A conversation with Marti Eulberg, director of brand management, Sonic Automotive

 Much ado has been made lately about agency disintermediation in the CMO’s office, a trend where brands are no longer selecting a single agency of record. Instead, companies are using different partners for different marketing and sales efforts. Brands are establishing direct relationships with marketing technology vendors. And they have in-house teams perform work where in the past they relied on agencies. (For 30 years, ChannelNet has worked directly with all its brand clients.)

In this two-part interview, Marti Eulberg, director of brand management for Fortune 500 company Sonic Automotive, shares her opinion with ChannelNet about the evolution of agency relationships. In the second post, she shares her personal views on technology and data.

Q: Are your relationships with your brand agencies changing?

Marti Eulberg: Our agency relationships have changed significantly, and it isn’t just Sonic Automotive. It’s anybody in today’s marketplace. We all have had to change because the market’s changed and consumers have changed. You have to have the ability to keep up, not just in our industry, but also with what’s happening with consumers overall. So it’s not strictly an automotive trend. You have to look at how we interface digitally in today’s world, how we shop, how we buy and how we get our information. That has all changed significantly.

This means that how we work with our agencies and digital partners must change, too. At Sonic, we are involved with local agencies and niche subject matter experts because we have to be in order to be competitive. I use multiple agencies at different levels depending on how and what messages we are communicating. There is such a wide array of knowledge needed to communicate at different levels with consumers. Brands look for resources and talent that meet a broad spectrum of needs.

Q: Can you give me one example of the kind of new subject matter expert you are hiring or looking for now that perhaps you had not hired in the past?

Eulberg: You have to think about your marketing needs both internally and externally. I also think your point of view varies depending on the kind of company you are and that the subject matter expertise you need varies. For example, if I am an OEM [original equipment manufacturer], I might hire internal social media experts who know the VOB [voice of the business], but a regional organization might be better off hiring external experts.

Gaining digital expertise doesn’t automatically mean you need to hire 23-year-olds. Adding digital competencies and skills is not about just hiring somebody to listen and to answer what is going on out there with your customers. You want someone who understands what you are trying to communicate in the marketplace. Someone who can bring consistency to your brand voice and consistency to the customer experience. If I enter a physical environment to interact with you, or if I enter a digital environment, those environments need to have consistency in communication, but the message is specific to each environment. So you need someone who understands all those layers.

Q: Are you referring to creating an omnichannel experience?

Eulberg: Exactly.

Q: What are the three most important things you need to do to engage customers online?

Eulberg: First of all, you really need valuable and meaningful content. Then you need the ability to humanize your brand. Even though I am dealing with you digitally, I have to be able to humanize the brand from a consumer perspective. You need to be able to create shared experiences and build that community so there is a reason for me to want to interact with you and deal with you. It doesn’t matter if it’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, whatever. The best digital outreach creates a shared experience and helps build a community. You can’t just put something out there that doesn’t resonate with your brand. The content has to deliver value to those you interact with.

The other thing that is really, really important is video content. At Sonic, we see that with what we do. People spend more time with video content and go to that video content more often.

Q: That is five aspects that I captured: meaningful and relevant content, humanizing the brand, building community engagement, developing shared experiences, and providing video content.

Eulberg: Yes, there are lots of facets to digital marketing. Though most important is that you need consistency across all those multiple touch points — the omnichannel experience. You have to have consistency of experience. Let’s say I’m a large brand. It doesn’t matter if I’m Apple, or if I’m Zappos or BMW, or whoever it is. Whether I am buying a pair of tennis shoes or a pair of boots doesn’t matter. What matters is how I’m talking to my customer and that I have the knowledge that addresses customers’ needs and interests. It doesn’t matter if I’m buying the 1 Series or the 7 Series or if I’m buying an iPhone or an iMac. If I’m going to an Apple store, or a Starbucks, or a BMW dealer, or surfing online with Amazon, I’m going there because of the specific experience that I expect. What I’m buying may vary, but I expect consistency in communication. Content has to be relevant to the customer’s specific needs, but it needs brand consistency as well. Because consumers interface with so many brands, there is an expectation across all channels regarding the experience. If it’s easy to shop on-line with Zappos, and they recognize my history and me, shouldn’t other brands be able to do the same? And it should not matter if my experience is digital, at an event or in a store.

Marti Eulberg is director of brand management at Sonic Automotive. Prior to joining Sonic in 2012, she was vice president of global sales and marketing at Fisker, president and CEO of Maserati North America, and executive vice president of sales and marketing at Jaguar North America. She has also held executive positions with Ford, Volvo and BMW. Marti’s opinions are her own personal thoughts and are not the views or opinions of Sonic.