Motoring: The car industry notches up a gear

Motor manufacturers are embracing 'lifestyle PR' to add lustre to their marques. Mary Cowlett looks at the new strategies from seven leading brands.

The news pages of PRWeek in 2008 have shown it is currently all change in the UK automotive industry.

Ford is pitching, General Motors has signed up Cow PR and Idea Generation to its Vauxhall brand, while Mercedes-Benz has hired Ketchum. Meanwhile, Land Rover recently ended its three-year relationship with Exposure and, in March, BMW decided to bring in its first head of digital PR.

One reason for this activity is that, as technology and engineering catch up with the environmental debate, many manufacturers have a hefty launch schedule this year.

In addition, despite talk of carbon footprints and the consumer credit crunch, sales of new cars remain remarkably buoyant. According to trade body, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, new registrations in March were 'better than anticipated' - up 0.5 per cent to 451,642 for the month on 2007 figures.

Moreover, leading manufacturers are chasing the automotive industry's Holy Grail, the lifestyle market. 'Product-wise, there are now more niches to fit people's lifestyles than before,' says Mark Harrison, BMW corporate communications manager and chair of the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association.

Harrison points to his own organisation and adds: 'Ten years ago we had three model ranges, now we have 11 or 12, and it doesn't stop.'

This view is echoed by Mercedes-Benz UK comms director, Will Robson: 'At the premium end of the market, cars are about emotion. It's important for credibility that people not only have the right feeling about your badge, but also see it in the right places.' His firm is currently working with Conde Nast on a number of projects.

At present, the automotive specialists seem unperturbed by this apparent shift to PR experts who know more about consumers than carburettors.

'There is still debate about what lifestyle PR can deliver, especially when you consider that most new cars in this country are sold to companies rather than individuals,' says Martin Hayes, managing director of Automotive PR.

Peter Rawlinson, chief executive of car specialist PF PR agrees: 'Some manufacturers do appear to think the lifestyle market is something new that can be tackled on its own,' he says. 'But if you look at magazines such as Zoo, Nuts and GQ, who all cover motoring, it's not an undiscovered outlet, it's not untapped and it's not that easy.' BMW EMBRACING NEW MEDIA AND WINNING GREEN PLAUDITS - UK corporate communications director Chris Willows, 01344 480109,

Most popular UK models 3 Series, 7 Series, X5, MINI and the motorcycle GS models - as favoured by the globe-trotting Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman

Current PR activity Launching six new BMWs and one MINI in 2008. Last year the marque worked with agency Not Actual Size on a 'See how it feels' campaign. Performance PR looks after the manufacturer's sports marketing properties, including F1 and the Ryder Cup. For MINI, the firm worked most recently on projects with Cake and Performance PR. In terms of new media, the marque says it is in the learning stage, but has received 'nice offers' from various agencies.

Duncan Forrester has taken on the new role of new media PR manager. His former post as media relations manager is vacant, while MINI media relations manager Ellysia Graymore is departing for a new life abroad.

In the news Awarded What Car?'s green award this year with the BMW 118d crowned World Green Car of the Year at March's New York Auto Show.

In April, announced the launch of a fourth, yet to be named, premium brand (after BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce), dedicated to cutting-edge fuel efficiency and a great drive in 'mega cities' with populations of over 10m.

FORD TWENTY PLANNED LAUNCHES INCLUDING NEW 'SUPERMINI' - Executive director comms & public affairs Ford of Britain Tim Holmes, 01277 252506,

Most popular UK models Ka, Fiesta, Focus, Mondeo and Transit

Current PR Activity Twenty launches on the cards for 2008, most of which will be handled in-house. However, the manufacturer is currently in the pitch phase for a consumer account for its new 'supermini', a Fiesta that will be available in the autumn.

Watch out for increased PR activity around the Fiesta, Focus and Fusion models should October's planned London congestion charge exemption for cars emitting under 120g CO2 per kilometre come into force.

In the news In March, Ford sold its luxury UK-based car brands Jaguar and Land Rover to India's largest vehicle manufacturer Tata for $2.3bn (£1.15bn).

In April, the car maker announced a new partnership with EON to work on the new Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.

The Ford car parts orchestra, which features in the latest ads for the Focus, also launched a charity track featuring Mike Rutherford of Genesis and Kenney Jones from The Who in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust.

MERCEDES TAKING THE BRAND TO A YOUNGER MARKET - Communications director Mercedes-Benz UK Will Robson, 019 0824 5948,

Most popular UK models A-class A150, the S-Class series of luxury flagship sedans and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren

Current PR activity The manufacturer is launching nine new models this year, including a Smart diesel. Trade press is handled in-house, but Nelson Bostock has looked after the Smart brand for over a year and the manufacturer has just hired Ketchum on a UK lifestyle brief, to promote the Mercedes-Benz brand to a 'younger more aspirational' market.

