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Cowritten by Joshua Gauthier and Joseph Zhang
The Ultimate Driving Machine
You can see trees, houses, and road signs ahead of you. In an instant, they whiz past at 75 miles per hour. The V-8 roars in your ears. Your hands grip the leather steering wheel. All the other motorists around you turn and stare at the swooping angles, the angled grill, and the blue and white emblem on the glistening hood. You’re not just driving any car; you’re in the “Ultimate Driving Machine”.
This picture, these emotions—they’re the core of what BMW wants for their customers to feel. A BMW is defined by emotion: the thrill of the drive. Some of BMW’s fans flock to the small, fun-to-drive sports cars for this reason. Others enjoy the high status that comes with owning one. The famed car of sports stars, CEO’s, and world leaders, BMW is a luxury brand. Whatever the motivation for the customer, it is clear that BMW’s brand is one of the company’s greatest assets. People aspire to own a BMW.
A brand like that requires a strong team behind it. Recently, I sat down with Adam Sykes, Vice President of Public Relations for North America, to glimpse into how BMW manages its image. But before diving any deeper, it’s important to know just what public relations is.
Public relations boils down to one major theme: sharing company events, news, and information with the general public. This ecompasses all aspects of a company. From financial information to new product launches, changes in management, or a crisis of some kind, it all connects to the Public Relations team. A public relations team acts as a liaison for the company to the public. Press releases, product launches or newsletters all fall under the purview of the public relations team.Working in Public Relations requires a great understanding of perspective, emotional intelligence, and, most important, people-skills. Adam Sykes learned quickly his strengths and his weaknesses. Harnessing that knowledge, he knew a job in Public relations was right for him
The Man Behind the Brand
Sykes’s English accent stuck out to me. Growing up in the United Kingdom, he quickly found an affinity for the study of languages. It was a highschool trip to Germany as an exchange student that made him see his true passion for other cultures. Though he didn’t know what he would do, he knew he loved languages and business. Fast-forward a few years and Sykes had finished his degree and went to work as an intern for a brake manufacturer, quickly developing a love of the auto industry. It was the diversity of the industry, the art of the automobile. It was being able to be in a place that touches so many areas of the world that kept things always interesting. Years later, the notion still holds water. Our interview was held in one of the most “interesting” times the world had ever seen, and I was eager to find out just how Sykes had managed the large shakeup that is COVID-19.
COVID-19’s Forced Change
When the United States put in place lockdown protocols, car dealerships were forced to close their doors temporarily. With a closure in dealers quickly came a closure of the plants that made the cars. When BMW stopped selling cars, they stopped making cars. Customers were understandably worried; many were unsure if BMW would offer temporary financial relief, be able to sell them their car, or service their vehicle. On the other hand, with no new cars being manufactured, dealers needed to know how BMW could keep them afloat. Could they sell their existing cars? Would they receive any new shipments of inventory? What do they tell their customers? An avalanche of questions and uncertainty.
Despite the sudden quarantine, BMW’s public relations team responded quickly. Dealers were prompted to pivot to non-contact delivery and purchase of new cars. The large American auto shows, where BMW often announced the release of new models, went online. The release of a new motorcycle was hosted at an online live event rather than at an in-person venue.
COVID-19’s challenges forced BMW’s public relations team to think outside the box. They realized they could save time, energy, and money if they simply conducted most meetings over the internet rather than in-person. Where before all company videos were slick, polished and scripted, quarantine made them realize that they could save time and money and post iPhone videos. People in the company even preferred the more personal, imperfect method of COVID-19 communication. Sykes observed that COVID-19 united BMW and emphasized “out of the box” thinking. The pandemic forced BMW to use our existing technology to its fullest extent. This realization brought me and Sykes back a few decades as we reflected on just how much Public Relations has changed with the advent of the internet.
