Digital, Social Media Take Center Stage at Auto Show

Marketing Execs from Ford, Audi, Mazda Shoot Down Marketing Myths

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Looking ahead toward 2012 and beyond, it seems that the consumer tail will increasingly wag the automotive-marketing dog.

The evidence was clear at this week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where major players participating in a discussion panel debunked myths about and extolled the value of digital advertising and social-media marketing. The panel was held during a session of the Automotive News World Congress.

"Our kids and our grandkids are teaching us how to be connected consumers," said Jim Farley, Ford 's group VP-global marketing, sales and service. "Kids don't use email anymore, they use Facebook. … So if you want to get a hold of them, you gotta use Facebook."

Mr. Farley called the idea that digital marketing reached only young people a "complete myth." There are "800 million people on Facebook, and the fastest-growing group is women in their 50s," he said. Reaching them via conventional TV advertising or even search engines is passe, he said. The aim is to get to their mobile devices.

Auto marketers are split on the benefits of storytelling as opposed to showcasing products in ads. But the overall social approach has changed, according to Scott Keogh, CMO of Audi of America.

"This is not a bunch of teenagers hanging out in Starbucks but real people spending real money to buy expensive cars," Mr. Keogh said. "Since we're all paranoid ... isn't social media just a place where people are going to say bad things? You have to remember the key word: social. People don't go to a restaurant saying, 'I'm going to hate this restaurant,' that 's not what people inherently do when they're social. … Its actually an optimistic, positive environment."

Allocating budgets for digital has apparently paid off for the premium brand. Audi had a record year in the U.S., selling 117,500 units. "The average transaction price of an Audi ... has gone up $5,000 in the last 18 months," Mr. Keogh said.

Dan Romano, CMO for Mazda North America, used the Netflix snafu -- where subscription prices were increased, services altered and the stock subsequently dropped 70% -- to illustrate how ultranegative responses on social sites can wreak havoc.

"This is how a simple, $5.99 mistake can cost a company 800,000 customers," and the only thing to do is react quickly, Mr. Romano said. "When it comes to managing brand passion in social media, this is not rocket science," he added. "It's about getting the basics right. Humor, coupled with a little humility, can make an epic failure into an epic moment."

One notable success story recounted by Matt VanDyke, director-U.S. marketing communications for Ford Motor Co., at the marketing panel yesterday was its initiative three years ago around the subcompact Fiesta. The car was put in the hands of 100 "social agents" before it went on sale in the U.S., an effort that generated millions of views on YouTube and Twitter impressions.

"At Ford , social media is bigger than advertising," Mr. VanDyke said. "We just as easily could have had a product development person up here, or from HR, which is using social media for recruiting, or for labor affairs."

At the end of the panel session, Jason Stein, editor of Automotive News, asked Messrs. Keogh, Romano and VanDyke if they themselves tweeted. They all said no.

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