Market Focus: Luring Women

For years, auto marketers, dealerships, and servicers were remarkably consistent in their treatment of women 18 to 34: They ignored them completely. While men in the same age group received everything short of flowers as part of the ongoing campaign to get their attention, companies up and down the automotive food chain assumed that women wanted nothing to do with car shopping. Thus, only those few companies that made a concerted attempt to court young women (Saturn comes to mind), built loyalty and, ostensibly, rang up strong sales.

So when auto marketers finally had their "Eureka!" moment about young women a few years ago, it wasn't surprising that their efforts were met with indifference. "When a group has been ignored, they don't just leap the first time they're called," notes Glenn Field, president of Boomerang Mobile Media. Hoping to atone for past sins and, of course, sell cars, auto marketers have renewed their push to reach women 18 to 34, concentrating a sizable percentage of their pitches online.

The only surprise is that they didn't do it any sooner. Rick Wainschel, Kelly Blue Book's vice president of marketing research, points to a recent survey by his company which revealed that 42 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 34 think of themselves as auto enthusiasts. And while Generation Y isn't exactly clamoring for cars just yet, in the next 10 years they're expected to buy around 40 percent of the new vehicles purchased in the United States.

THE PLAYERS "What you have to remember is that the younger end of this demographic grew up with a mouse in one hand and a cell phone in the other," Wainschel notes. "They've grown up with the ability to personalize something the way they want it to be, which is an outgrowth of their comfort with the Internet."

Most manufacturers, if not dealer groups, seem to get the hint; their sites offer "configurators" that allow consumers to, say, customize their Scions with mag wheels and a polka-dotted suede interior. As for what works with the audience, experts vary wildly in their tactical approaches. Ken Rubino, a vice president of the Letizia Ad Team's automotive marketing group, believes that online efforts must emphasize features like safety and economy. President Jeremy Anwyl, on the other hand, believes that all online content aimed at women should be designed to empower them. Jasen Rice, Internet director of the Lou Fusz Automotive Network, agrees. "A lot of young women hate going into dealerships and dealing with salesmen."

THE VENDORS So what's working? Lincoln Mercury scored with an online campaign centered around the launch of the Mercury Mariner model, aimed at younger women. Enticed by research noting that women in the target audience used the Web as an integral part of their social networks, the company attempted to create content with a high buzz factor. Famous last words, right?

Wrong. The "Meet the Lucky Ones" campaign, a series of 50 short films more akin tonally to HBO's "Six Feet Under" than to a 30-second spot, attracted a rabid following; more than 1 million visitors flocked to the site. While the quirky tone and plot likely roped in viewers, the fact that the films didn't bludgeon consumers with marketing content couldn't have hurt. In fact, of the 50 films, only four of them featured the Mariner.

"We wanted to do something that was subtle and that would generate word of mouth," says Linda Perry-Lube, Lincoln Mercury's e-business and customer relationship marketing manager.

As opposed to other online Mariner marketing efforts - such as an online video "vehicle walk-around," which Perry-Lube admits "may have been too much" - "Lucky Ones" connected with younger women. Of the 60,000 who shared their information with Lincoln Mercury, 33,000 gave additional data and 25 percent bought the vehicle. Those who arrived at the Mariner Web site via the "Lucky Ones" page stuck around four times longer than those who came from elsewhere.

"I loved [Burger King's] 'Subservient Chicken,' but you can't buy a hamburger online," Perry-Lube notes. "With 'Meet the Lucky Ones,' you could go all the way to setting up a test drive." Advergames have resonated with younger female Web devotees. Women have embraced online gameplay; around half of the visitors to are female, although 70 percent of them are 30 and older. By contrast, there are four times as many male console gamers as female ones, according to "Advergaming Gets Consumers to Play While Advertisers Pay," a Gartner report issued last year. "It's one of the best ways for advertisers to connect with the online audience and to do it in a way that the audience doesn't feel inundated," Denise Garcia, author of the report and Gartner's principal analyst, media and advertising, said at the time.

BMW deployed an advergame in late 2003 to hype the launch of its X3 "sport activity vehicle." Designed by Skyworks Technologies, the BMW X3 Adventure targeted active, affluent young men and women. It included a viral-marketing component through which players could invite their friends to compete against them and compare results on a private scoreboard.

OUTLOOK Most experts believe that the Internet will remain a primary resource for young women, while others wonder whether it will be superceded by the "third screen" - wireless phones and handheld gadgets. Earlier this year, BMW started offering consumers the chance to preview its new 3 Series model via a micro-Web site specially configured for mobile phones equipped with Internet access.

"Women in that age group, their consuming life is very much ahead of them," Anwyl notes. "If companies in the [auto] business don't go after them where they're most comfortable, which is online, they're missing a huge opportunity."

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