Q&A: Coda Chief Marketer Kerri Martin

Coda Automotive chief marketing officer Kerri Martin knows the principals of her new lead agency, Goodness Manufacturing, from working with them on BMW’s Mini Cooper brand when she ran marketing at Mini and they were executives at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Beyond their car experience, however, she admired their cause-related work, especially for the American Legacy Foundation’s “Truth” campaign. Why? Because Coda’s marketing will seek to create a broader movement toward mass adoption of all-electric cars in the U.S. as well as introduce the Coda brand.

In an interview with Adweek senior reporter Andrew McMains, Martin discussed her agency selection process, the challenges of launching an all-electric car in America and why she loves brands such as Zappos, Virgin and American Girl.

Adweek: How are the challenges of launching Coda similar to those you faced in bringing the Mini to the U.S. in 2002?
Martin: One of the key similarities is we’re a brand new brand. Mini did have a history, [but it] had extremely low awareness in the U.S. market. The other analogy is [that] at the time, Mini was the smallest car on the American road. So, [we needed] the ability to change the psyche to talk about the benefits of small. [We face] a very similar challenge in the electric car category, in selling and marketing the benefits of all-electric.

Obviously, you don’t have a huge budget here. Is that also similar in that you have to be smarter in how you spend your dollars?
You always have to be smart these days in how you spend your dollars — and incredibly creative. The landscape has changed a lot since March 2002 [when the Mini launched in the U.S.]. Digital and social [media] channels have become such a big part of the media landscape today and how you leverage those tools. We were pioneers at Mini with digital and social in many ways. Now they’re common practice. But it’s really going to be important in the launching of the all-electric car era.

What proportion of your budget will go toward digital?
I’m not really comfortable talking about budgets, but I can say it will be one of our key pillars of our strategy, for sure. Another one is experiential [efforts] because this is so new. The technology is new and we know that there are some key barriers to the adoption of the all-electric car. So, we feel one of the greatest ways to educate is through experiential [events].

How important will social media be to a successful launch?
It is one way to create a movement and that is really, really critical. Our mission is to accelerate the adoption of the all-electric car era. If you look to the recent campaigns from Obama, he very much used social media and digital as a key strategy for generating the movement to get him elected. There are some lessons to be learned there for the all-electric car movement.

Are there any other electric car marketers that you admire in terms of what they’ve done?
The marketers that I actually admire most — many of them are outside of the automotive category. And I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from looking outside the automotive category. My favorite brands are ones that really look at the entire 360-degree brand experience. Every consumer touch point is important to them. Brands like American Girl, Virgin and Zappos come to mind. When you really dissect them, they really look at every single touch point to the consumer. They’re probably some of the more customer-centric brands that are out there.

Going into this review, what were your core criteria?
Because we are launching in California, the notion of being West Coast based and really based in California was key. Understanding the landscape: you don’t really understand it unless you’re living it day in and day out. Also, I thought it was really critical for all operating functions to be under one roof, whether it was planning, creative, media, digital, production, account service. Having that under one roof — especially when you’re in a fast-paced, startup environment — is really key. Also, having superior creative, digital and social media excellence and killer creative smarts.

How did the process unfold?
Over the last five months, we’ve actually been working with both [runner-up] Pereira & O’Dell and Goodness on a project basis. So, given the fact that . . . by the end of this year we’ll be launching and we’ll have cars in the market, we were trying to figure out who was going to be our partner for Coda pretty quickly. Pereira & O’Dell is going to be working on another part of our business. They’re working right now on our battery joint venture. I’m not really wont for big, lengthy review processes. I keep a pretty tight insight into who’s who in the market. So, we kept the brief [period] pretty short. It was only like a five-week window of time they had to fill in on the brief. It was really focused in on digital.

When will the car come to market?
Fourth quarter. California to start.

Where are you going to go from there?
We’re looking at some plans. Obviously, there are some key electric-car prime cities. We’re just in the process of doing some of that analysis now.

What will the car sell for and is it a single model to start?
Single model. And we will be announcing some pricing probably after some time in the first quarter. I know there is some pricing out there, but that is not the pricing. . . . It will probably be significantly below the $45,000 that has been reported. That’s not accurate.

A sedan, right?
It’s a four-seat, four-door, midsize sedan.

In their pitch, how did Goodness’ executives bring their ideas to life?
The one thing I know about those guys — I have a slight history with many of them — is that there’s never a shortage of ideas. That’s for sure. One of the things that’s really impressive about their work is they really do know how to root it back to the customer insights. Also, the “Truth” brand [they worked on at Crispin] was a lot about creating a movement. It was a cause-marketing brand. So, they bring a lot of that thinking and discipline to the table, which is really important in the acceleration of the all-electric car era.

Your familiarity with the Goodness principals helped put them on your pitch list, right?
Of course. This business is about two things: people and ideas. So, there is oftentimes when you have that chemistry with someone a shorthand that you can speak.

What put Pereira & O’Dell on your list?
They actually had come recommended to me through a mutual friend of ours. [They are] incredibly impressive. They also have the new agency model. They don’t look at creative in silos. It’s all about the idea. And this is one . . . key for any agency that we were going to be working with: it’s about the idea, being media agnostic and figuring out where do you take that idea to best fit it into the marketplace.

How cognizant were you with Goodness’ talks with Trailer Park, which led to Trailer Park acquiring the agency last month?
We started talking to them way before there were any talks, way before we were brought into the loop of any Trailer Park discussions. But when the concept was introduced to us, I’d have to say it was pretty impressive. For me, that represents the new agency model and one that is really interesting. . . . Goodness’ model matches our need as a startup to be really smart and agile all at the same time. I love the fact that they can move fast with creative and production [capabilities] all under one roof.

Is it unlikely that you’ll do TV, given that Coda is a startup?
Who knows? I am open to all the possibilities. I just felt that there were a few key, key areas for us and they are digital and social, experiential, PR and the fourth one is owner advocacy — just creating an amazing customer experience full-on.

What was it that drew you to the Coda CMO job?
The first thing the Mini launch taught me is that I really loved the blank slate, having the green field opportunity to create a brand from scratch. That was really a key factor for me. The other thing is I wanted to take the skill set that I’ve built over the last 17 years and do something good for the world. And this is the perfect opportunity to do that. I have to admit, I have said, ‘No more cars. I’ve had enough.” The fact that I could actually create a car brand from scratch and do something good for the world was very attractive.