I’m a bit of a Detroit cliché. I didn’t grow up to make Motown garage rock like Jim Osterberg, alas, but I have worked in the auto industry for nearly three decades.
I should revise that: I’m not a total cliché. Most of the car guys and gals in Detroit tend to stay in Detroit. I take issue with cold weather and grey skies, so when General Motors asked if I wanted a regional communications role out in Los Angeles, the door did not hit me on the way out.
Truth be told, I’ve never really been a diehard “gearhead” car guy. As a young adult, I was a Detroit Tiger wannabe, a Michigan State Spartan fan and a huge (but reformed) Deadhead — more into well-tuned guitars than well-tuned cars.
So you’d think me an odd fit as an auto industry comms professional, but my background and knack for storytelling actually works to my (and GM’s) benefit, and I’ll tell you why.
Not just car people buy cars
There are those who, when the newly redesigned 2016 Camaro was announced, were dying to know its specs. What would its horsepower be? (455). How quickly could it go from 0 to 60? (4 seconds). This is a consumer segment that Chevrolet certainly loves, but it comprises a relatively small fraction of the vast sea of buyers across the country.
Most people are just looking for the car that will best enable their lifestyle, be it a mom maximizing the utility of a Suburban or a single guy straddling work and play with his Colorado.
The fact is many people don’t like talking car specs, nor do they really understand or appreciate them. They like talking family, or talking leisure. At best, their car is a utility or a furnishing. It’s simply not a focal point of their life or an expression of their personality.
But if you can frame a vehicle’s feature set through things that intersect with their lives, you can reach them. Like the mom in the Suburban, who can use the in-car Onstar 4G LTE Wi-Fi to pull up the Huffington Post while waiting in the pick-up circle at school. Of course, there are also the moms who use their Malibu’s Teen Driver feature to supervise and teach their teens before they form bad driving habits. And there’s that single guy in the Colorado, who can take advantage of the optional Colorado GearOn system to accommodate many kinds of cargo, from stand-up paddleboards to moving boxes.
These are the narrow spaces where what Chevy wants you to know and what the average person wants to know are the same thing. My job is to help people find those spaces.
And in that regard it helps to be better at talking like ordinary people than like car people.
How do you find those spaces?
My job is not unlike 21 Jump Street. I do a lot of hanging out in circles that are nothing like my own.
Like last January, when I traveled up to Seattle to meet with the women from a local roller derby league. We were considering a potential sponsorship or integration with the group and, of course, before we do anything with a new group we meet with those folks to understand who they are, how they like to be talked to and whether or not they’re a brand fit.
So I went undercover (not really — they knew exactly who I was and why I was there) and met with these women to learn to speak their language. We do this with roller derby enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest just as we do with professional surfers in Southern California or the next generation of men’s fashion designers in Austin.
These exploratory meetings help us find a place where both the brand and influencers can work together without it feeling forced. We only want our cars appearing where they make sense, and we only pursue those partnerships that work.
How talk human
After you’ve been working in one industry for a few years, it can be hard to talk about what you do in a way that’s approachable.
When you’re so inundated with information on one topic, especially one that’s highly technical or regulated (e.g. healthcare), it becomes increasingly difficult to step out of that headspace and sound relatable to the common individual.
In addition to talking to many different types of people, like those groups mentioned above, there are a couple other things you can do to stay conversant in subjects outside your trade.
First, you should pick up a hobby that’s nothing like what you do. Learning the technical jargon of something other than the technical jargon of your job serves as a good reminder that just because you know what you mean when you’re talking about “torque,” “MPG” or “ROI” doesn’t mean anyone else does. A good hobby will also expose you to people outside your trade, which can be a good reminder to talk about something else besides your job.
Second, read a lot. As comms professionals, there’s plenty of news to keep up on, but make sure you’re reading enough outside of your industry. News is social currency, and knowing about politics and world events makes you a more interesting person to talk to. And make sure you don’t only follow those writers, bloggers and social media personalities who just reinforce your own beliefs — follow thought leaders who will expose you to new and different ideas. Expand your horizons!
Third, and this is a strange one, but shop online less. Seriously, remove Amazon from your bookmarks, at least for a day or two (I have an Amazon Prime problem). Whenever possible, go out to a physical store and physically buy what you want. In fact, flag down a clerk and ask questions about what you’re about to buy. Get a recommendation. Shoot the breeze. It’s not just good for the economy to shop local, it provides so many opportunities to talk about subjects as varied as the many different things you buy.
Our ideal role as communicators is to be relatable. We are “humanizers,” experts at putting a relatable face on the brands we represent, and conveying corporate messages in ways that people can understand.
This is a tall order, and it demands that you live a little.