Automotive brands are test-driving new marketing strategies

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Automobile retailers and manufacturers execute innovative marketing efforts
Automobile retailers and manufacturers execute innovative marketing efforts

Automobile ads are commonly associated with gleaming cars cruising winding roads in catchy TV spots. But a digitally savvy generation of customers, the emergence of new customer touch points, and the need for car manufacturers to distinguish their vehicles in a traffic jam of similar products has given rise to the adoption of new channels and strategies.

Today, auto manufacturers are incorporating elements such as social media contests and outreach to distinguish their respective brands. At the same time, many local auto retailers and dealerships are using traditional advertising strategies with a distinctly 21st century spin. Regardless of the objective, all automotive marketers face similar obstacles, like justifying investments in social media and testing uncharted waters.

One auto manufacturer accelerating its use of new marketing approaches is Kia Motors America. Its Kia Soul shuffle slam marketing campaign, created by David&Goliath, was designed to pitch potential buyers in a way that enabled Kia to “engage consumers in a promotion that allowed them to be creative and communicate,” says George Haynes, social and digital media manager at Kia Motors America. The campaign invited consumers to submit videos of themselves dancing to electropop like Kia's music-loving mascots, the soul Hamsters, on the Kia Soul YouTube and Facebook channels for a chance to win prizes.

The campaign was “a really good way for people to get to know the personality of our brand,” Haynes says, noting that the Kia Soul YouTube channel has received more than 18 million views to date.

Ultimately, campaigns like the Kia Soul shuffle are designed to entice consumers to do the talking in viral environments such as YouTube. When consumers participate creatively in a campaign, not only will they develop a positive association with the brand—in this case Kia—they'll also be more likely to notify their peer group about the work they've done and, by extension, talk up the brand.

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Similarly, MINI USA uses the power of social media to engage and share; however, the automotive company also sees it as an opportunity to do more with less. “Our competitors outspend us by five, 10, 15 times more in their marketing spend,” says Tom Salkowsky, marketing manager at MINI USA. “We need to be both clever and feisty in our tonality and in our media buys. digital affords us that flexibility and quickness.”

MINI USA's “the best test drive ever. Period.” campaign, created by butler, shine, stern and Partners, encouraged consumers to describe in six words a fantasy test drive of a Mini Coupe. The contest winner's fantasy was made reality in a film that premiered online on MINI USA's Facebook page and YouTube channel, as well as in cinemas nationwide. The campaign received 14,000 submissions, prompted MINI USA's Twitter account to grow from zero to 19,000 followers in one month, and drove 6,000 consumers into 115 MINI USA dealerships—2,100 of which ended up purchasing a vehicle, all for a fraction of the cost of super bowl TV spots or celebrity endorsements.

While automobile manufacturers like Kia and MINI use social channels to blast out branding and awareness campaigns for a national audience, more intimate and direct efforts occur at local levels, typically among auto retailers and dealerships. Toronto-based auto retailer Pfaff Automotive Partners used a high-tech spin for its latest marketing campaign by ad agency Lowe Roche without relying on social media. Pfaff placed white Porsche 911s in the driveways of 50 Toronto residences in tony neighborhoods as part of an innovative direct mail marketing campaign. to select the residences, Pfaff reviewed its customers' purchasing trends and then narrowed down its list to those living in homes in the $2 million range.

A photographer snapped a photo at each home and, using a portable printer, instantly created a direct mail piece with the caption, “It's closer than you think.” The result: a 33% response rate compared to the 4% response rate that Pfaff Automotive's traditional direct mail marketing campaigns generate.

“That's a huge, huge difference,” says Pfaff President and CEO Christopher Pfaff, adding that the retailer has reduced its dependence on newspaper ads by nearly 30% in recent months. “There's a lot of clutter out there. Consumers are bombarded [by direct mail advertisements]. I know I am.”

Yet, despite plans to target an additional 500 households in September with on-the-spot customized direct mail pieces, Pfaff says that innovative marketing strategies can be risky and hard to quantify. “It's still very much testing ground for us,” he says. “It's been really challenging to get our heads around it, to monitor direct results, and get a feel for what's working and what's not working.”

Traditional marketing like Pfaff's direct mail campaign may be expensive, but its trackability continues to make it attractive. Part of the reason automotive manufacturers and retailers are hesitant to make sweeping investments in non-traditional marketing techniques is due in large part to an absence of reliable metrics. “There's a great value in having people interact with your brand,” says Kia's Haynes. “Unfortunately, to say that one part of [a digital campaign] is driving the sale would be pretty ambitious. Even if we could track it, we wouldn't be able to attribute it to that one action.”

No wonder, then, that most automobile brands aren't ready to abandon traditional media channels like television and radio. “It's way too early to do that,” Haynes says. “I think what we'll see is more of a convergence” of traditional and digital strategies as tried-and-true channels like television and radio “get smarter” and start supporting social media platforms like Facebook.

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