Automakers take a different route to highlight innovation

Who needs Detroit when you've got the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)?

Who needs Detroit when you've got the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)? Such is the sentiment of a number of automotive PR pros who affirm an upswing in product innovation and consumer marketing around automaker technology.

In this post-bailout era, major automakers have posted solid Q1 sales gains, largely due to consumer demand for fuel-efficient options and digital features. Marketing by companies such as Ford, which infiltrated CES with models touting its in-car social media technology Sync, also play a key part.

Telling a new story

Chrysler, which emerged from bankruptcy with its acquisition by Fiat, launched a well-received Super Bowl commercial featuring Detroit native Eminem and the "imported from Detroit" tagline. The theme is in line with the carmaker's search for more fuel-efficient ways to power vehicles and reduce its dependence on foreign oil. Chrysler is not only telling its story through traditional media, but also through its tech and energy research programs.

"People are looking into alternative power, and we're seeing partnerships with what may be a battery pack or things such as liquefied petroleum," says Vince Muniga, product communications manager for powertrains at Chrysler.

The company, which is looking closely at hybrids, recently partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a three-year project to research the adaptation of hydraulic hybrids, typically used in commercial and municipal vehicles, for a minivan. It expects to release its first vehicle in just over a year. It also received funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop 140 hybrid plug-in pickup trucks recently released in test markets.

"We work closely with the government because we want to solve the problem," he asserts.

In addition to fuel efficiency, automakers are leveraging in-car entertainment technology as a promotional differentiator.

Working with partner Verizon on communications initiatives, GM claims it has amped up social media efforts and shifted its budget to target less traditional promotional opportunities for products such as its OnStar hands-free and social media technology. The company joined Ford at the 2011 CES in January, where it unveiled an OnStar rearview mirror for GM and non-GM vehicles.

Aside from promoting its new hybrid Volt via nontraditional and online platforms, GM also touted its entertainment technology, such as voice-activated Facebook updates and iPhone applications.

"Innovation has always been a key platform for us, but the speed of the development has increased, so our speed in implementing new technology has increased in the past several years," says Terry Rhadigan, director of regional communications at GM.

"You'll see an increase in the marketing and storytelling we do," he adds. "Our budgets aren't growing, but we're distributing money differently. There's a big social media component."

Supplier support

Supplier PR budgets are also growing as automakers look to their partners to help tell the consumer story about safety, fuel efficiency, and social media.

For its supplier clients such as Faurecia and Parrot, Airfoil PR has gone beyond conducting typical b-to-b communications to pique the interest of the general consumer, explains Rich Donley, VP in the agency's clean tech, industrial, and auto PR practice.

"Many companies are looking at auto as a promotional platform, as are we from a roots standpoint here in Detroit, but we're also in Silicon Valley," adds Kevin Sangs- land, Airfoil account director. "It's a convergence of two communities that have been very siloed."

For example, Faurecia launched its iPhone-activated seat system at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. It also partnered with a university and consumer focus groups to measure its potential success in that space.

"Suppliers want that consumer pull and for consumers to request the technology from dealers and carmakers," says Donley.

That's infotainment

Though automakers have long used CES to debut new offerings, 2011 was the year for digital advancement and "infotainment" system launches.

Toyota introduced its Entune platform with application integration, while Hyundai launched its Blue Link telematics system (pictured) with voice recognition, remote start, and disabling of the car via text message, among other features.

Critics are comparing it to GM's OnStar, which for the first time is producing a product - the system-equipped rearview mirror - for non-GM vehicles.

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