Most truly global media agencies have an automotive account, and quite possibly every creative, branding, PR and research agency wants one. However, few marketers fully understand just how complex it is to market a car today. Those that do work in automotive have likely been getting it wrong more often than right, just like me. While the nuances of marketing and selling a car in 2014 are too complex for a short essay, I can share a disruptive insight that I have learned and the bad habits that I am trying to help others unlearn. While the Great Recession and the onslaught of recent recalls are forcing automotive companies to work leaner and smarter, great disruption is still needed within marketing. That’s why I am on a personal mission to help my European peers unlearn what years of marketing cars have taught them and their clients.
Here is the great insight that took me a year to learn: People consider buying cars when the time is right for them, not when the time is right for the automotive company: when new cars roll off assembly lines and into dealership showrooms. If you glance at a basic automotive marketing plan in spreadsheet format, you will likely see budgets put against car launches and car refreshes on a timeline. This investing in "new car news" assumes that at the moment a new design is launched, there will be a large group of people ready, willing and able to buy that the car being promoted. Within the industry, we call this "launch & leave"; it’s the practice of organizing marketing plans around funding short-lived cars’ launches without much investment elsewhere. This approach to automotive marketing is antiquated and hard to change.
The problem starts with an imbalance in the relationship between car companies and their dealerships. Car companies are expected to support their loyal dealers with "new car news" as this was once a great way to get people into a dealership showroom: foot traffic. However, today consumers are going online and deeply exploring a car and its competitors before even considering visiting a dealership: digital leads. The point in which the consumer walks into the showroom to purchase depends on their unique life situations and timings, not when the company happened to have a new car for their viewing pleasure. Only about 2% of the population is actually looking for a car at any given time. It takes the average consumer three months to decide on a purchase, therefore most short launch campaigns are potentially hugely wasteful. Sadly, we as automotive marketers are spending most of our annual budgets talking to a very small audience (2% of population) for way too short a period of time (10 or fewer weeks). Sure, there area always additional "waves" here and there but none of these ever seem to meet expectations.
The Internet has already disrupted many industries (Airbnb, Amazon, Huffington Post, Netflix, etc.) but automotive marketing has been slow to evolve. Today, we have proof that consumers are "always on." At any given point, some consumer is looking for a car that meets the description of an automotive company’s car, regardless if the company happens to be launching that vehicle or not. Thus, the automotive company should be marketing to all of their consumers all the time, in every moment. Automotive needs to adapt an "always on" approach to marketing. I know what you are thinking; "always on" is so cliché. You are right, it is overused, but automotive has been slow to adjust their marketing teams and practices.
By "always on" in automotive, I mean creating and sustaining deeply engaging masterbrand and car cluster communications platforms content all the time. It means developing ongoing stories across advertising, PR, digital, sponsorships, partnerships, and social that are enjoyable to follow and build consumer affinity and love. It means helping people desire the masterbrand first and foremost and then naturally consider that desired brand for their needs or car wants, e.g. "car cluster" that fits. It means paying close attention to consumers' search and media behaviors and ensuring that their screens are curated with valuable and entertaining information about your offerings. Ultimately, it means spreading those car launch budgets across an entire year and gently reminding consumers every day that you exist and you meet their needs and desires better than other brands. Instead of "launch & leave" approaches to marketing car lines, we should help consumers to "learn & love" our masterbrands and car models, every day.
While most automotive companies are slow to move, there are a couple brands that are proving a better way. Tesla and BMWi are appealing because their showrooms are designed to help you fall in love with their brand and cars, not necessarily drive off the lot with one. BMWi has been creating an appealing narrative through content long after the initial launch period of the i3 and i8. Both of these brands are making it easier for consumers to love them and want them. When you fall in love with a car masterbrand, which I have done (good job, Volvo), you will find a way to buy it when you can and price will not be the main reason for purchase.