The Autos Strike Back

In the marketing industry, there continues to be buzz about "influencer marketing." Too often this strategy is limited to the use of a celebrity and/or athlete. The true original influencers, however, aren't celebrities or athletes. They are the people in the streets, the ones who are five moves ahead of everyone else. In the marketing world, we try to align our brands with these core influencers and use that association to our advantage. But, in order for this strategy to work, you must have the right concept/association and most importantly, it has to feel authentic. Most recently I've been struck by an industry that is back, and utilizing this strategy better than ever -- the autos.

Let's take the Super Bowl, as an example. Not only did automobile companies dominate the game-time ads, but some companies, such as Volkswagen, were releasing ads on YouTube a week before. By generating great pre-game buzz, the now-infamous, mini-Darth Vader Volkswagen ad reached around 12+ million hits before kickoff. Volkswagen has always had a reputation for great design, but by teaming up with "Star Wars," it helped to both enhance its brand positioning and promote the new car model. While it may have seemed to come out of nowhere in terms of Volkswagen's marketing, the "Star Wars" association still clicks with fans of all ages, as it has for over 40 years. Another example of a brand utilizing this association is Adidas, which recently dropped a collaborative line with "Star Wars" designs.

Whether it was a mini-Darth Vader or Eminem, the automobile companies had great associations for the audience to enjoy. The real key and art to these ads, however, was the unique use of these associations within their creative. For example, if Eminem stepped out of that Chrysler 200, walked on stage and began rhyming with the choir, it would've felt forced and, ultimately, made for a pretty corny ad. Instead, Chrysler effectively hints at Eminem driving the car, eventually giving it away with a flash of his eyes in the car's rearview mirror. The anthem, "Lose Yourself," works hand-in-hand with the overall ad message, a rallying cry for people (or Detroit) to pick themselves up, keep working hard and not give up. It felt like you were letting not just Detroit down but America as a whole if you weren't buying a new Chrysler product.

Bottom line, the "Imported from Detroit" campaign felt real. That's why you got chills when you watched it. Chrysler picked the right artist with the right message; and the audience got it. But sometimes associations can feel forced, whether it's the fault of the company, influencer or the message; it just feels off.

For those of us from the action sports world, it is interesting to see Ford's foray into rally car and the alignment with Ken Block, rally car racer and founder of DC shoes. Block is well-known for putting out a wildly successful viral series about rally cars and gymkhana driving (a Japanese term for a style of driving). With these videos hitting 20 million+ views, the viral buzz has been great. For part three of the video series, Block brought in Chicago hip-hop duo The Cool Kids to hype it up. The duo is decked out in DC gear, rhyming about DC while Block shows off his new ride and driving skills. As an "influencer," The Cool Kids is a perfect choice; a great hip-hop duo that has strong core credibility and seems poised to blow up anytime now. But Cool Kids fans also know they take pride in their fashion and go out of their way to wear exclusive and hard-to-find apparel. So for me, watching them decked out in DC gear seems slightly off. Jordans would've been more believable.

As the autos continue to rebound in 2011, I look forward to more associations and collaborations, not just through sports or influencer marketing, but also through event marketing. While at the 2011 Chicago Auto Show, the one footprint that stood out the most to me was Chrysler's, including its Dodge and Jeep set-up (you couldn't miss the Jeep test track, if you tried). On display was the luxurious Chrysler 200, as well as the Dodge Charger SRT for all the muscle-car fanatics. In addition to the sheer size of Jeep's test track, it also had an awesome Jeep model designed in collaboration with Activision's "Call of Duty: Black Ops" video game. It wasn't covered with camouflage and sprayed with logos and stickers; it was smartly designed and used "Call of Duty" to simply enhance the already impressive Jeep model. While it may not seem like a traditional association, "Call of Duty" still works as a great influencer for the Jeep brand.

Seeing a wide variety of cars and event footprints at the auto show, I gravitated toward the ones showing off snowboard racks. Upon closer inspection, though, I often ended up disappointed when I saw a board from the mid-'90s on display or a photo of a snowboarder making a visibly awful turn. The targeted customers will know the campaign is outdated, instantly killing any credibility that the company tried to achieve.

Overall, brands cannot take their core audience -- one that is savvier than ever -- for granted. Our job as marketers is to help brands realize this phenomenon and to utilize authenticity in every message they send out, every association they create, and with every influencer they choose to align with.

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