are expected to be 16.3 to 16.5 million, lower than last year but still

likely to be the third best year ever for the US auto market.

Driving home the product

With sales still relatively brisk, Trainor and others are looking for

message points that will allow their products to stand out. Some are

stressing value for the consumer dollar, while others are talking about

fuel efficiency.

Toyota, for example, has reaped a PR bonanza with its Prius hybrid

gas/electric car, which received widespread media attention earlier this

year when rising gasoline prices were in the news.

Joe Tetherow, Toyota's national field operations and corporate

communications manager, says three years of Prius PR efforts helped

garner the attention of many auto writers when gas prices starting

climbing. Efforts began in the summer of 1998 with a 13-city tour where

Prius was touted as the first mass-produced electric hybrid vehicle.

Journalists were invited to the Toyota tech center for detailed


After the tour ended, Tetherow sent eight cars to his PR field offices

in New York, Miami, Detroit and Texas to drum up more attention. They

were taken to local morning talk shows and news outlets. "We created the

buzz and kept talking about it," he recalls.

In the summer of 1999, reporters from major automotive magazines were

given a preview, and the car was taken to a meeting of environmental

organizations in Washington. A contest was held that summer on the

Toyota Web site to pick families in 12 cities to win a month-long Prius

test drive.

When the car went on sale last summer, it was shown at an environmental

journalists' convention and talked up among Hollywood types to generate

some celebrity panache. Leonardo DiCaprio now owns two, for example.

Toyota sells the Prius on the Web, hoping to give it a hi-tech


It's set aside some cars for fleet sales as well, using every fleet

purchase as a PR opportunity to garner more attention for the car.

Stressing quality

Some automakers have added subtle messages to SUV marketing to play off

Ford's Explorer rollover problems. DaimlerChrysler, for example, is

positioning its new Jeep Liberty as "a kinder, gentler SUV," says Jan

Zverina, senior manager of product communications with the Chrysler

Group. "The message is on-road stability and refinement."

Chevrolet's Trailblazer SUV has a more efficient six-cylinder engine

this year, leading Chevy to stress its gas efficiency and power in PR

efforts, says Tom Wilkenson, Chevy's communications director. The

efficiency message is playing well with corporate fleet buyers, but

consumers and auto journalists seem more interested in the power

message, he says. That indicates consumers still care more about SUV

features than they do about SUV mileage and higher gas prices.

"What really counts to the consumer is value - namely what features they

can get for their dollar," says David Cole, director of the Center for

Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI.

Korean carmaker Hyundai also stresses value, but is careful to talk

about quality too, says Chris Hosford, Hyundai director of

communications. Korean carmakers developed a low-quality reputation when

they first began selling in the US. As a result, "there are a number of

people in the US who still have a perception that buying a Hyundai

entails a risk," says Hosford.

For the past year, Hosford has been assembling a network of PR agencies

across the country to help him combat that perception. He recently

completed that network by hiring Ketchum to handle PR on the West Coast

and to oversee national efforts. Local agencies, such as John Bailey &

Associates in Detroit, keep Hosford alert to PR opportunities in their

markets that he might otherwise miss. They also keep local journalists

besieged by reams of auto PR and aware of Hyundai's offerings.

New ways of getting attention

While most automakers have major press test-drive previews for new

models, this year Hyundai decided to deliver a new variation of its

Elantra model, the Elantra GT, to individual car writers to test drive

at their leisure.

Most auto PR efforts start with auto writers for major automotive trade

magazines or daily newspapers. "Some of these guys are away 35 of 52

weeks a year. We want to make any event we have for them as memorable as

possible," says Chrysler's Zverina.

Chrysler has long been known for its elaborate auto press previews. With

budgets being pared this year, Zverina has tried to keep such events

elaborate by cutting behind-the-scenes costs such as lighting and sound

system expenses.

Other automakers are looking for new ways to stand out. Isuzu was urged

by its US dealers to bring back advertising figure Joe Isuzu this


Joe returned in February, well before a planned April introduction of a

new Isuzu Axiom. The hope was that the media buzz about Joe's return

would lead right into the Axiom launch.

"Joe was brought back to cut through the clutter," says Chip Letzgus,

executive manager, corporate communications with American Isuzu


Letzgus has worked to maximize media attention for Joe, reaching out to

mainstream press that might not otherwise write about his company.

Letzgus produced a VNR for Joe's return and set up interviews with major

publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

David Leisure, the actor who portrays Joe, has been taken on tour,

visiting the factory in Indiana where Isuzu makes the Axiom. Letzgus has

continued to get major play for the decision to bring Joe back, as

Fortune recently covered the story.

Isuzu also uses a product placement agency to get its models into more

films and TV shows. One of its Axioms became the Spymobile in the movie

Spy Kids. The Axiom used went on a 10-city tour with the two child stars

of the movie. The car will be in a sequel planned for next summer.

"Every time one of those events occurs, we get as much additional

exposure as possible," says Letzgus.

Luxury carmakers continue to focus on luxury PR messages. At Nissan, for

example, its recent business problems led to some industry speculation

that it might drop its upscale Infiniti brand, notes Debra Fair, VP

corporate communications. So when Fair planned PR for a new Infiniti

model this year, she decided PR had to show the brand was here to stay.

"We wanted to position it as a tier one luxury franchise," she says.

Rather than let auto writers test the new model in the US, Nissan sent

them to Italy and let reporters drive the car from Rome to Florence. For

an upscale brand, PR is "about how you set it up, it's about how the

product performs on the Autostrada," Fair says.

Ford's Lincoln-Mercury division also stresses luxury in PR efforts for

its new Lincoln Blackwood truck. Lincoln sponsors such events as the US

Tennis Open and a North American tour by the Cirque de Soleil. "We're

out there pushing hard to keep the image of Lincoln up," says


The upscale message carries through in Lincoln's presentation to auto

writers - the Blackwood's press kit had special Dutch doors on it just

like the Blackwood, Trainor notes.

Whether upscale or mainstream, auto product PR works hard to distinguish

models from the competition and to give consumers a reason to buy. The

slowing economy isn't going to change that.


Agencies handling PR: Hopkins & Associates (Dallas) Bates Churchill


Date campaign started: Summer 1998

Date product hit market: July 2000

Number sold to date: 11,434 in the US; about 60,000 worldwide

Main strategy: Position Prius as hi-tech and environmentally friendly;

target environmental writers, Internet users, celebrities

Competitors: Honda's Insight is the only other hybrid car currently

available in the US

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in