Audi bulks up PR efforts to boost awareness among US consumers

AUBURN HILLS, MI: Audi is giving PR a bigger staff, budget, and role this year as the automaker looks to heighten awareness of the brand among US consumers and move out of the shadow of Lexus, Mercedes, and BMW.

AUBURN HILLS, MI: Audi is giving PR a bigger staff, budget, and role this year as the automaker looks to heighten awareness of the brand among US consumers and move out of the shadow of Lexus, Mercedes, and BMW.

The company is restructuring its communications staff by creating a number of new positions. Jeff Kuhlman, formerly of General Motors, was recently appointed to the newly created role of chief communications officer, reporting to Johan de Nysschen, EVP, Audi of America. Other new posts include a West Coast PR manager, Celeste Atkinson, and an East Coast PR manager, Andrew Lipman, along with specialists in motorsports, auto shows and events, and media and celebrity relations.

Audi currently doesn't have an AOR, but Jennifer Cortez, director of communications at Audi, believes that may change, possibly in 2007. She added that Audi and Volkswagen no longer have to share communications staff.

"Part of the process is that we were dualed with VW," Cortez said. "Prior to the middle of last year... I had four full-time individuals on both brands. We wanted to provide a communications team that was exclusive to Audi."

With Kuhlman now on board, Cortez said she will take a more active role in Audi's internal communications, an area she said needs to be improved.

"We haven't had any sort of plan in place, or someone guiding it," Cortez noted. "We did it, we tried to do it, we tried to do it well, but never dedicated responsibility to one individual. It fell between PR and human resources. Now, I'll take on that role."

She said she is having more regular meetings with "our EVP, and have committed to doing them monthly, that's something new. And generally speaking, we need more targeted, more streamlined, and more hot-off-the-press communications to our employees."

Externally, Cortez added, PR will be charged with supporting consumer marketing by building awareness for a brand that has vied for share of voice with Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes. According to the Automotive News Data Center, Audi sales were up 6.6% last year versus 2004. But 2005's sales numbers - 83,066 - lagged far behind segment leader Lexus' 300,000 and number two BMW's 266,000. That's partly because Audi hasn't had an SUV. This year Audi debuted its first: the Q7.

"It's not so much changing the perception of Audi, it's heightening and improving it," she added. "There are people who don't consider us against a BMW or Mercedes, and they're flat-out wrong."

Art Spinella, president of Bandon, OR-based CNW Marketing Research, said simple consumer awareness and consideration has been a longstanding challenge for Audi.

"When we look at the vehicles on the shopping lists of consumers, Audi always finishes up being third or fourth," Spinella said. "If you're not first or second, you don't get picked. That's just the way [it] works."

Cortez conceded that Audi's PR efforts were constrained because "we were underfunded in PR as proportional to the marketing budget." Now, she said, efforts will focus on non-product-related communications and lifestyle efforts to build brand image.

"We wanted to make sure 40% of the budget would go to lifestyle activities and 60% to product/traditional communications," Cortez added. "We've never dedicated that much to lifestyle communications and activities."

For example, Audi is targeting the elite in Los Angeles with a chauffeur service comprising 35 of its flagship A8 models. "We're working with entertainment executives, celebrities, and studios for movie premieres," Cortez said.

"We lag sales in LA against Mercedes and BMW, and we want to improve the image in those key metro markets," Cortez noted.

This service also will be rolled out in Miami and New York.

Wes Brown, a partner at Iceology, a consumer research and trend consultancy, said the service is a very smart move by Audi.

"It allows them to have the top-of-the-line models on the road being seen," Brown said.

Added Cortez, "We haven't done this strategic approach or this aggressive targeting [before]... rather, it's been more reactive, and we've got to turn that around."

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