No-one would say the automotive industry has had it easy in the last two years.
New car registrations fell again last year and the impact of a global recession combined with increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions are taking their toll.
But to add to this, public confidence in some of the top car manufacturers has been shaken recently following recalls from the likes of Toyota, BMW and Mercedes.
But, handled well, these recalls don’t have to have a detrimental impact on the reputation of automotive brands.
The BBC reported last year that BMW took swift action in its voluntary recall of vehicles with faulty braking systems and that while its share price took a temporary hit as a result, overall share price was up for the year.
Conversely, Toyota saw 9% wiped off its share price in the wake of recalls. It was widely criticised for not acting quickly enough to recall vehicles affected by faulty accelerators and its reputation was badly dented following the much publicised fatal crash involving a Lexus in San Diego.
In cases like these, of course, how a brand behaves over social media won’t make any difference to the outcome of a faulty product. But listening to what people are saying on social media does give a brand a pretty good idea of how its reputation is perceived.
You could argue that the aspirational qualities of BMW, combined with swift action in its product recalls add up to a brand that can weather a storm.
It actively manages its reputation - and does this online as well as offline.
With most major car manufacturers now actively managing a presence online and on social media, we took a look at five major brands – Toyota, Ford, Fiat, Bentley and Nissan – and how they are perceived online.
We used a Social Media Reputation (SMR) scoring tool to analyse what consumers are saying about each brand, and rank them based on reach (the amount of noise they’re making over social media - ie. how many people are talking about the brand and what their influence is) and satisfaction (what proportion of those conversations are positive, indicating a satisfaction with the brand).
We then apply a ‘recency’ score to each, so if a brand is regularly (and recently) getting positive coverage it scores more highly than a brand who last had positive coverage a year ago.
Each is then given an overall score out of 100.
Toyota is the brand everyone’s watching. It has the lowest satisfaction score of all the brands we looked at, which indicated that the company’s reputation has sustained long-term damage as a result of the recalls it made last year.
But there are other issues being discussed that contribute to this dissatisfaction.
A significant number of users have publicly criticised Toyota’s US advert for its Highlander model, saying they find it offensive and feel it makes fun of families who cannot afford a new car, or sends the wrong message to children.
On a more positive note, Toyota became the subject of excited online discussion after it emerged that Google has been trialling a self-driving Toyota Prius.
This has undoubtedly helped Toyota’s reputation and contributes to a higher score than the company would have achieved otherwise.
Looking at Toyota’s Facebook page, it seems that the car brand is still sticking its head in the sand to some extent, and ignoring unhappy users.
It needs to define a clear strategy for dealing with negative comments and address the concerns that users may have, taking action to resolve the situation where necessary. Ignoring problems will not make them go away, and can even aggravate the situation.
SMR Score: Toyota
Recency (of reach) 97.95
Recency (of satisfaction) 67.93
Overall reputation score: 82.88
Ford does rather better, cruising into first place of the brands we examined, with a mammoth reach score of 99.9 out of 100.
Ford garners tens of thousands of references on social media spaces each day; and was named ‘marketer of the year’ in Advertising Age.
The company has become something of a case study on creative use of social media, following innovative campaigns including AJ the Fiesta – a car which tweeted its way around America.
Ford also achieves the highest satisfaction score and has become even more symbolic of American patriotism as it refused TARP (troubled asset relief program) bailout during the financial crisis, despite its record losses in 2008.
Ford’s charismatic head of social media Scott Monty has become a celebrity of sorts.
He has more followers on Twitter than does Ford itself. Appointing an internal champion for social media has been a great move for Ford, but in the future it may need to be a little wary of becoming over-reliant on a single employee, or having an internal celebrity who could overshadow the company itself.
SMR Score: Ford
Recency (of reach) 99.99
Recency (of satisfaction) 82.57
Overall reputation score: 90.92
Nissan takes second place, achieving an overall SMR score of 85 out of 100.
However, its satisfaction score has suffered in the wake of its announcement that it is recalling around 2.1 million cars globally as the result of a faulty engine control system.
Nissan has received a boost in mentions (as well as in green credentials) from press coverage and consumer reactions to the electricity-powered Nissan Leaf, with Lance Armstrong on board as an early advocate.
Nissan must learn from the mistakes made by Toyota and act quickly over any recall issues, being open, honest, and apologetic where necessary.
Anything less than this may detract from the brand’s perceived credibility and ethics which the company’s investment in green technology has done so much to promote.
SMR Score: Nissan
Recency (of reach) 93.82
Recency (of satisfaction) 75.54
Overall reputation score: 85.35
Fiat’s satisfaction score took a tumble recently, as the result of the backlash in Italy against the statement by Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne – the man credited with turning round Fiat – that the car brand would be better off without Italy.
Tense negotiations with unions and the government over its plans to shut down a factory in Sicily took their toll, with even the Pope getting involved in the debate.
Fiat’s reach score is significantly below the level of the top three manufacturers.
This is mostly the result of little activity in social media, especially for Fiat in the UK.
It has a number of Facebook and Twitter accounts, but these are poorly linked to one another, and not very compelling for users.
The lack of customisation and content on Facebook pages mean there is little reason for users to linger on the page, and can make it difficult to verify if the pages are official or created by fans.
SMR Score: Fiat
Recency (of reach) 84.68
Recency (of satisfaction) 68.72
Overall reputation score: 77.11
Bentley is an interesting brand in social media terms. While it has the lowest reach score (73 out of 100), it has one of the highest satisfaction scores (81).
This is, as we would expect for a luxury brand of this size, with more of a niche audience than the other companies we studied.
However, it seems that this exclusive brand has been hijacked by customers who fall outside of its traditional target markets.
One major source of social media references for the brand recently concerned a lawsuit filed by Bentley against hard rock star Axl Rose, who is accused of ruining a $192k Bentley Flying Spur.
There was a massive volume of video sharing results for Bentley, as a result of the forthcoming release of “Beamer, Benz, or Bentley” the first official single from rapper Lloyd Banks’ new album.
Bentley has so far shied away from social media engagement – with the exception of fan-created pages, and Twitter pages created by Bentley dealerships.
This is perhaps as a result of the (in my view, mistaken) belief that social media is not effective for luxury brands.
Dolce & Gabbana, Jimmy Choo and Burberry are amongst the upmarket brands that are quickly realising that their own website is no longer enough and that social media isn’t just a marketing channel, but can be an effective way to interact with and engage loyal customer and brand fans.
SMR Score: Bentley
Recency (of reach) 73.82
Recency (of satisfaction) 81.72
Overall reputation score: 76.57