Visual marketing through traditional media remains an important part of automotive marketing (it’s hard to watch even just an hour of television without coming across a car ad), but automakers have always been early adopters of next-gen marketing tools, and in many ways lead the way for other industries. As early as 2012, GM's Cadillac moved 25% of its marketing budget to digital platforms. By 2015, eMarketer declared that the U.S. auto industry was "ahead of the pack for digital ad spend.”
Digital marketing, too, is increasingly about the visual; eMarketer projects that display-ad spending will surpass search-ad spending this year. That’s no surprise, given the evolution of the web from being a primarily text-based medium into one in which images and videos become the dominant form of communication. But how does this new landscape look, and how does it differ from visual marketing of the past? Is there anything we can learn from the tried and true past and adapt it to the ever-changing, bleeding-edge present?
How automakers brand-market
Then: In the past, automakers used to be able to put out market-saturating messages with a small number of broadcast buys. For instance, during its most successful season, 1952-1953, the CBS sitcom “I Love Lucy” drew an average of 67 million viewers per episode, whereas the current top-rated CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" draws fewer than 20 million (while the U.S. population has more than doubled).
Now: Today automakers can direct display and video advertising to specific demographic segments across websites via publisher networks and programmatic advertising, as well as through social platforms including Facebook and Instagram.
Mercedes-Benz, for instance, used Instagram to market its GLA model to millennials, loaning the sports utility vehicle to charismatic young Instagram influencers who visually documented GLA-enabled road trips. Likewise, Chevrolet has brand-marketed to tech-minded consumers by enlisting Instagram influencer Kevin Li, a former biochemical engineer, to help introduce the 2016 edition of its plug-in hybrid Volt.
How automakers target-market
Then: Over the years, automakers invested heavily in visually driven national magazine advertising that “spoke” to distinct (but still broad) market segments; e.g., automotive advertising for women’s magazines would be different from that seen for the same auto brand in men’s magazines.
Now: Auto marketers are increasingly using behavioral-tracking online advertising that considers an individual’s past content consumption, shopping preferences and purchase history. Among the capabilities of the Facebook for Automotive arsenal, for instance: automakers can “remarket to people who have already visited your website to continue the conversation.” And in-image advertising can be directed at consumers who are already seeking out stories online that contain images of vehicles.
In many ways, too, automakers are encouraging customers to come to them. BMW for instance, keeps its fan engaged atinstagram.com/bmw, “the community for BMW enthusiasts and the home of #SheerDrivingPleasure.” The account has 6.5 million followers.
How automakers and dealers move inventory
Then: Advertising in the automotive sections of newspapers, classified ads, local broadcast TV and radio.
Now: Geo-targeted Google AdWords and geo-aware social-media advertising (e.g., Toyota has done Los Angeles-targeted Snapchat ads to boost its dealers there).
How automakers and dealers sell the driving experience
Then: Consumers would test drive vehicles at local dealerships—with many potential buyers making a ritual of it, spending their evenings or weekends going from dealership to dealership to “kick the tires.”
Now: Automakers and dealerships are increasingly facing the reality of “online-only” car buyers. Virtual reality (VR) test drives, such as Volvo Reality, offer “a full virtual reality test drive on your phone.”
And when Porsche introduced its Porsche VR App, "it facilitated 2.2 times more virtual test drives than actual test drives from the United States’ 188 dealerships combined.” Porsche being Porsche, it even created limited-edition Porsche-branded Google Cardboard VR viewers wrapped in faux-leather.
Where will visual marketing head next? In 2016, the answer to that question is tantalizingly unclear. But as some of the above examples demonstrate, some classic winning strategies of the past can be updated and merged into present-day methods.