Honda to the Drive-in Rescue

The Back Story: What’s more American than a drive-in theater? It’s an icon of the American scene that evokes nostalgia, good memories, car culture, and, recently, a bit of wistfulness as more and more drive-in theaters have been forced to close their doors due to lack of funds.

From more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the 1950s and 1960s, there are less than 400 out there today—a number set to shrink even further when Hollywood ends 35mm film distribution and drive-ins are forced to digitize their screens or shut their doors. A new digital projector costs between $75,000 and $100,000, a sum far beyond the means of most drive-ins.

That’s where Honda and its agency RPA enter the scene.

The original concept was simple: Honda would redo a drive-in theater in a community near one of its manufacturing plants, donate a digital projector, and get some local employees involved. A feel good exercise to help give something back. But soon Honda and RPA realized there was something much bigger to be done here.

“Hundreds of theaters face closure because they can’t afford the upgrade, but the issue hadn’t made its way into the public consciousness connecting it back to car culture, and we saw this as an amazing opportunity for Honda to be that company that came to the rescue,” says Jason Sperling, executive creative director at RPA. “In this day and age, it’s not enough for a company just to say it’s going to do something, it has to act.”

The Strategy: The goal with Honda’s Project Drive-in was to launch a movement rather than subsume the cause in a brand-centric campaign.

To that end, RPA created a website,, where people could vote to decide which of five theaters would receive a donated digital projector courtesy of Honda. While Honda spearheaded promotion on a national level, the brand distributed Project Drive-in toolkits with both traditional and digital marketing materials to more than 120 drive-in owners so they could launch their own local awareness campaigns.

Throughout, fans were encouraged to spread the word to their social networks. The campaign took off on Twitter, but went particularly viral on Facebook, where people from around the world pledged their support using hashtag #SaveTheDriveIn.

“Some of the drive-in owners we spoke to were floored by all the comments they were getting on their Facebook pages,” says Alicia Jones, manager of social marketing for Honda and Acura at the American Honda Motor Co., Inc. “They were even getting comments from foreign exchange students who said the first thing they wanted to do when they got here was go to a drive-in because it’s such an iconic American thing.”

Even celebrities joined the grassroots cause on their own steam, including director George Romero and horror actor Robert Englund of Nightmare on Elm Street fame, who took to the airwaves as vocal proponents of Project Drive-in.

“The power of this content and the story of the American drive-in helped us gain so much earned media traction, as did the impending deadline for digital conversion, because this is the kind of thing that people can really relate to on a personal level,” Jones says. “This hits you deep inside; it resonates.”

After voting closed in August, Honda announced its five winners. Drive-ins located in Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, and Texas were all presented with free digital projectors and a new lease on life. At the end of September, Honda reopened the voting and distributed four more digital projectors to drive-ins in Florida, Montana, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Honda partnered with Sony Pictures to hold a special screening of its recently released picture Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 at each winning theater.

To round it all out, Honda launched five “pop-up” drive-in theaters at dealerships around the country to keep the groundswell swelling, with more free screenings of Sony’s new animated flick.

The Creative: Honda also ran an online auction through Vine, hosted Leonard Maltin, to raise extra money for Project Drive-in. Honda approached the film critic to get involved after he independently expressed his love for drive-ins on his blog.

This is how it worked: A Vine video of each item up for auction—including a 2014 Honda vehicle, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 memorabilia, concert tickets, and a basketball signed by Maroon 5—was tweeted with the starting bid price and the auction closing time. To participate, bidders had to tweet the name of the item and their bid along with hashtag #DriveInAuction. @Honda sent each winner a direct message on Twitter with a link to a special payment page on the Project Drive-in website.

The Results: The main goal was to raise awareness—and awareness was most certainly raised. More than 2.6 million votes were case on the Project Drive-in website and a video recap of Honda’s efforts generated more than 1.1 million views. The initiative received roughly 62 million Twitter impressions, 651 million press impressions, and more than 30,000 mentions on blogs and in online forums.

In addition to donating projectors to nine drive-ins teetering on the verge of closure, Honda raised more than $43,000 for Project Drive-in through its Indiegogo page.

The Takeaway: Part of the project’s success—and why it struck such a cord—is because Honda as a brand took a backseat to its support of the cause.

“We led with the cause, the action, the ‘why’—as in, why do we want you to care about this? And the answer is, ‘To save an American icon,” Jones says. “The Honda part of it followed that, which is why we were able to capture people’s attention right away.”

It also worked because the connection between Honda and its #SaveTheDriveIn initiative was a solid one. It just made sense for Honda to get involved.

“It was a perfect synergy,” Sperling says. “The perfect example of a cause and a company that could do something about it.”

The Customer View: The reaction on Facebook and Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. One Twitter fan summed up the general sentiment nicely: “I may be a Subaru driver, but I’m completely blown away and moved to tears by @Honda and their immeasurable efforts to #savethedrivein.”

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