Covid car launches and digital makeovers

As Europe went into lockdown, the entire automotive industry came to a shuddering halt. Factories fell silent and car dealerships shut up shop. In the first instance, it left car companies and their communications agencies with precious little to communicate. Although nominally able to work from their home offices, automotive publications and platforms – industry and consumer alike – watched dumfounded as the torrent of raw material that normally floods out of the car-company communications machine dried up to a mere trickle of assurances and holding statements.

The initial silence was a bit like that moment after a car crash, when everybody just sits there stunned for a moment while they compute what has just happened, before the instinct to take action kicks in. First, they check that everyone is okay, then they turn to surveying the damage and formulating what to do next.

The automotive sector was already in the throes of massive upheaval, even before Covid-19 threw it effectively into complete disarray. Nevertheless, while structural, strategic and financial machinations continue among automakers at the top level, the day-to-day business of selling cars must continue. Demand may be difficult to gauge so soon out of lockdown, but it still exists. Car companies need to keep communicating and the automotive media need to keep producing content … somehow.

For my work at White Pine Communications that means a strange mixture of business as usual and complete change. Let’s take one of my major end customers, Mercedes-Benz Cars & Vans, as an example.

Digital makeover brings major change to Mercedes press events

Mercedes-Benz was already pretty far down the digital road when Covid struck. It had established its mercedes me media platform for journalists and multipliers, and is one of the top car brands when it comes to its social media presence. Nevertheless, its traditional face-to-face communication formats such as motor shows, press launches, test drive events and press conferences were still top of the pecking order in the communications mix.

For the time being, at least, all that has changed. At time of writing, the world premiere of the latest generation of its flagship model, the S-Class, is just about to take place as a purely digital event. For the people at Mercedes and its agencies involved in organising the event, it has meant the rapid expansion of its digital communication with a whole new platform called Meet Mercedes DIGITAL. I also means that entire departments of architects, designers, event planners and hospitality people have been left kicking their heels. These are skills that, for the foreseeable future, are required on a vastly scaled-down basis – if at all.

There is no doubt that the automotive industry has a great deal to gain in terms of spend and sustainability by a radical rethink of its physical events – something that was underway pre-Covid. The already beleaguered motor show may never return in its traditional format as an international traveling circus.

Large-scale press test drive events are another budget-heavy area that is now undergoing an overdue overhaul. For the expert media to do their jobs properly, it remains crucial that they retain some form of access to the physical product in order to make their own assessment of manufacturer claims. However, many outlets are finding they can do that perfectly well with local test fleets rather than making the time-consuming trip to an exotic location for a pre-fabricated first drive under conditions far removed from the realities of their own home markets.

For the international press test drive event for its EQV battery-electric MPV, Mercedes-Benz is inviting far smaller groups of journalists and multipliers up to a maximum of eight per day. Each will be allocated one vehicle for the duration of the event, which they are free to use as they wish. Instead of fixed test routes, MB has worked out a number of recommended destinations based on different kinds of usage – business, family or a mixture of both – that are intended to present the benefits and features of the EQV in the best possible light.

This kind of scaled-back approach, which is being adopted by most of the German manufacturers, means doing a hatchet job on the regular invitation list for some events, which will surely leave plenty of noses out of joint (whether they really wanted to be there or not). It will be up to the importers in the respective markets to take up the slack and find new ways of getting key influencers behind the wheel of their products.

What all this has meant for White Pine Communications – so far, at least – is that the fundamentals of my work carry on as before. Multimedia formats notwithstanding, words remain a core tool of communication, whether written or spoken, delivered virtually or in person, and my clients continue to call on me to provide them – which is good … for now.

The crucial question, however, for wordsmiths like me is the place of the formalised written word within the content mix of future digital communications. But that’s something for me to muse in a future post.

Images courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

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