Friday, October 30, 2009

Toyota's Latest Social Efforts Absent of Cars

I was doing my typical evening browsing of the New York Times website, catching up on Paul Krugman’s latest rant about the financial crisis when I noticed a large Toyota ad telling me, “We See Ways to Enrich the Community.” So I did what apparently only 16% of the online population does, I clicked through the advertisement.

The ad led to Toyota’s Beyond Cars website which features a new brand campaign showcasing how Toyota is a company not only interested in building customers bland, reliable cars. No Toyota is all about making a positive difference in the environment, economy, and communities we all live in.

Site visitors are asked to share how they “see beyond today to a better tomorrow” after being told that Toyota has built over 1 million hybrid vehicles.

The “Beyond Cars” campaign commercials talk about urban gardening and about Toyota’s program to educate teens to be safer drivers. It’s your typical good corporate citizenship videos that could’ve been done by any Fortune 500 company. Some additional posts by the company mention other charitable activities by the company.

All of this is typical corporate responsibility marketing. There is nothing really that compelling or memorable about it. Nor is there any communication about Toyota products so it is true to its message; it’s definitely beyond talking cars.

User engagement is typical when there is little to no consumer benefit to share. Visitors to the site shared 29 photos, 2 videos and 22 written comments when I looked a week after finding the site. Since there is no incentive to share content, the content submission numbers are inline with similar examples I’ve seen.

It’s also quite clear from reading most of the comments from visitors, assuming most are not from Toyota employees or the marketing agency staff, that people are sharing ways to impact the environment. Perhaps most of the media buy is targeting green-minded consumers. Of course all of the content is monitored by Toyota so perhaps they are keeping comments from visitors to the intent of the site.

The odd thing is that the interface borrows from the Facebook interface, allowing visitors to “Like” ideas or submit a post to the wall. I wonder why they didn’t bring this implementation into a social community like Facebook instead of creating a custom website. Seems to me the ideas could’ve spread more easily through an interface that provides the behaviors the Toyota site is trying to replicate.

Meanwhile, Toyota is promoting a Prius Facebook application asking people to “Tag your friends on a picture of an animal herd.” Huh? Yeah, that’s what I wondered after installing the latest Prius social media app called “Random Acts of Prius.”

People earn points by accepting and passing on a random act. Acts include “skip once today instead of walking”; “refrain from sad emoticons today, use only smileys”; and “write a poem and put it on the fridge.” I wonder if I can earn my points if I just post William Carlos Williams “This is just to say” to my fridge?

The real question is who came up with these acts and more importantly why would I share it in my social network? Plus I’m not sure how any of this relates back to the Prius.

The one thing that is well done on the application is that it does attempt to be conversational and give Facebook users a way to engage within their network in a method that is natural to the community. And while I may not get the humor in the acts, some others may find the odd acts as a fun way to pass on unusual content.

The application does miss on communicating out to one’s news feed on Facebook. It never asks me to “Publish” anything I do. So that leaves all communications limited to whoever the user selects to send an act to, meanwhile no other friends see the activity and the application loses exposure to the rest of that person's network.

It’s unclear whether the Prius Facebook application and the Beyond Cars site are related. It is clear that both implementations have nothing to do with cars.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bob Lutz Challenges Lead-Footed Automotive Journalists… Buzz Ensues

Back when GM launched their May the Best Car Win marketing campaign, Bob Lutz “told reporters he would challenge anyone in any production sedan to a race around Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway and try to beat him,” reported the automotive blog Jalopnik who immediately were interested in taking on “Maximum” Bob.

It has been a challenge Jalopnik has been pushing GM to follow through on. Eventually, GM accepted applications from reporters and recently announced they accepted 6 entries including one from Jalopnik’s Wes Siler.

GM eventually created a micro-site to promote the challenge. The Cadillac V-Series Challenge site promotes the event and informs about the challenge rules and process. It also communicates the attributes of the Cadillac CTS-V.

GM selected the challengers and submissions were accepted from October 13-16. The Cadillac V-Series Challenge website does not communicate who was selected or what they will be racing. It simply states that Bob Lutz will be racing the challengers at Monticello Motor Club in New York on October 29, 2009 at 10am EST.

The preliminary lists of challengers are communicated at the Cadillac blog. Wes Siler of Jalopnik, Jack Baruth of The Truth About Cars and Lawrence Ulrich who freelances and writes for the NY Times are the three journalists in the challenge. Four private car owners are also participating in the challenge; though, one is a CTS-V owner who “wants to learn more about his car’s capabilities.”

