Road show

If ever there was a time for automotive PR firms to get serious about creating integrated digital/interactive practices, this is it.

If ever there was a time for automotive PR firms to get serious about creating integrated digital/interactive practices, this is it.

Yes, automakers are the top media spenders in the traditional ad world – General Motors has had the biggest US ad budget in the past, topping $3.6 billion when coffers were deeper.  But these days, a number of circumstances are colluding to tighten automaker marketing budgets and drive dollars onto the web and onto digital consumer hardware, be they computers, interactive outdoor media and kiosks, or portable entertainment devices.

The protean and prolific world of automotive product development and production is making it necessary for car and truck marketers to think of their brands – regardless of volume sales – as niche marques for a more tightly defined buyer.  The fragmentation of media and the disappearing fourth wall between media and media consumers are forcing marketers to spend more time conversing with individual buyers, not pitching the world at large on network TV.

This is bad news for ad agencies that have enjoyed SUV-sized revenue associated with network TV advertising, but good news for more nimble ad and PR firms that have moved the center of gravity of their practices away from the boob tube. 

The reasons for these changes are legion and obvious and not just to car marketers.  The world of consumer goods is becoming a world of niche marketing.  My corner store's beer cooler used to carry just Miller, Coors, and Bud, and a few others. Now it touts itself as a purveyor of a thousand specialty beers. Indeed, the coolers are jammed with dozens of premium, niche, low volume specialties with names like "Purple Haze" and "Dogfish." The café down the street used to sell "joe", now it sells an incomprehensible array of presumably caffeinated drinks whose names require a polyglot to decipher, all aimed at consumers who see fewer and fewer products as commodities. 

Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, famously said as much when describing, in 2001, his core philosophy for driving the company's revival. He said, in essence, Nissan's mistake had been to try to market in the US by being a second-tier Toyota, a cheaper "one size fits all" brand.  He argued, instead, that Nissan must define itself more tightly as an aspirational brand for SOME consumers, even if that meant losing others in the process, and create vehicles that meet that more refined – and in Nissan's case – more performance oriented positioning.  "Some" turned out to be a lot, and a refutation in hard sales of badge engineering: car as a commodity whose personality can be changed with its nameplate and superficial amenities. 

That was a prescient move, and Toyota's Scion brand, whose mantra of no-haggle buying and consumer-driven personalization was another.  So was BMW's Mini brand, particularly its marketing strategy, eschewing terrifically expensive television campaigns for buzz building, quirky print and outdoor advertising, and one-to-one marketing at all points of contact between the customer, the owner, and brand. Central to Cadillac's revival three years ago was a decision, like Nissan's, to more tightly define the brand, and say goodbye to the lower reaches of the market.  GM executives had a therapy-couch revelation that it's okay not to be loved by everyone, and gave Cadillac general manager Mark LaNeve (now North American marketing chief) the imprimatur to take more design and marketing risks.   

The same proliferation of niches is obviously happening in media, where, to paraphrase Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, the interface between the consumer outside and the digital world inside is shattering into big and little screens just about everywhere. That consumers no longer just watch those worlds, but leap into those worlds and change them is forcing agencies like Edelman to create internal groups devoted 24/7 to studying where it's all going and how the agency can keep up.  In a sense, PR as a marketing tool has always been "non traditional."  Particularly for the car business, that will stand them in good stead as marketers move more money into smaller buckets to target more defined groups of buyers.

This is the first in a series of monthly Web column on the automotive market by Karl Greenberg, PRWeek news editor

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