Influencers drive Audi's US brand strategy

Expanded PR function and integration help Audi leverage VIP involvement to gain ground in US

Expanded PR function and integration help Audi leverage VIP involvement to gain ground in US

Last month, superstar boxer Floyd Mayweather was being driven around Los Angeles in the back of an Audi A8 as part of the automaker's VIP/celebrity chauffeur service it runs in New York and LA. So taken with the car, he asked the driver to bring him to the nearest dealership so he could buy one for himself and one for his mom.

"It was a very good day for us," says Jeff Kuhlman, chief communications officer at Audi. "And with the chauffeur fleet, I have a dozen stories like that where the client keeps asking the driver for more information about the car."

Audi, which has long been one of the leaders in the luxury market outside the US, along with Mercedes and BMW, is looking to increase market share in the domestic market currently dominated by Lexus, Mercedes, and BMW. It's relying heavily on PR to help accomplish this and is currently searching for a PR firm.

For Kuhlman, the story of this high-profile boxer purchasing a pair of one of Audi's top models means things are going as planned. Kuhlman believes targeting influencers, celebrities, and VIPs is key to helping Audi effectively spread its message.

"One of the reasons we concentrate on celebrities and VIPs is that they're well-traveled people," Kuhlman says. "They understand the power of the Audi brand outside the US and come in as very authentic when they talk about it."

He says the practice of going to this group and asking them to be involved with the brand is becoming easier. In fact, he says oftentimes the shoe is now on the other foot.

"Celebrities have the opportunity to get anything they want if they want it," he says. "Now we're getting calls from celebrities, producers, and all areas of entertainment to ask about being involved with Audi, and that's a great position to be in."

Audi's CMO Scott Keogh says the plan is to popularize and energize the brand. And he believes third-party endorsements generated through PR are key to doing that.

"Popularization happens when you get credible third parties, beyond the press, to speak for your brand, and that is something PR can do extremely well," says Keogh, who started at Audi on the same exact day as Kuhlman last June. "If you go to third-party experts, to the core of the automotive world they are all incredibly big fans of Audi. The job [Kuhlman] and I are trying to do is to get this core of people to multiply, get that word of mouth out there, and get this thing to cross over into the mainstream luxury market in America... and PR is uniquely positioned to do that."

Keogh says PR brings a number of benefits to the table, including magnifying all of the company's marketing and advertising efforts and bringing a level of credibility to the work and messages Audi produces.

"And when you put those two things together, you get to this great integration factor of marketing and PR singing together," Keogh says. "There are all sorts of integration opportunities, which is why we sit right next to each other and are fully aware of each other's moves and plans."

Kuhlman agrees that working so closely together in both the literal and figurative sense is paying off. "Even though there's a wall between us physically, there's no throwing of ideas over the wall," Kuhlman says. "We sit together and generate ideas on every aspect of what we are working on."

Kuhlman says the role of PR in the company is different from what it was in the past because of the department's size. Before March 2006, there were only two full-time staffers at the company and no AOR. It has since expanded in number, to eight, and in scope. Along with Detroit, Audi has communications people based in New York, LA, and Miami.

Back then, the staff was charged mostly with handling product launches. Today, its role has expanded to everything from program management to media relations.

"It's been about getting back to fundamentals," Kuhlman says. "We had to get back to knocking on some doors, visiting people, getting on the radar screen, and making sure they're scheduled to get into our vehicles. Be proactive, not reactive."

Kuhlman says expanding the type of media it targets is another initiative of the communications staff.

"No one media [outlet] gets the story across to the public anymore," Kuhlman explains. "I can't count on a hit in Car & Driver to be solely responsible for helping change somebody's perception of Audi. We've also been in The Wall Street Journal and St. Petersburg Times, and have been talked about on blogs and reviewed on Edmunds.com. The one thing that doesn't change about this business is the relationships. I have to know everybody in all of those publications I just mentioned."

At a glance

Company:
Audi of America

Chairman/CEO:
Johan de Nysschen, EVP of Audi of America in the US

Headquarters:
Auburn Hills, MI

Competitors:
Mercedes Benz, BMW, Lexus

PR/Marketing Budget:
Undisclosed

Key Trade Titles:
Automotive News, Ward's Auto Reports

Marcomms Team:
Jeff Kuhlman, chief comms officer
Scott Keogh, CMO
Andrew Lipman, business and East Coast communications manager
Celeste Atkinson, lifestyle and entertainment manager

Marketing Services Agencies:
PR: To be determined
Advertising: Venables Bell & Partners (creative), Factory Design Labs (online)

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