The best part is that the challenge works to GM’s benefit in a couple ways:

A Competitor Races: If they race against the CTS-V and lose well that proves the CTS-V is a winner. If they beat the Cadillac, Cadillac can say sure X car won but it costs thousands more than the Cadillac and the performance numbers are not that different. So the value ratio is still in Cadillac’s favor.

Competitor Chooses Not to Race: Jaguar did this today and now they are getting called chicken for not wanting to pit their XF-R against the CTS-V. Lutz commented today saying, “think it means that the European high-performance sedans are excellent, even superb cars, but quite possibly not ready for racing laps right out of the show-room.”

Either way GM wins.

Meanwhile, Wes needs a car. Unfortunately for Team Jalopnik they don’t have a car to race Bob with. The site that pushed to get GM to own up to Bob’s original challenge to reporters may not be in the race, since they are now quickly waiting for some brand to show up and help them beat Lutz and his Caddy.

Cadillac Launches Redesigned Shopping Site

Cadillac released a complete redesign of their shopping site on October 23. The new showcases the cars with larger images, 360 views on the home page and vehicle home pages, and includes a much more concise navigation. Large images with easy to read text also promote different areas of the site in a scrolling content area on the home page.

There are some standout improvements on the site. Mainly the use of crisp studio images that make the cars easy to see while also maximizing the viewable space on the page. Cadillac also reworked some key short comings from their prior shopping experience, namely a much improved offers section that communicates any discounting or financing available. Some issues still remain especially in the brand experience and features sections of the vehicle pages.

The Build & Price section utilizes a few good practices including the ability to choose a pre-built configuration with features and trim level pre-selected for those consumers who do not want to spend the time selecting options. Also, the pricing section integrates a colorizer and 360 view of the exterior. Unfortunately, the interior 360 and colorizer do not fully let you see all available options. In fact, what it did on some interior trim levels was present a background image of the interior with a color swatch image sitting on top (see image at left to better understand.)

Cadillac’s Help Me Choose page provides an easy to use vehicle portfolio selection tool that allows users to select their vehicle needs by capabilities, price, features, and a few other options. It’s a helpful way to navigate the vehicle line for consumers who may not exactly know which Cadillac fits their driving needs.

The biggest improvement is the redesigned pricing and offers area. Before (and I wish I had a screenshot of it) the Cadillac offers were very complicated to read and not easy to understand. The new site communicates offers in an easy to read format that clearly sections off each offer in a clear, precise way, whereas, the old site used to just list the offers in a string of line-by-line text. Now the offers communication is far clearer to consumers. Plus if there is still any confusion, there is a floating navigation item where one can ask a question and chat with a live person.

One of the most glaring shortcomings is very limited information about a vehicle's features and options. The vehicle pages don't effectively communicate what the features or product strengths are. In fact, all the shopper gets to see is a Features & Specs page that lists everything as if people intuitively understand what an "Ultraview Sunroof" or "Xenon HID Headlamps" is. There is no detail information on any vehicle feature and this is a glaring shortcoming when comparing to other OEM shopping sites.

Included in the new design is a brand section called Experience Cadillac where videos, concepts, merchandise, events and social media properties are promoted. Also included are links to learn more about OnStar and XM Radio. The issue here is that it looks like a brand messaging area similar to the Only Mercedes-Benz or Acura’s Advance experiences, but unfortunately there is no strong messaging in the Experience Cadillac section that communicates what the brand means; instead, it is simply a location for things that probably didn’t fit well into the main navigation neatly.

The Experience Cadillac section also down plays the awards and accolades of the brand as well as the brand’s heritage by including that content in a lesser sub-navigation. What’s unclear is why these items are not highlighted in the tile navigation given to other elements of this section?

One area that was baffling is the Lifestyle and Events content tile in Experience Cadillac. Clicking the tile shows a “Presidential Limo” tile that communicates the limo Cadillac developed for President Obama, but that’s it. Not sure this is a lifestyle communication, unless you’re the President. Certainly this content should evolve and may just be a content deficiency at launch to be later more fully developed.

Some navigation and images are cutoff. When viewing the Vehicles navigation tab I can see some additional navigation elements but they are not viewable except for some top level text showing something is there (the missing elements are Compare Vehicles, Help Me Choose and CPO.) Also, when viewing the Experience Cadillac section and some other sections the “Cadillac” logo is missing the “Ca” of the image. This might be an issue with Macintosh as I was able to see these elements on a PC I also use.

