Jeffrey Kuhlman is Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at Bentley Motors, Inc. Jeff was serving as communications chief for the U.S. arm of the British luxury automobile brand when he added marketing responsibilities in 2016. He reports to the president of Bentley USA as well as the U.K.-based global communications director.

Jeff is an auto industry comms veteran, having worked for several automobile brands during his career. In addition to Bentley, which he joined in 2015, he’s filled communications shoes at Nissan, Audi and General Motors. GM was his longest stint, extending 22 years until 2006 when he began a five-year engagement as chief communications officer at Audi. He handled jobs from speechwriter to environmental communications for Cadillac, GM Truck and other divisions.

Here are some key takeaways from this interview. Feel free to listen to the entire conversation on Lippe Taylor’s DAMN GOOD BRANDS Podcast. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and everywhere you listen. Link below. 

You can still have events safely during a pandemic if you follow health guidelines. As a brand that emphasized in-person events as a key marketing channel, Bentley needed to find a way to keep bringing customers and prospects together with its cars and people face-to-face. They found it in the form of limited-contact get-togethers with small numbers of people where effective social distancing was observed along with effective exposure to the brand and the vehicles. 

If you’re looking for a mentor, don’t look far. The best mentor is probably someone you’re already working with or for. This person will be familiar with your work and be senior enough to give you some insight into what you’ll face as you ascend the ladder; and, ideally, a push from behind if you need it. Start by just hanging around and asking questions. If the connection is there, then and only then inquire about the prospects for being mentored. 

Addressing diversity, equity and inclusion starts as an inside job. If your brand isn’t working to be more fair and just with its own employees, it won’t be perceived as credible by those outside the company. For Jeff, this starts with discussing what diversity and inclusion mean to your team members and identifying the current challenges and opportunities there. 

To craft the professional future you want, stay curious and close to your passion. Jeff’s career with General Motors took off when he was challenged to master advanced automotive technology. That showed him the value of learning and staying interested and curious. Later, when he returned to the U.S. from Japan, he was motivated in part by a passion to return to a more boots-on-the-ground mode of working than he was getting as global head of communications for Nissan. 

If your brand is celebrating a major anniversary, focus as much or more on the future as the past. For Bentley’s “Beyond 100” initiative, marking a century of existence, the brand naturally looked back at its legendary designs, but also emphasized what it was doing to attract tomorrow’s buyer. One result was the determination to go all-electric by 2030.

Paul Dyer: Hello and welcome. This is Paul Dyer, CEO of Lippe Taylor, and I'm joined today by Jeff Kuhlman, the chief communications and marketing officer at Bentley Motors Inc. Jeff, thank you for joining us.

Jeff Kulhman: Thank you, Paul. Appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.

PD: Well, we're very excited. You've been a long-time veteran of the automotive industry, having filled communications leadership roles at Nissan, Audi, and General Motors, including corporate as well as brand roles. You've really covered the full spectrum of not just the automotive industry, but of consumers over the course of your career, from cars made for the general public at GM, to a more premium category at Audi. And now, of course, the ultimate luxury: Bentley. How do you go about changing your frame of reference when you make these transitions to ensure you're still understanding and connecting with your audience?

JK: Wow. Great question. when I originally started my career, I was hoping to go into baseball PR. I was just coming out of university at that time, and baseball was the sport that I was most passionate about and played since I could throw a baseball, and wanted to go in that direction. Fortunately at the time, I was also doing an internship at the General Motors plant in Toledo, Ohio. And when I graduated, I was offered a job in the communications role there. Subsequently, my boss moved from the plant to a division role, and so he went from Toledo up to Ypsilanti, Michigan, as the divisional head of communications and thus started my career. 

As I look at that opportunity, there was a great opportunity to, I would say, mature very quickly. I was working directly with the plant manager. I was working directly with the head of human resources. It gave me a great exposure within the General Motors organization, and subsequently I then had the opportunity to move to a divisional job, and then from there, take off into a number of different areas. 

The bulk of my career at General Motors was actually on the operations side of the business, not the commercial side. So I was working in plants, or I was working at a headquarters position helping plants, plant managers, personnel directors, in their internal communications, relationships with the community and media relations.

