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
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
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
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.
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
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.
THE TOYOTA PRIUS CAMPAIGN
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