DETROIT – This year’s upfront sales season for broadcast television marked a significant change in how marketers buy media placements, with the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic driving a demand for greater flexibility.

For Deborah Wahl, global chief marketing officer of automotive giant General Motors, the rapidly changing media marketplace has pushed the automotive giant to harness data and analytics to help ensure its marketing supports its sales efforts at all stages of the car-buying process.

“This upfront is a true pivot point,” Wahl said in this episode of “Delivering on the Promise of Omnichannel Advertising,” a Beet.TV series presented by Mediaocean. “Our partners at the networks have understood the need for everyone to have more flexibility and agility. It changes the game completely.”

As a sign of how quickly companies need to change direction amid rapid shifts in the marketplace, Wahl cites the example of GM’s sudden response to the emergency need for life-saving medical equipment amid a nationwide shortage.

Its plant in Kokomo, Ind., that normally makes electronics parts for vehicles started cranking out thousands of respiratory ventilators within weeks of the World Health Organization’s declaration of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“We discovered during COVID that we can actually do rapid transformation in 18 days,” Wahls said. “We developed a whole new way to manufacture ventilators in 18 days. That’s the new benchmark for agility for everything that we at General Motors do going forward.”

Omnichannel Transformation

The omnichannel universe gets more fragmented every year with streaming channels and mobile apps at the forefront of the latest efforts to grab the attention of consumers. Reaching those audiences takes greater sophistication, challenging marketers to match their skillsets with the demands of the marketplace.

“We’re at a really interesting pivot and transformational point right now. The technology is at a much better place, though we still have a ways to go,” she said. “Customers are rapidly changing, and what we’ve experienced since the beginning of this year has shown remarkable advancement in terms of what customers expect.”

The automotive market has shown signs of recovery with the broader economy in the past few months as record numbers of people re-enter the work force and resume commuting. While automobile sales are still lower than they were a year ago, average prices of new vehicles hit a record $35,420 in August, according to research firm J.D. Power, as people traded up for more expensive trucks and SUVs. Low gas prices, easier financing and limited inventories helped to spur the increase.

To make sure it’s reaching those potential carbuyers among a variety of media channels, GM is continually hunting for new marketing technologies while also developing internal capabilities and employee skillsets that match the needs of the marketplace.

“I spend about 80% of my time right now on that,” Wahl said. “We’re looking across our own ecosystem with our partners and agencies and internally. We’re on an accelerated developmental path to make sure that everyone does have that learning. We’ve advanced a lot in the past five years, but we need to push it even further.”

Virtual Showrooms

The pandemic is likely to have a lasting effect on automotive marketing — even after consumers feel more comfortable about coming back to dealer lots. Communication technology is now supporting virtual events that provide richer conversations between salespeople and customers.

“The idea of virtual events has been absolutely eye-opening,” Wahl said, pointing to the company’s development of “Cadillac Live” to showcase the luxury vehicle brand. “We started a live showroom where you can actually interact with a person.”

Virtual showcasing is gaining traction among its dealers, and is going to become a permanent part of the company’s marketing efforts, Wahl said.

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