Making those early transitions was easy. The big change for me was when, right before I went into Cadillac with General Motors, I went into an area of the business for advanced technology. At this time we were talking about development of fuel cell vehicles, electric vehicles, and hybrid vehicles. It was a fascinating opportunity and one that I'm not sure that I had planned or even really thought about, but one that was offered to me. 

A lot of it was talking with, interviewing, meeting with people. There were rocket scientists who were part of the program at General Motors, working on advanced vehicles and fuel cells and where did you get that knowledge? You got it from NASA. So a lot of it was to get absorbed into the business, understand what's important to the leaders and to the people who are working within your own team. 

And then certainly doing professional development. While I was working at General Motors, I also did my masters, my MBA, and I was named as the head of communications for Cadillac. That was a big change going from the operation side to promoting products, working with the sales team, working with the marketing teams. And again, a lot of reading, a lot of talking, working with mentors who helped me understand what lay ahead of me, things that I didn't maybe appreciate going into the position. I had a great general manager at General Motors at the time who really understood the business from that marketing side. And I worked very closely with him and learned a great deal. Always it's relying on those people around you, but also doing your own deep investigative work.

PD: One of the questions I've heard people ask, especially when they're at the mid-level in their career, is, “How do I go about finding a mentor?”  Have you seen anything that works consistently? Is it all just being in the right place at the right time? Any advice on how you find a mentor?

JK: First and foremost, look around for someone who has some experience with you and has seen you in your role. I've found that to be really effective. Look around at who's close to you, who's attained a level at least one or two rungs above you. And then sit down and start asking questions. Don't ask for them to be your mentor right off. Make sure that there's a connection, that the two of you can have a conversation, that the type of advice that person would give is what you would respect and that would impact you in some way. 

PD: That's great advice. So if I think about Bentley, and how Bentley has historically marketed itself, there's been a fair number of in-person events curated for a relatively tight-knit group of attendees. Obviously, we're not doing a lot of in-person events this year. So what has that looked like from the standpoint of pivoting and changing plans that's been necessitated by 2020?

JK: Boy, have I used that word more now, “pivot,” than I have at any time. So you're right. One thing that's very important to us at Bentley are activities, events, the experiential. Our biggest is the Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach each August. We host from 1,500 to 2,000 people who come through what we call “The Home of Bentley.” We take over a home, very close to the Concours field, where the cars are displayed on Sunday, but we're actually there starting the Monday before, and we're there all week, setting up, getting ready, and then Thursday is when a lot of the crowd starts to descend on the Concours. And everything we do is that Bentley experience, to give them a flavor of where the vehicle starts from the standpoint of design. We actually turn the house into almost a small factory headquarters representation.

That experience, the ability to meet people, is really important. When COVID hit, and we realized that many of our dealerships needed to be closed, or to work on limited operation, we had to pivot but we didn't want to lose that intimate experience. How do we have the opportunity to meet with people? 

Essentially what we did is, using CDC-approved guidelines, we worked with the dealers to create events that were by invitation only, by RSVP only, clean cars all the time, destinations that felt safe, where you didn't feel like you were going to have a lot of people around you and you felt safe coming to that environment.

We call them destination drives. Basically, you as a consumer come to a location and reserve time to drive one of our new vehicles, and to meet with a representative of the local dealership. It was amazingly successful. In fact, one of our most successful programs the last few years. We still had the opportunity to have that very intimate relationship with the consumer, which means we get to shake their hand. They get to know us, we get to know them. They get the opportunity to drive the brand-new car. 

We've also been able have some expanded format dinners and things like that, where we keep the number of people who are sitting around very low. Again, it's that intimate event, it feels very Bentley-like, it's very appropriate for our brand, it's very luxury, and it's all in alignment with the CDC guidelines. 

Through the summer and still today we're running these destination drive programs. And we have what we call garage dinners, where a customer would be selected to curate a table of friends – hopefully, most are not current Bentley customers. We bring a new car and we bring someone to talk about it. Everyone is wearing a mask when they come in and when we sit down for dinner we have appropriate spacing, but then when we get back up, masks are on and it all works very well. 

