Driving PR to the middle of America

Sales in the pickup-truck sector are softening, thanks in no small part to sky-high gasoline prices. Michael Bush discovers what some automakers are doing in an effort to help revive the category

Sales in the pickup-truck sector are softening, thanks in no small part to sky-high gasoline prices. Michael Bush discovers what some automakers are doing in an effort to help revive the category

This September, Ford Motor Co. will debut the newest model in its highly popular F-Series line of pickup trucks, the F-150 FX2 Sport - a two-wheel drive truck whose concept was the result of effective external and internal communications.

Two years ago, members of Ford's marketing and engineering teams were meeting with the company's Southwest dealers, as they regularly do, and wanted to know what the dealers were hearing from consumers. They learned that while consumers in the region liked the F-150 FX4 model, they didn't necessarily have a need for a four-wheel drive pickup truck. They were hearing such comments as, "I live in Texas, and I don't need four-wheel drive... I'm just paying extra for this option."

Wes Sherwood, Ford Truck communications manager who reports to Ford public affairs, says the automaker keeps in close and regular contact with its dealers to better address the specific needs of customers in different parts of the country and world.

"This truck is a direct result of the interaction between the dealers and consumers," Sherwood explains. "It's a perfect example of how we reacted quickly to this opportunity and got a truck out there that we're expecting could reach 5% of our overall F-150 sales volume. And at the numbers we do, that's more than a lot of luxury nameplates."

Partnerships pick up
With a fuel economy issue that doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon, automakers need to find ways, such as Ford did, to better address the needs and concerns of consumers who are in the market for pickup trucks and SUVs. A number of communication executives in the automotive industry believe PR efforts and marketing partnerships will significantly help maintain and possibly increase sales nationwide, but specifically in the Southwest and Midwest.

"In the truck market, we're seeing some softening of sales," Sherwood says. "We saw this happen last year when gas prices spiked. It's pretty typical that if there are fluctuations, truck customers will delay a purchase, but they overwhelmingly don't go into other segments because they need the flexibility of a pickup truck."

The mindset at Ford is to target current and potential truck buyers in three areas: where they live, work, and play. Ford has partnerships and marketing alliances with key groups in each of those areas, including country singer Toby Keith, outdoor product supplier Cabela's, and NASCAR.

This year marks the fourth concert series in which Ford will team up with Keith. At the beginning of each concert of his "Hookin' Up and Hangin' Out" tour, which kicks off August 11, a video will play featuring Keith driving an F-Series pickup truck.

"It usually involves him demonstrating the extreme capabilities of our trucks," Sherwood says. "It's pretty deep product integration that you don't commonly see."

Over the July 4 weekend, Ford had the culmination of its "Monsters on Main Street" sweepstakes in Sylva, NC, where winner Susan Shannon hosted a monster truck race. "We brought this whole Monster Jam event down to this tiny North Carolina town of about 2,500 people," Sherwood says.

The event posed some interesting PR challenges for Ford. "The challenge was getting media response to an event that was in a very remote part of the country," he adds. "So we decided to do a [VNR] to bring the story out to folks as opposed to trying to bring people into this tiny city."

Other PR efforts include sponsoring NASCAR races. Dealers in race areas run special promotions that typically result in an increase in truck sales, Sherwood notes.

"From the product side, we are letting journalists drive some of our newer products and get involved at the race track," he says. "We let them work with some of the pit crews during the actual race and let them get trackside to experience it firsthand. We really weave in the whole idea that trucks are cool on the track and off."

Toyota, one of the few automakers currently doing very well, is looking to establish a deeper penetration in the Midwest market and will look to its Tundra pickup truck to lead the charge. "I think it's pretty obvious we have to make a strong and concerted effort to penetrate the Midwest market over the next few years," says Irv Miller, group VP of corporate communications at Toyota Motor Sales USA. "There's opportunity for us to expand our impact in [these] areas, and it's going to take a number of things."

One of those includes a recent partnership with country music artists Brooks & Dunn. In May, the Toyota Tundra was named the official sponsor for the duo's "The Long Haul" concert tour. Concert goers get a sneak peek at the 2007 new-generation Tundra.

To address the fuel economy issue for consumers, Toyota is conducting a round of hybrid seminars for journalists and staffers on Capitol Hill. "We're talking about doing one in Detroit," Miller says. "It's a matter of how do you get people who are industry-oriented to talk about your systems and process and plans."

Moving to the middle
Kurt von Zumwalt, director of product PR at Nissan North America, says that like many other automakers, Nissan has deep penetration on the coasts and in parts of the South, but could have a stronger presence in the middle of the country. Luckily for Nissan, it's currently moving its headquarters from Gardena, CA, to Cool Springs, TN. Its manufacturing facility is based in Smyrna, TN.

Nissan recently announced a multi-year partnership with Gaylord Entertainment that will include sponsorship of music and entertainment events at such locations as the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, TN; the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Kissimmee, FL; and the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Grapevine, TX.

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