In the news The brand is focusing on the environmental credentials of its S-Class and C-Class series in advance of the proposed changes to London congestion charging in October. In addition, the PR team, which also covers events, is gearing up for the 2008 Brooklands Motoring Festival, which takes place at the end of June.

PEUGEOT PUSHING ENVIRONMENTAL CREDENTIALS - Director - public relations Andrew Didlick, 020 7688 4309,

Most popular UK models 207, 308, 107

Current PR activity Peugeot is launching its new 308 SW (estate) model, which will be available in the UK in June. Meanwhile, the light commercial Bipper van goes on sale next from month.

June also marks the opening of a new £25m HQ building for 600 staff in Coventry, and there will be major activity at the British Motor Show and the participation of two diesel 908 race cars at Le Mans.

The last agency pitch was in 2006 and was won by incumbent Nobull Communications. The marque is also working flat-out to plug its environmental credentials - according to figures from the SMMT for March, the nippy 107 city car is currently the UK's best-selling low-emissions vehicle.

In the news In February, Peugeot Citroen announced a rise in profits and said it was on course to meet targets to double its profitability margins to between 5.5 and 6 per cent by 2010. In March, the National Farmers Union took delivery of a low-emissions Peugeot 308 emblazoned with the words 'Powered by British Biofuel' as part of its commitment to the Government's renewable transport fuel obligation targets, unveiled in April.

RENAULT LAUNCH OF FIRST 4X4 PLANNED THIS YEAR - Director for press and public relations UK Tim Jackson, 01923 697584,

Most popular UK models Clio, Megane, Scenic

Current PR activity 2008 is a busy year for launches, with three new Laguna models, a new MPV Grand Modus, a Twingo Renaultsport, two Kangos and a Megane, while the French car maker's first 4x4 crossover, the Koleos, will be available in July. The firm is also gearing up PR activity in advance of its value-for-money brand Dacia, which launches in 2009 with a 5-door Sandero hatchback. To date, this is all being undertaken without PR agency support.

In the news The firm is in the middle of a three-year plan by its CEO Carlos Ghosn, called Commitment 2009, with three clear aims: increase sales by 800,000 vehicles, position the new Laguna in the top three in the segment for product and service quality and achieve a 6 per cent margin in 2009.

TOYOTA ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES TOP THE AGENDA - General manager, press and public affairs GB Scott Brownlee 01737 367266,

Most popular UK models Prius, Yaris and Auris, plus the Lexus hybrids: RX 400h and LS 600h.

Current PR activity Toyota is having a short lull in model launches, to be made up by 18 cars in 24 months from the end of 2008. In the meantime, the in-house team of seven, who cover both Toyota and Lexus, are focusing on brand work around environmental issues.

Most activity is carried out in-house, with agencies mainly used for specific event logistic support. The manufacturer has a current vacancy for a product and technical PR specialist.

In the news In January, Toyota unveiled plans to market a fleet of rechargeable hybrid vehicles by the end of 2010. In March, it announced an £88m investment in its North Wales plant to build a new 1.3 litre engine to go into production next year. In April, Tim Copland was appointed new dealer development manager UK.

VAUXHALL MUSIC AND FASHION CAMPAIGNS FOCUS ON 'STYLE AND DESIGN' POSITIONING - Director of communications for GM UK and Ireland Joe Jacuzzi, 01582 42 7620,

Most popular UK models Astra and Corsa

Current PR activity Owned by General Motors, Vauxhall is in the midst of launching a new Agila model, while planning a 'fun' launch for its mid-sized Insignia saloon, which will be unveiled at the British Motor Show in July. After a competitive pitch, Cow PR and Idea Generation are now the brand's lead agencies, and RSM handles Vauxhall's British Touring Car PR. New hires include Simon Hucknall, formerly of Bentley, as product press manager, reporting to PR manager Denis Chick.

To underpin its 'driving excitement' and 'style and design' brand propositions, the marque has a number of ongoing PR initiatives including the Vauxhall UK Beatbox Championships and Vauxhall Fashion Scout catwalk at London Fashion Week.

In the news In October 2007 and January 2008 BBC Watchdog reported complaints about alleged faulty handbrakes on some Vauxhall models causing vehicles to roll away. A new griffin brand identity launched in April 2008. Vauxhall Motors MD Bill Parfitt is appointed chairman, effective from 1 June 2008.

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