Crowded Field of Carmakers Returns to an Emphasis on Their Innovative Chops


Honda’s “Innovator Series” attempts to position the automaker with envelope-pushing individuals.

With the Super Bowl over, many auto brands in the U.S. market are picking up in their marketing programs where they left off late last year. And while the eight brands that advertised during the game are all trying to extend those new advertising platforms in various ways (mainly through social media), others are turning — or rather, turning back — to associating themselves with innovation. Nissan, Honda, Ford and Lexus are among those employing the approach.

In fact, a new ranking of innovative companies across all industries, by Boston Consulting Group, gives automakers ten slots in the top 50, the highest total for the car industry since the consultancy began its ranking in 2005. Hyundai is ranked No. 10; Toyota, 11; Ford, 12; Kia, 13; BMW, 14; Nissan, 22; Audi, 25; GM, 29; and Renault, 34. VW dropped to 45th in this survey from 15th overall in 2010, the last time senior executives were polled.


For many years, the innovations that most car brands focused on were electrified power trains — from hybrids to plug-in hybrids such as Chevrolet Volt to all-electrics such as Nissan Leaf. Roughly three years ago, however, Ford’s success with its Sync infotainment system ushered in an era of emphasizing digital electronics and the creation of powerful, easy-to-use communications. 

Now that nearly all auto brands have reached parity in these areas, they’re searching for something new. But with brands in many other industries calling themselves innovators as well, it’s becoming increasingly harder for car companies to stand out.[more]

Lexus, for instance, sponsored “Ignition,” a contest for digital innovations by entrepreneurs. Last month, Ford became the first automaker to launch an open developer program that will allow software developers to directly interface with its vehicle and design apps for it, and also recently touted a contribution to the Smithsonian Institution’s innovation center for kids. 

Nissan has been emphasizing innovation for a while now, using the concept beginning in 2011 to replace its time-worn “Shift” theme. Part of that campaign has been a three-year-old affinity-marketing effort called “Innovation for Endurance” in which it presents online videos on performance and health by accomplished athletes. (In 2010, Lance Armstrong was one of them.)

In its newest effort, Nissan showcases five-time Olympics gold medalist Ryan Lochte, a U.S. swimmer who dueled Michael Phelps for top individual honors at the London games last year. Lochte demonstrates calisthenics and strength-building activities that cubicle denizens can do at the office. He was the face — er, body — of an earlier campaign last year for the Nissan Sentra.

Meanwhile, Honda has launched a new “Honda Innovator Series” social media campaign, which highlights the achievements of innovators such as the makers of wingsuits, wetsuits and innovative baby strollers — along as well as some of the engineers of the new Civic, which Honda is promoting as a masterpiece of automotive innovation.

Innovation drives the auto industry, for sure. The question is whether consumers will be lured to brands that emphasize it.