The Big Three Automakers and the New Science of Selling Cars

Last night I had the chance to attend a preview event sponsored by General Motors for media and bloggers about their announcements and lineup that they will be previewing at the Auto Show here in DC this coming weekend.  For any die-hard automotive enthusiast, the DC auto show probably doesn’t seem like a big deal.  Especially since the Detroit Auto Show is happening now.  Yet most automakers are focused on regions and it is no secret that when it comes to the coasts (east and west), the Big 3 American automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler) have a big challenge ahead of them.  One recent GM TV spot tells the story of this struggle as a young woman proudly shows her Dad her new GM car and answers his questions on why she didn’t go for the "safer" choice of a foreign made car.

So the real question is, in a category like cars where many people are liable to make up their mind about the cars that they would even consider driving before considering many newer models … how do you get them to consider yours?  One way is dropping lots of money into TV spots, but with the writer’s strike, football has become the hottest commodity and that only has one big game left.  Even when all the shows start to come back, the issue of attention remains.  For many years now, the Internet has been seen as the way to fill this gap.  After all, people are going online, seeking information, starting their research there and sometimes even purchasing a car online.  Just about every automaker is getting smarter about using the online medium to demo and sell their cars.  The conversation yesterday was a great chance to talk about the new thinking that might be required to sell cars in the future.  In other words, what’s next?

The good news for the Big 3 is that each of them has something they can point to, to say they are moving in the right direction.  Here are three core themes that define the new science of selling cars and how to Big 3 are using each one:

  1. Conversations – You could liken this to brand or positioning, which have always been important in selling cars, but today these choices are important for what they lead to … conversations.  As marketers get a better understanding of word of mouth, it’s clear that getting people talking about your brand and owners sharing their experiences is the most powerful message you can hope for.  Once, marketers had little understanding of how to direct their marketing spend to this phenomenon.  Now they do, and it’s changing how the smart auto makers are interacting with customers.  Case in point, the event GM sponsored last night and their smart efforts in social media.
  2. Customization – A theme that came up several times was the importance of letting a car become an extension of a car buyers personality.  This is not just about adding tricked out rims or a wider portfolio of exterior colors to the list of options.  It is about finding ways for people to make their cars their own, and proudly display them.  Mini Cooper is the most often cited example, but there are more recent efforts like the campaign for the Chrysler 300 that demonstrate how important this idea of customization is becoming for automakers.
  3. Experiences – There is no longer a need to rely solely on someone coming in for a test drive to have an experience with a car.  Automakers are taking cars to shows, gatherings and events. They are creating campaigns designed to get people to try their cars, like Ford’s Swap Your Ride campaign or the "Are We There Yet? Stories From the Road" campaign.  People are creating user generated content of themselves with their new cars.  All of this means that there is much more chance that a consumer can have an experience of a car that goes beyond a marketing site before ever setting foot in a dealership.

With this being auto show season and all the attention on new models, the automotive category will be putting out some interesting advertising and marketing efforts in the coming months.  Whether your marketing touches the auto industry or not, this category should offer some interesting lessons to pay attention to for any marketer.  I know I’ll be watching.

DISCLAIMER:  Our team was responsible for the Are we There Yet? campaign for Ford, and Team Detroit (a group of agencies affiliated with Ogilvy and WPP) was behind the Swap Your Ride campaign.

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