Public Relations in the Age of the Internet
It’s the mid-1980’s. When a new BMW model is released, the journalists receive the news. Information travels from the Public Relations team to journalists and then to the people. Winning a positive report from big institutions like Motor Trend, Car and Driver, or television shows like BBC’s Top Gear means everything.
The internet age has increased both the amount of paths and the speed information can travel to the public. A positive story can spread like wildfire through the internet, drumming up enormous amounts of support. On the other hand, your CEO tweets something negative or a car catches fire, that too can spread and create the same wave. For Sykes, this change presents simply a different set of “rules for the road”.
Take Youtube automotive blogger Doug DeMouro (above), the perfect example of this change. His videos on youtube routinely rake in over a million views, and yet he is an “average joe”. He doesn’t work at Motor Trend or at Car in Driver. DeMouro enjoyed cars, worked at Porsche for a few years, then went and started his own internet blog.
His rise to fame was made possible by the freedom the internet gave to its users. It is that allowance of anyone to write just about anything that made things so different. The sheer volume of opinions and takes on every move a company makes is a result of this core tenet of the internet. Public relations teams have had to accept the elevated position of the public’s voice and change their events and activities to fit this influx of bloggers, enthusiasts and YouTubers onto the scene.
Just as the internet has given a voice to the public, the internet has played a role in connecting the world’s diverse peoples. Differences in language, social norms, and cultural values make establishing a unified brand a challenge for a multinational company like BMW. How does BMW transcend borders?
Tailoring the German Car to Global Roads
What if I told you that one of the hottest cars in China is a Buick minivan? Ask the average American customer, the words “Buick” and ‘Minivan” about feelings of senior citizens and youth soccer. Not exactly an attractive combination. Yet in China, those two words convey class and elegance. Why? The short answer is that Buicks automobiles have been the main choice for major Chinese dignitaries for better part of half of a century (Emperor Puyi owned one, Sun Yat-Sen was photographed in one in 1912, and Zhou En’lai kept a 1941 Buick at home in Shanghai). While sales fell in the United States, General Motors positioned Buick to become one of the best-selling luxury cars in China. Buick’s Chinese success can be largely attributed to this knowledge of the culture and a pivot to capitalize on it.
General Motors, like so many multinational corporations, tailored its brand to fit the market. Sykes described that certain aspects of BMW remain the same throughout markets. BMWs are well built, German, and luxurious. They’re fun to drive and uniquely styled. In addition, reporting financial information and metrics isn’t something that needs to be “tailored”. It’s the same in the United States as in Kenya.
But other aspects are vastly different. From the marketing materials to the offerings themselves, many things are fit for the particular needs of the region. Canadian customers, living in a cold climate, value options like all-wheel-drive and heated seats. American customers like large SUVs. German customers enjoy a sporty, agile sedan.
Each country has its own Public Relations specialist whose job it is to know these needs and help tailor the image while maintaining the core identity of the brand. They conduct research on cultural trends and monitor buying habits in order to better understand what will sell and what won’t. All of these specialists report to their regional Vice President. For North America, that’s Adam Sykes job. Sykes works with all the country’s specialists to formulate a full Public Relations strategy from Canada to Brazil, operating out of New York and continuously working with Munich to receive direction for his region.
Through his years of experience in working over borders, Sykes realized some of the important lessons and knowledge he gleaned early on provided him with the leg up he needed to excel in his job. The path he took to where he is today is a unique one.
The job at BMW, working in the Public Relations department, allowed Sykes to do what he was good at and what he loved in an industry he loved. His advice to high schoolers echoes so many others. Take what you’re good at, find the opportunities in that field, and capitalize on them. Going to a private college gives you the hallway with the most doors, but it’s you that has to open them. Do what you’re good at and what you love doing, and you’ll achieve success for yourself. He left me with the quote: “Be inspired”. Be inspired by what you do and be ready to pivot when you feel you need a change. When you’ve done that, pretty soon you too will be behind the wheel of your own BMW.