I think people are looking for an opportunity to get out. There's huge amount of cabin fever. People are looking for opportunities, and if you can provide that opportunity and it's safe, they will come.

PD: I think that's definitely true. A lot of the people listening represent brands where scale is the only word that matters, whereas you're talking about a very targeted approach with a very targeted customer. That does relate to a question, which is: Bentley is a brand that appeals and is aspirational for so many people who would never be potentially customers of the brand and yet admire the brand, aspire to the brand. How do you balance building that aspirational brand for everybody, that everybody aspires to, without losing the appeal, or while still appealing to your core customer?

JK: We stretch our budget, let's put it that way. We sell to some of the wealthiest consumers in the world, and yet as a brand, we have limited budgets. Automotive is known for having big budgets in the big-name brands. The farther up the pyramid you go toward the luxury space, the smaller the budgets are. The higher volume brands have much bigger budgets. So we do stretch it. 

To get to your very specific question, though, I believe our customers appreciate when others appreciate what it is they're buying. One example--I've used it many times with people--is, there are two ways someone can ask a customer or an owner a question: Why did you buy that car? Or why didn't you buy that car?

And if you're getting the second, that will put you on your heels. Psychologically people will go to the safe place, the safe purchase. We want Bentley to stand out as the ultimate, an extraordinary vehicle and an extraordinary experience. And even if you can't afford it, even if you've never driven in it, you appreciate it. So you're always going to ask that question, what do you love about this car? 

PD: I love that distinction. I used the word “aspiring,” but you transferred us to “appreciating,” and I love that distinction. That's why you're the chief communications officer. So Bentley introduced its first ever SUV under your watch, probably shortly after you joined. I'm curious what that was like from a communications standpoint. Was it ordained and everybody knew it was going to be a success, or was there some of that hand wringing?

JK: No, I don't think there was hand wringing at all. It was pure excitement. If you look at the trends within the automotive space, it doesn't matter what segment you're looking at. SUVs are taking over the space. I think industry-wide around 70 percent of the market is now in the truck space. So SUVs, CUVs, pickup trucks, if you include all of them. SUVs in particular are the new sedan. And you've even seen companies make announcements that they're discontinuing their sedan lines in favor of smaller CUVs and SUVs. So there was real confidence that there was an opportunity here. 

And as we looked at the garages of our customers, many of our customers have other luxury cars in there as well. There would be an SUV, and that SUV might be a Cadillac Escalade. It might be a G Wagon. It might be a Range Rover. There was room in the luxury space to have the Bentley Bentayga in your garage next to your Bentley. So we had high confidence that there was an opportunity there for us.

PD: Something you just said there was, "As we looked in our customer's garage." Is that a literal statement, like from market research?  Do you go look at customer's garages? What do you do when it comes to market research data and understanding your customer?

JK: We weren't stalking. I can promise you that, but, yes, we do talk to our customers. One tool we have is the Volkswagen group, globally, does a luxury vehicle study. So our luxury brands within the group, including Bentley and Lamborghini, get an opportunity to sit down with the customers. We also pull in customers from competitive brands to really understand what they appreciate about the vehicles, what they're looking for in those vehicles. We do that every other year, and that has heavily influenced our decisions, and heavily influenced our decision to go into the SUV market. It heavily influences the future design of each of our cars. And it's heavily influencing the future that we're looking at today, which is electric mobility. We've announced recently that Bentley will be all electric vehicles by 2030. In 2030, the only Bentley that you'll be able to buy is an electric Bentley.

PD: Wow. So does that relate to the Beyond 100 program, then?

JK: Exactly. Last year, 2019, we celebrated our Centenary, 100 years. It was a big year for us. I've been through events like this with a number of brands. Typically there is a lot of backward looking when you turn a hundred. You look back at the history, you bring out the old cars, you reach out to the customers who have been with you for a very long time. But I think the important part is to look forward, and how relevant are you going to be? Now that you're a hundred and everyone aspires to bring in younger customers, how are you going to be relevant to those younger customers? So Beyond 100 is, in fact, our definition of where Bentley motors is going in the future. It is impacting how we will design vehicles. It is impacting the technology that'll be in the vehicles. It is dictating how our vehicles will perform.

