Behind the steering wheel

Daimler’s head of global communications shares his thoughts on brand communications

Daimler AG is one of the largest car and truck manufacturers in the world, producing cars and trucks under the brands of Mercedes-Benz, Maybach, Smart, Freightliner and many others. Given your position at Daimler, to what extent have you found that corporate communications play a role in creating the organisation’s brand identity?

I think our corporate brand Daimler is a unique communication asset. Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz invented the automobile, we celebrate the 125 years of innovation in their name and, right now, Daimler is Germany’s most popular corporate brand. So I am pretty convinced that corporate communications will continue to work on our brand’s reputation.

Many experts argue that corporate communications, marketing and branding are moving closer together to the point of integration. Do you agree with this assessment, and how do you navigate this overlap – for example, to what extent do you cooperate with your counterparts in the marketing and brand departments?

I absolutely agree. In our case, there are overlaps between product image and the company’s reputation. The product brand positioning is steered by the marketing function, whereas communications is responsible for the corporate image. Although they are separated by structure, all communication disciplines closely work together. Both departments especially cooperate with regard to major projects, as we recently did in the context of the “125 years of innovation”.

How has your brand adapted to this “age of responsibility”, and how do you make sure that this is clearly communicated?

“Innovation from tradition” – this is our major message for our stakeholders. As Daimler is the company that invented the car, truck and bus our objective is to keep the lead in shaping their future. Sustainability and social responsibility are our corporate principles. In terms of strategic alignment, our communication strategy focuses on these issues. We are the only automotive company who has chosen a broad approach on alternative mobility concepts. We are developing the whole variety of alternative powertrains, from hybrid drives to fuel cell technologies. And, having the proof points on the product site, we can clearly claim leadership in terms of sustainable mobility.

And following on from that, how much of a role does corporate citizenship play in communicating Daimler’s brand?

Daimler is a global player. We are aware of the responsibility towards our customers, employees and investors. Among our 260,000 employees, there are about 100,000 people working for Daimler all over the globe. We are involved in the domains of sustainability, environment and diversity wherever we have production in place. Thus, our thoughts and actions are guided by the principle of sustainable mobility: In this way, we want to create lasting added value – for our shareholders, customers, employees and society in general.

How do you see the communicating of brand identity changing in the near future?

Well, I am sure that communicating a brand identity will gain in relevance, generally. Especially in our case with really strong product brands like Mercedes-Benz. But let’s face it, on the company level, soft facts like customer loyalty or employee satisfaction will gain in relevance. Using all kinds of social media, stakeholder groups from every part of our society are increasingly requesting a dialogue with companies. Different issues will rise. Overall, sustainability and social responsibility will become even more important than they are now.

How have you adapted your brand communications to the impact of technology and social media?

By using social media channels we can address other target groups compared to traditional media. We have a totally new kind of dialogue here, quickly emerging and definitely a field of opportunity. So we do not only dive into this from the marketing side. I think it’s fair to say that Daimler was among the first players who engaged in all kinds of social media channels, like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. We have established new structures and integrated the new channels into the corporate communications concept. We are also encouraging our employees to take part in social media discussions – based on our social media guidelines.

What lessons can you share that contribute to communicating a successful brand identity?

Most importantly, you have to spark some kind of fascination using a unique positioning, maybe some kind of battle-cry which serves both externally and internally. Let me illustrate this with the message “The Best or Nothing”. Although this originally stands for our Mercedes-Benz positioning, it is obviously also part of our Daimler DNA. And if you then add fascinating products and services, the crowd will be yours.

Do the different brands under the Daimler ‘umbrella’ demand different communication strategies, or is there a centralised or broadly-consistent approach to each brand?

With Mercedes-Benz, we own the most valuable brand in the automotive sector (according to Interbrand 2010). But not everybody knows that Daimler is the world’s largest commercial vehicle maker with some more product brands like Freightliner, Fuso or Setra Buses. So we are targeting different groups with diverging information needs. Obviously we have to align divisional communications strategies, messages and activities. Finally, the overall Daimler communications strategy serves as the great umbrella for the individual product brands.

What are the big trends you see in brand communication, and how are these trends affecting how you approach your communications?

Right now I am considering increasing stakeholder orientation as the most influential trend. As there are different stakeholder groups emerging, we have to meet their communicative demands and go beyond just pointing out our economic performance. Corporate social responsibility is already a vital domain. And we are prepared for that, too.

What was the most unpredictable factor that affected how you communicated the Daimler brand in the recent past?

Well, the 2009 global economic crisis had significant effects on companies as a whole, as well as communications departments. During that time, brand communication had to adjust to a new situation. For example, in those days, not only crisis communication, but also social responsibility played a greater role. I am talking about reduced working time and job security. That’s where you need communication at its best.

What advice do you have for communicators at other companies who are facing similar challenges to those you face?

Companies do not merely produce goods and services. Companies also have fascinating stories to tell. And companies have to communicate values and messages to their stakeholders. We can’t go back to those days when it was just fine to send out a press release on your new vehicle.

Is there a single touchpoint of your brand that you think will be more influential to your stakeholders in the next five years?

This year especially we are in a very fortunate situation: like I said at the beginning, 125 years ago, Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz invented the automobile. As automotive pioneers, we see it as both motivation and a duty to continue our tradition with groundbreaking technologies and superior products. And as an employer we are in a unique position to create a specific environment of fascination and tradition for all of the people who want to work on the future of automotive mobility not only over the next five, but over the next 125 years!

Jorg Höwe

Jörg Howe has been head of global communications at Daimler AG since 2008; prior to this, he was head of corporate communications at retail group KarstadtQuelle, later Arcandor, for four years. He has a background in journalism, starting in 1988 as a freelancer at various ARD stations and a correspondent for the German Press. From 1996 to 2004 he was editor in chief of Sat 1, as well as managing director of N24 from 2001 to 2002.