Automotive For The People: why the future of the car industry means a new challenge for its communication professionals

As the UK Government announces some very relevant, but knee-jerk “solutions”, to try and tempt people out of the diesel car market (that they were tempted into just a few years ago), it’s worth revisiting the recent PRIME “electric car revolution” global trends report from the world’s leading car journalists.

Fundamentally it confirms that even the most switched on experts in the industry have been caught out by the speed of change: case in point being that in the same survey in 2013, the so-called experts claimed that battery electric vehicles (BEV) were distinctly “poor” for the question “what are the most promising powertrain options regarding e-mobility?” Four years on and BEVs are equal first! So, Bill Gates was right; as far as technology is concerned, we overestimate what will happen in the coming two years but underestimate the speed of change in the coming decade.

Given that the survey results are from car journalists, then the overriding point of the research should be thought about carefully by communicators in the car industry in planning their corporate communications strategies for the next few years. Plan as if it is “the story of the car between 2000 and 2020”. There is a beginning, middle and end, and to add complication (or opportunity), it’s reinforced, contradicted and challenged on ever page by narrators on social networks.

When the MINI brand was re-launched in 2000 and even as recently as the launch of the world’s newest global car brand, McLaren in 2010/2011, communication was relatively ‘easy’, predictable and structured: the on-the-record quotable window – the beginning, middle and end – was well-defined and covered a period of days and weeks. 15 years ago, if a journalist asked about anything that BMW Group might be planning “next year” they would be met with stony silence, a raised eyebrow, a knowing smile and, at best, a very off-the-record briefing if there was something in it for the PR. Even just five years ago, McLaren Execs might offer an outline or hint at what might be around the corner, but certainly no definitive statement on numbers of new products or plans for technology introductions as today.

That has all changed – partly thanks to Elon Musk’s brash, non-PR doctored claims, partly due to the need to align future technology with future consumer trends and stay relevant to Gen Ys, and partly because saying nothing about the future is just not an option: someone will.

Every car brand now has to push its preferred position for the future automotive landscape: how they will approach mobility, electrification, autonomy and emissions; who they are partnering with; how they are set well for investors; why you, the consumer, should be with them; how they will challenge Tesla or, literally, change the world (the Chinese electric brands based in the US particularly guilty of this one). All on the record and commented on instantly across social.

This is a phenomenon of the past 12 months, and has changed the communications industry in how it works externally with media, consumers, analysts and legislators. But it should also reinforce a communication professional’s standing within an organisation as their visions of the future, garnered from their professional networks, research tools, agencies, and peers, resonate in a corporate atmosphere where the dial has shifted towards “reputation” and “understanding the audience” from “sales”.

So if the beginning was 2000 and the middle is now, looking ahead to the ‘end’ – and Level 5 autonomy around 2030 seems to be a sort of flag in the sand currently – is going to be a real challenge for communicators. Simply because they can’t keep up the constant star-gazing rhetoric about “our plans for mobility” and “our vision for a driverless future”. People will get bored and a vision has to materialise – it’s all very exciting and interesting right now, and generates coverage in the Mail online, BBC Science, and Wired (your general auto PR target spaces these days), but can it continue for 10 years?

Either the end will arrive sooner than expected, as Bill Gates thinks, and get the auto communicators out of a hole, or PRs and marketers will have to get even more sophisticated and creative in order to find the stories, trends, research and insight to power their brands’ communications until that first fully autonomous, fully connected, AI-inspired car is revealed and driven.

Take a look at the PRIME research, see where the ‘experts’ misjudged the future, extrapolate their views of today over the next five years and conclude what they might have got wrong by 2020. A bit like reading the last page of a book first to see what the end has in sight. My guess is there will still be a lot of diesel cars on the road…

PRIME “electric car revolution” global trends report from the world’s leading car journalists:

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