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Five years ago, General Motors subsidiary Allison Transmission, which manufactures automatic transmissions for commercial vehicles, was finding life tough in the European market.

Market share was slipping and, more importantly, securing engineering releases (the agreement of vehicle manufacturers to specify the product as an option) was becoming increasingly difficult. One of the key reasons for its current resurgence is the use of exhibitions.

“In 1993 our marketing strategy was out of step with reality,” says Terry Tuton, company director of marketing in Europe.

“We were concentrating our efforts on the end user, but the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) were cutting the releases in new vehicles. In 1994, we developed a strategy that looked at which vehicles were likely to want automatic transmissions and who was building them.”

Any vehicle that constantly stops and starts, such as refuse trucks, buses or fire engines, and those where the drivers need to concentrate on steering, were identified as key areas to focus on.

The marketing plan first needed to concentrate on securing releases with manufacturers of these vehicles, followed by promoting the option within those companies. For example, it is possible to secure the release on a particular chassis made by a truck manufacturer, but there is also a need to promote it to the different divisions using that particular chassis for specialist vehicles.

Finally, the end users have to be targeted to ensure they would specify the transmission when ordering vehicles.

The company decided the European operations should have a common approach so that a major trade exhibition in Germany, for example, would feature an Allison stand projecting the same corporate image as in the UK or France.

Robin Moore, managing director of Coleman Moore, the UK marketing agency chosen to develop and implement the new strategy, ex-plains the company’s approach: “Unlike the US market, where Allison is very strong, the competition in Europe is not from other automatic transmission manufacturers but from manuals.

“Allison identified that the first step was the need to show the advantages of an automatic transmission. The initial objective then, was to persuade vehicle manufacturers and fleet operators to try the product at exhibitions, in conjunction with the ride and drive programmes which were at the core of this strategy.”

Exhibitions provided an opportunity to develop a new image for the company in Europe that could be built into the stand. This image was carried through the entire range of marketing activities such as direct mail, advertising and brochures.

Exhibitions give people an opportunity to see visuals of the product and discuss its benefits, but Coleman Moore believed the best marketing tool was the transmission itself. The company put together ride and drive programmes so that potential customers could try the product.

Exhibitions helped to identify those who should be invited to take part, although direct mail and telemarketing were also helpful in selecting candidates.

Moore points out that while a consistent message was needed across Europe, practical and cultural differences had to be taken into account: “We had to bear in mind that different markets in Europe had different requirements.

“For example, in Italy refuse collection is done with side loading, single operator vehicles in which the driver remains in the cab and empties bins using a mechanical hopper which requires constant stops and starts. In the UK, refuse trucks are rear loaders and teams load the vehicle, which rarely needs to stop.

“Our approach to each exhibition was to create a stand that effectively said ‘we make automatic transmissions and they do this for you’, so although the graphics on the stand differed, they retained a consistent style. The idea was to identify those visitors who were relevant and give them a reason to visit the stand.”

The focus on the stand was to educate visitors about what automatic transmissions could do.

Apart from the staff, there was also an interactive electronic display which was tailored to help visitors according to their individual requirements. For example, instead of producing a menu detailing the technical characteristics of the transmission, the system offered information on buses, fire and refuse vehicles, so visitors could easily relate the product to their business.

The exhibition stand was designed in a modular format with large graphic panels. Used between five and seven times each year, the stand varied in size from about 20 sq m to 200 sq m. The graphic panels could be changed according to the size of the stand and the market being targeted.

The location of the stand at exhibitions also became an important factor. Sites close to the OEMs were preferred. “Partly because we were looking to target the customers of OEMs,” says Tuton. “Also because the OEMs often had potential customers who would ask about automatic transmissions. It helped them to bring those visitors to our stand and this in turn helped to develop the relationship between us and the OEMs.”

Moore explains the second phase of the marketing plan. “Once the operational benefits of automatic transmissions were understood, it was decided we should focus attention on the marketing benefits of the product.

“If vehicle suppliers could see how, for example, a bus or coach is more comfortable for pass engers when fitted with an automatic transmission, then this displays a benefit to the end user and can, in turn, be used in their marketing strategy.”

The emphasis has shifted from highlighting product knowledge to product benefits. At the recent IAA (the Hanover truck and bus show) the graphics reflected this, showing a scene from the inside of a bus rather than an engineering- type graphic.

European sales of Allison automatic transmissions have increased by 100 per cent over the mid-Nineties low. Given the time scale for new engineering releases to take effect, this suggests the marketing plan is working.

The case demonstrates the particular power of exhibitions in an industry with few customers. Face- to-face contact may be vital, but the message that is put across must be clear, consistent and well presented for a marketing strategy to succeed.

Allison spends more than 30 per cent of its European marketing budget on exhibitions, more than any other marketing discipline. Its existence as a company depends on getting its exhibition presence right.

INTERNATIONAL INCENTIVES

International Confex 99 will take place at Earls Court London from March 2-4.

For the first time, the show will be running at the same time as Incentive International, also organised by UN Miller Freeman.

UN Miller Freeman event manager Andy Green says: “International Confex remains the UK’s only forum for the international meetings and events industry. By changing the name of the exhibition, we are re-emphasising the event’s international context and content.”

The show has been running for 17 years and comprises an exhibitor profile of more than 1,300 companies and attracts an audience of about 9,000 UK meeting planners.

The show covers three key sectors: worldwide destinations and venues; corporate hospitality and entertainment; and event support services.

More than 70 per cent of exhibitors will be promoting worldwide destinations and incentive travel – but this year’s show will also see a 13 per cent increase in the corporate hospitality and entertainment sector.

Attendance by specialist buyers at last year’s show increased by 40 per cent, indicating that event management was their core function. Research after the show showed that 63 per cent of visitors had direct purchasing power and 15 per cent controlled budgets of more than 500,000.

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