Overall the experience is much improved and the addition of the Help Me Choose and 360 views on the vehicle homepages are welcomed additions. The Experience Cadillac section holds some promise and hopefully will evolve into a better brand communication section instead of an area of the site for content that just needs a home.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Did MINI Just Diss Its 160,000 U.S. Fans on Facebook?

MINI just launched its “Official MINI Facebook Page.” Huh? MINI, waited until the Fall of 2009 to join the Facebook community? That doesn’t sound right. Well it isn’t exactly correct. MINI has been on Facebook for quite awhile with their MINI USA fan page.

The MINI USA site has a significant amount of fans, 167,208 when I last looked. The new MINI fan page has 15,278. Why would MINI create a whole new “official” fan page out of thin air when it already had over a 160,000 fans on its very active U.S.A. site?

The obvious answer is that MINI is a global brand and the US team wanted to promote their marketing efforts separate from the global marketing team. But this doesn’t make a lot of sense when looking at other global brands like Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Hyundai, Honda… well just about everyone. Creating one brand fan page destination on Facebook makes a lot of sense, separating out the US site from the global site seems a bit foolish.

“Building a single corporate page instead, offers more meaningful ways to connect online… There are already so many fan pages on the site and some products even have multiple pages, making it difficult to tell a cohesive story about a brand,” reports Aarti Shah for PR Week.

Consider someone who wants to “fan” MINI. They search for MINI and come across the MINI USA and MINI fan pages, with the latter having a graphic saying it is the “Official MINI Facebook Page”, which one would the soon to be fan join? Probably the Official one since it clearly states it is official.

More importantly, what about media campaigns to build fans or advertise the MINI brand on Facebook? I’d assume these efforts would bring users to the Official page and leave the USA page alone.

The MINI USA page now gets fans at a much slower rate, since the marketing dollars don’t direct people to it, and eventually the Official MINI fan page becomes the dominate page that does all of the marketing communications; thereby, leaving the 160,000 plus fans of the USA page ignored.

This was a very odd decision by a brand that usually gets it right. It will be interesting to see how the two sites co-exist on Facebook and if I’m right that the Official page will be where all the marketing dollars will drive to and if the USA site will eventually pale in comparison to the Official fan page. Either way, the MINI brand should have just converted their large fan community on the MINI USA page and transition it so the 160,000 fans would stay engaged in this latest Facebook effort by the brand.

Monday, October 19, 2009

FTC: Bloggers Not the Target, Advertisers Are

If you are a follower of social media news, I’m sure you didn’t miss all of the discussions about the FTC announcing guidance for bloggers having to disclose any freebees they receive from companies. It’s been a hot discussion topic across blogs, the advertising industry and major media outlets. In fact, if you want to understand the topic better than I can ever describe it, checkout the New York Times article discussing not only the impact on bloggers but what it means for traditional media too.

A lot of this issue has surrounded bloggers being singled out for receiving swag, while magazines, newspapers and TV reviewers get all kinds of products free to review from manufacturers. With the new rules, many bloggers feel the FTC guidelines (they are not laws) unfairly make bloggers the target of government regulations for a practice traditional media has taken part in for decades. This is a valid concern, but what does this mean for the automotive industry and its use of bloggers?

Is this passive compliance?

There is a $16,000 fine associated with each violation, so the threat is real but is it likely to be levied? The Silicon Alley Insider reports, “FTC assistant director Richard Cleland tells Joe Ciarallo at PR Newser, the FTC would never go after a blogger. It would only go after the advertiser.”

After a couple weeks digesting the FTC rules many feel they are meant as self-policing regulation to show that the government will take violations that mislead customers seriously, but most of the change will be an industry understanding of how to behave with consumer interests in mind. Doing proper disclosure is a good thing as is properly making well-informed statements about products being reviewed.

In a recent addition of the marketing Podcast The Bean Cast, host Bob Knorpp shares his email exchange with advertising lawyer Michael McSunas about when such a fine would occur. Many feel, as reported in last week’s Agency Spy blog, that the FTC sets up these rules as a guideline and never enforces the compliance with a fine. McSunas feels a fine would only be sought if the violation was for "deceptive practices or maybe a complaint." This is probably correct but of course it’s an educated assumption until we see the FTC take action or no action.

