Brand Equity May Be Auto Industry's Biggest AI Risk

April 10, 2019

Brand Equity May Be Auto Industry's Biggest AI Risk

MediaPost | Andrew Koneschusky

As artificial intelligence and machine learning advance at breakneck speed, almost no other industry has invested in the technologies as heavily and aggressively as automotive manufacturers. With outlays second only to the tech sector, automakers see AI as a fundamental component of transformation across four critical pillars—autonomous driving, connectivity, electrification and shared mobility—with a projected value of $215 billion by 2025.

And though the auto industry has already spent tens of billions of dollars on AI development, a new survey reveals that this massive investment may be subject to previously unforeseen risks to brand reputation. 

A third-quarter 2018 review by a new industry AI Risk Index developed by the Omnicom Public Relations Group reveals poor stakeholder engagement is driving negative sentiment that will have a direct impact on brand reputation if left unaddressed. While automakers rightly focus on improvements in the technology itself, many are overlooking or undervaluing the importance of a communications strategy grounded in data-driven research and seasoned insights, an oversight that could prove to be extremely costly.

Even the most cursory scan of headlines will reveal the risks of researching and developing these technologies in the spotlight, with no communications policy to support them. From the fatalities caused by self-driving vehicles, to concerns about AI’s impact on jobs, data privacy and the economy, the risks span from the individual to the global.

Whether due to a lack of understanding of the stakeholder landscape, insufficient focus on brand perception or lack of expertise required to effectively address the public’s concerns, the auto industry has done a poor job communicating the benefits and managing the risks of AI adoption.

As a result, the industry has created a void which has allowed media, consumers, activists, legislators and other stakeholders to shape the narrative surrounding these billion-dollar investments. And even when auto companies strive to communicate effectively, their messages are often not received by stakeholders as intended.

The AI Risk Index reflects a substantial gap between what is intended and what is perceived by critical stakeholders. The results are stark—especially in the context of substantial investment and many more years of public scrutiny as AI is improved—and reveal a growing crisis of trust.

Though an average of 62% of Americans are familiar with companies in the transportation industry, only 35% have a positive opinion of them (compared to 43% for non-automotive manufacturing and 41% for retail companies) and only 37% trust them (compared to 44% for manufacturing and retail companies).

Even more concerning is that the transportation companies most heavily involved in AI technology drive this sense of distrust, more so than traditional carmakers. That may explain why only three out of eight transportation companies analyzed during the third quarter of 2018 mentioned advancements in AI at all—indicating that auto companies are either communicating poorly or not communicating at all. Avoiding the conversation  will only compromise the opportunity that automakers have to undo negative sentiment and influence neutral perceptions.

Over the next several years, automakers will have to introduce extremely complex, transformative technologies to a public that is deeply skeptical about the innovations themselves, and even more wary of the companies creating them. Only about one-third of Americans think that companies in the transportation industry are visionary (39%), innovative (41%), create more jobs (38%), will use automation to be more efficient (39%), will use AI to be more efficient (36%), care about people’s safety (41%) and can be trusted with their personal data (32%). Just 39% think that AI generally will have a positive impact on companies in the transportation industry.

That is a tough sell for any industry, much less one that has spent nearly a century associating their products with personal freedom and a defining sense of self expression. As AI is further developed for commercial and consumer automotive use, it is critical that automakers close this chasm of engagement. Like any effective communications strategy, this begins with a deep immersion into data-driven research that maps and contextualizes the relationship between carmakers and their stakeholder audiences to identify gaps and misperceptions. And not only must this communications strategy address perceptions of automakers, it must also gauge sentiment around tech companies, and the alignment of the two industries. It is a communications landscape as complex as the technologies they hope to align and deploy.

Over the past several years, a global audience has grown intensely wary of a technology industry that prided itself on moving fast and breaking things. As automakers increasingly partner with tech companies to realize the benefits of their substantial AI investments, they will need a much more intelligent, informed and insightful communications strategy if they hope to persuade consumers to strap themselves into products that are moving fast. Regardless of how much the auto industry believes in it, without consistent, effective stakeholder engagement, AI could remain a risk most drivers aren’t willing to take.

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