Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2014

Changing gears

Exploring how digital is driving innovation in automotive marketing.

Back in the day it all used to be so simple. You could map how we went about buying a car and what influenced us at each stage. It went a bit like this

1. Long listing/ contemplation: Image advertising/reviews by motoring journalists/experience of your current car, good and bad.

2. Shortlisting: As above but also conversations with friends.

3. Researching: Visits to dealerships/offer ads.

4. Buying: Happened at a dealership.

5. Post purchase/service experience: CRM

This picture was broadly unchanged as I worked on car launches for Ford and Alfa Romeo over two decades. Each car launch was tied together by ‘a big idea’ produced by the ad agency that was cascaded from TV to dealership to CRM.

1 Early trickles in the revolution – quicker, better information

Then came the internet and with its killer app in the form of Google and the ability to search for and find the information that you are looking for at the click of a mouse. For those in the ‘researching’ mode, things got quicker and easier in the form of official brand websites, downloadable brochures and price comparison websites.

I was working on digital strategy for Audi 10 years ago and we thought we were being very radical and creative at the time. We spent big on glossy brand websites, which were in truth tricked up brochures. The web was slow and mainly text with a few images, which took an age to download. The purchase process pictured above was still true. Ad agencies kept talking about the big idea (which they came up with, of course) but big change was coming with the rapid penetration of three powerful enablers. One, cheaper, faster internet; two, better, cheaper devices and three, Web 2.0. The truly revolutionary idea that the web was not about static web pages (remember those?) but interactive, collaborative and highly networked. The framework and the tools with which we could play were changing. The revolution, much previewed by digital enthusiasts like myself, was about to get under way.

No line, only innovation: Toyota Dance Party (top) and Mercedes Benz Heavy Labour Discount (bottom).
No line, only innovation: Toyota Dance Party (top) and Mercedes Benz Heavy Labour Discount (bottom).

2 Web 2.0 – the water rises

We started to hear a new piece of jargon: User Generated Content (UGC). It was now open season. Everyone could be a creative. Control was being ceded to the consumer and to anyone with a story to tell or an idea to share. Promotional marketers seized the opportunity first. Promotions are inherently interactive. You make a call, clip a coupon, and enter a competition. Web 2.0 made it possible to invent new forms of response. Promotions escaped the box marked ‘sales stimulation’ and became something much more ambitious – a way of inviting people to participate and share. The very best created brand fame and awareness – a role that had been traditionally ascribed to image advertising. The notion of above the line (image advertising) and below the line (promotions and sales stimulation) started to collapse. Today there is no line. And that has been a great stimulus to innovation. Two of my favourite examples:

Toyota Dance Party (from Belgium); a ‘win a car’ promotion that also had something irresistible about it – a chance to show off and network with friends. Entrants had to team up and then invent a car dance move – all explained by a funny introductory film featuring two strange Russians, Yuri and Boris. Dance moves were filmed and uploaded to a video sharing website (3,000 did so) where people voted for the winners. The top four dance teams were invited to a dance off, which was judged by experts and covered on a TV channel. It was promotion, UGC, image, and PR all rolled into one.

Mercedes-Benz and the Heavy Labour Discount, which celebrates those who do manual labour. The more bruised, banged up and blistered the tradesman’s hands, the bigger the discount he can receive. Contestants scan their hands via webcam and app to enter. The level of the discount (up to 9,000 off) is based on the state of their hands. Too manicured? If so, no discount for you.

3 Web 2.0, UGC and a change in the culture of brands

A new web aesthetic emerged. Brands had to understand the new social media culture: human, open, playful, informal and responsive. Whether a brand was ‘authentic’ or not (always an important characteristic of brands) was open for all to see. Stiff, highly controlled brands started to look off the pace. The consumer really was at last in charge and always about to Google and Facebook. The consumer was ahead of many brands. Brands needed to play catch-up.

4 Full flood – everyone now carries a connected mini computer

That nice neat process that I outlined at the beginning has exploded. In its place we have 24 touch points.

Every stage is online and the beginning is now probably a search on Google and a gander at a film on YouTube. Smartphones have collapsed the division between digital and real worlds. People roam at will – looking at pictures and videos, sharing links on social media and finding information. The digital and physical worlds are now one. A buyer may be in a dealership with a smartphone in hand (using the free Wi-Fi of course) looking at a YouTube product demo film about and checking prices. And that smartphone in the buyer’s pocket is as powerful as that laptop he or she first owned 10 years ago.

5 Behaviour change causes a rethink With rapid change in consumer behaviour comes a radical rethink of what effective communications can be. If you visit you will find examples of innovative automotive campaigns mapped under all the key marketing objectives – build awareness, influence consideration, and drive sales, loyalty and retention. Those headings tell their own story.

The idea of the internet as mainly an information medium seems antediluvian now (or certainly ante web 2.0) because digital marketing years are like dog years – you feel you are experiencing seven years in just one calendar year. A new mentality is required and with this change of outlook will come a continuing flow of innovation. I will call these mindshifts.

Mindshift 1 – Be discoverable: A brand that is easy to find online is a dynamic brand. This is probably a better metric to look at these days than the brand tracking study. If you are on page two of the search, or rarely talked about, your customer will sense that you have not quite stayed in touch with the new dispensation. So how do you get to be more discoverable?

Mindshift 2 – By being relevant and contextual: Potential buyers are in different modes – browsing, sharing, researching individual cars, looking at prices and offers, buying and even managing their car service online. It means that your brand has to be present on the key online platforms with content that is relevant to that platform. (The new jargon for this is ‘liquid content’– which sounds like what happens after eating a prawn past its best.) The figure above gives you a starting point for thinking what this content might be.

Mindshift 3 – Think like a publisher not an advertiser: Advertisers buy media spaces and fill them with messages. Publishers entertain, inform and involve. In fact those three words provide a useful checklist for the kind of content a brand needs now. This should live in ‘a hub’ where people can enjoy the entertainment or get deep into the product information or both. My final example and a pointer to the future does just that. This is Volvo trucks ‘content hub’ on YouTube where audience has been built (74 million views no less) by a great piece of ‘how did they do that!’ entertainment featuring Jean Claude Van Damme. For the truck geek there are informational videos on every aspect of the product and there is also a spoof film from a member of the general public (this film has over 14 million views), which brings me to my next mindshift.

Mindshift 4 – Be responsive to the conversation around you: A brand should no longer endlessly repeat the same message. A brand should, of course, have a consistent set of values and ‘a voice’ – but now many conversations and people, rather than the brand, may initiate those conversations. How can you find out about the conversation around your brand? A good place to start is Google Trends – a web resource where you can analyse the hot and emerging search topics around your category and your brand. Next year I suggest you start your planning here – rather than ask what have we got to tell people. If you start with what interests people, you may come up with ideas that are much more popular and shareable and that in turn will make you more discoverable.

Mindshift 5 – Always on, always listening: People used to access the internet in a room through a big screen that was turned on and off. Now people are always on – searching, commenting and sharing – and that means brands should always be listening. Listening leads to better communication. And that observation, at least, is as old as the hills.

Julian Saunders is Managing Partner, The Joined Up Company.