PD: That's great. Part of the future, the changing demographic of America in particular, but certainly the world. Big topic of conversation in America today, as well as in the communications industry. Bentley is a brand that is appreciated by people of all backgrounds, but your dealerships are, of course, located in less diverse areas in many cases. How have you tackled this call to greater inclusivity and greater diversity this year?

JK: First and foremost, we start inside the brand. We start inside the company. The very first thing you have to do is work inside your own company, because if it's not credible there, it will never be credible outside. So we've started a conversation within the small team that we are here in the Americas. There are 40 people on the Bentley team in the Americas. Just within that group, we are having the conversation. What does diversity and inclusion mean? What are the current challenges we have? What are our opportunities? We're looking at hiring, but also including people on the team in the conversations that are going to determine the future of the brand. I know that they're having these very same conversations at our headquarters in Crewe, U.K., and I believe in all of our headquarters locations around the world. So everyone is addressing this. It means different challenges for each area, but for us, it is starting inside.

PD: Industry-wide, one of the big tensions has been the greater measurability of activities that are traditionally marketing activities, versus traditionally communications activities. So how do you think about measuring communications in particular?

JK: This has been an ongoing question that I take back to my early days when I was working at General Motors. It was a very important element of measuring communications’ contribution to the bottom line, to the extent that we could measure to the bottom line. It's a very difficult thing to do. And I think it's very important, when you're working inside an organization, that there's a clear agreement between you and the CEO or president, or whatever your highest ranking executive is, of what is the best articulation of your goal, what is communications’ contribution? And then an agreement of what is it we should be measuring. 

I started in a day when someone would drop the clip service on the desk at seven o'clock in the morning, and the thud factor was the measure of success in PR. Today, it is very analytical. There's so much data that you can pull out of what you're doing in communications. It is, I think, valuable for communications and marketing to be working together because some of the very measures that marketing claims are influenced by earned media, by things that we're doing on the communications side. So I wish there were one set answer on what that measure is. I think the measure is different for each activity that you're doing, because your goals for that activity are going to be different, potentially, each time. The rigor is in having the conversations before you ever start.

PD: So one final question here, because I know we're coming up on our time, but you talked about the importance of getting to know the business, and you've also taken us through a lot of transformation in your own career and the different roles you've had. There's a lot of people that, because of the effects of 2020, are looking for a new job. So what advice would you give people in terms of how to make themselves more hire-able for the jobs of 2021 in the future?

JK: Be curious, go outside of your area, look at what's going on. It's being curious, being brave enough to step out. It's then having that willingness to put things aside that are a distraction to that process, right? There's articles, and pages of literature about how you spend your time. There's all kinds of every day on TikTok and Instagram, the habits of the wealthy, and the habits of the next CEO. There's some truth to that, but really, what's your passion? What is it going to take to allow that passion to emerge? And you've got to be willing to say no to those things that get in your way.

PD: I talk to people all the time about how they don't understand that the more you get where you think you want to get, the less you get to do the stuff you want to do.

JK: Oh, absolutely. I came back from Japan, five years ago now. And when I came back, somebody said, “Why did you make that decision?” I said, "You really need to think through what you're reaching for. You really need to understand what you're going for." That experience in Japan, that experience as head of global communications, how far removed from the actual day to day of what you grew up doing, what you thought you would be doing. Not that I didn't enjoy it, there's a whole other element of mentoring, HR, of developing people. There's giving advice at the CEO level and all of that. That can be fun, too, if that's what you want to do. And I just encourage people that when you're thinking about making a change, really, really get to understand it. Don't be that person that's there for six months and then you're done because you're disillusioned.

PD: I think that is a great place to end what's been a really stimulating conversation. I think our readers and listeners are going to find this really valuable, Jeff. So thank you for giving us your time and your insights here today.

JK: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation. It was absolutely a great distraction to budgets and forecasting, and some of the other stuff that's hitting us right now for the next four weeks that we'll be jamming through.