When launching a new product, tyre manufacturer Michelin would historically rely on the buy-in from motoring journalists. Column inches in automotive publications would dictate sales success and big marketing budgets were ploughed into events designed to woo the press. But that’s changed; now influencers rule the roost and the company in doubling down on its investment.
Just two years ago, Michelin spent nothing on influencers. It did not see the value in social media personalities and instead took a fairly classic approach to marketing its wares.
But as the promise of influencers gripped chief marketing officers at other brands, Kevin Maleterre, the company’s vice-president of consumer marketing for North Europe, embarked on an experiment. He hosted an event in California and invited a bunch of YouTubers and Instagrammers to test drive cars. The response was so impressive that later that year he decided to “get more professional” and invest more time, effort and budget - including the hire of influencer marketing platform in Traackr to find talent to work with - into the channel.
“Even in the tyre business, for up to 80% of sales [shoppers] go online to research. Obviously, we needed to be there at the moment of pre-purchase […] but consumers distrust the big corporations and they want the peer-to-peer conversation. So, the opinion of influencers matters a lot,” Maleterre said.
Today, almost one tenth of Malterre's marketing budget for the UK, Nordics, Austria, Switzerland and Germany – Michelin's global ad spend stood at $100m in 2017 – is dedicated to influencer activity with YouTube, Facebook and Instagram commanding the biggest share.
And as it’s invested more, it’s seen the returns. Like most brands, Maleterre said Michelin has gone from focusing on pure reach to prioritising “engagement” metrics such as views, comments, likes and shares of a piece of content. In this process, influencers have become just as, if not more, important than traditional motoring media. This was particularly evident for the launch of a new tyre last year.
“Instead of a traditional media event where we invited dealers and press to a test drive on a track, we hosted an event that was for influencers, with a few journalists. We had an event to engage them not only on the tyre but the whole Michelin experience. We did a tour in Lisbon, experiences at restaurants and then let them drive cars but without forcing the conversation about tyres,” he said, stressing that for auto brands like Michelin, this is an unusual move.
Since then, the appreciation for what influencers bring to its marketing has pushed the company to open up to them more. The approach now is to spend more budget with fewer influencers than then act as “brand ambassadors”. They are not only invited to special events and given early access to prototypes but are given insight into the inner workings of the business. In the UK, for example, it’s partnered with a YouTuber called Mr JWW (pictured) who has created a 10-episode YouTube series on the back of access he’s been given to the brand.
“To me, the two key things are to be authentic and to have a long-term, sustainable relationship. [Influencers] access to content and I think that matters more to them than a one-shot campaign that is just about money,” continued Maleterre.
“Influencer marketing has become a dirty word. I know even at Michelin people aren’t always comfortable giving influencers power over the brand. But in the regions I oversee since we’ve been working with them we have tried to get to know them and treat them as customers. I meet with our influencers twice a year and we bring them in to talk about annual marketing plans.
“So, I’ve evolved quite a bit in the way I’ve looked at influencers. In the beginning I was trying to shoot at everything and try too many things. But now they are very close to the business, we invite them to offices, we invite them to corporate events. That needs to be the future of influencers. Authenticity in the relationship, not just a one-shot campaign.”
On the improvement to the metrics it’s using to measure success of this tactic, Maleterre pointed to Germany where since implementing the strategy it’s gone from an engagement rate of 2 to 3% for campaigns to over 10%.
“To me, influencers will remain a big part and I don’t see us reducing the activity that we have with them in the coming years,” he said. “We may try to increase the work we do with some of them but trying to expand the type of audience. Rather than it just being about car enthusiasts, extending the type of audience that we touch.”
This year, that will mean venturing into the e-sport and e-gaming world following a partnership with Grand Turismo. The e-sports sector is predicted to be worth $2.96bn by next year according to Goldman Sachs.