Disclosure is Easy, Inaccurate Statements More Complex

Regardless of when or if a fine will ever be levied, the FTC rules have caused a bit of a panic for bloggers who don’t want to face government fines after possibly inaccurately reviewing the latest hybrid car or family minivan.

It’s also caused concern for marketers who don’t want to be a case study for the FTC and want to make sure no inaccurate statements are made about their products, so it creates an issue for them to now review everything written about them that they send for review to a blogger. This issue is fare more concerning than the disclosure rule a blogger is supposed to make for receiving any item to review.

Marketers more likely the target

One issue automakers may worry about is statements casually written by bloggers that could be construed as competitive claims. To quote the FTC Rules directly:
"The Commission believes it is reasonable to hold the advertiser responsible for communicating approved claims to the service (which, in turn, would be responsible for communicating those claims to the blogger).”
For those who may not know, automakers must legally confirm competitive statements like best mid-size sedan fuel economy or roomiest third-row. Of course, some claims are utter nonsense since companies choose who is in their segment, though it does have to be within reason. Also claims can select what they want to compare against, like using highway mileage instead of combined mileage or vice-versa to show a competitive advantage.

With bloggers, the concern is a possible lack of depth within a particular industry of products where a blogger may claim something like “wow this car has the most roomiest interior of any SUV.” False claims like this now have federal oversight from the FTC that may cause reluctance from a corporate lawyer reviewing a blogger outreach campaign.

So, the big question is will fear of inaccurate statements by bloggers reduce company participation in social media? Don't know. Maybe in the near-term, but I doubt long-term since companies and bloggers will learn how to comply with the FTC rules and some initial hysteria may dissipate over time.

It’s about consumer protection... really

If this is about consumer protection and less about collecting fines, the FTC rules should be welcomed as it shows blogger importance has reached a level worthy of attention. There have been marketers like Sony who have created fake bloggers to write about the PSP. Other issues have been companies outright paying for positive reviews. Something had to be done to handle the few violations of public trust.

My experience in automotive is that it is quite clear when a blogger is given a car to review and from where that car came from. So disclosure is already being done. Claims are the more pressing concern and may lead to additional materials being presented to bloggers at the time a vehicle is offered for review.

In conclusion

Hopefully, the FTC rules will remove any suspect social media campaigns that create fake bloggers or do payola deals. Also, I believe we’ll see the rules in action by their inaction and how this may do very little to change what is going on today on most blogs. Sure we’ll see some more emphatic statements about how a blogger received a product, but beyond that the impact should be minimal and the working relationship with bloggers and auto manufacturers and dealers a continuing positive experience for all.

For more information about the FTC Rules:

Truth in Advertising, Offline or Online from @NYTimes

Episode 75: The Monopoly on Crappy Work from @TheBeanCast

IAB Says FTC Blogger Rules Trample Constitution from @AdWeek

FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials from

Finally, this blog post was sponsored by Gas Station Coffee for when you are too lazy to brew your own or walk 1 minute to the nearest Starbucks.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Subaru Outback Campaign Spoofs Late Night Infomercials

Subaru America is trying something new for its latest Outback campaign. The team from Carmichael Lynch, Subaru’s agency of record, has developed a playful way to have fun with the Subaru consumer’s rugged lifestyle, that apparently involves too much time in the mud.

The Outback Detergent website features a cartoon skunk called “Stinky” and includes a dealer giveaway of a free detergent bottle for test-driving the 2010 Outback. The “Stinky” cartoon character is reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew, minus the French accent and instead of chasing female skunks Stinky is all about helping Subaru drivers remove the stains from their cars and clothing after a hard day of off-roading.

Of course this begs the question, do Outback drivers really go off-road? For some reason I doubt it, but it really doesn’t matter. Owning an all-wheel drive vehicle is all about the “image” of taking it through mud pits, dirt trails, and climbing rock formations. I doubt anyone at Subaru really thinks its customers are buying an Outback to test the rugged wilderness. What’s funny about the Outback Detergent site is that it mocks the whole ridiculousness of it all.

The site includes a TV Infomercial spoof of ads like OxiClean, which makes you wonder if the plan for this launch maybe had some reconsideration after the OxiClean spokesman Billy Mays unexpectedly died last June. Regardless of May’s early death, the Outback Detergent video features all the elements of late night infomercials: overly excited spokesperson, absurd demonstrations, exaggerated situations, paid studio audience, and loud signage.

An Outback Detergent YouTube channel was created to house the videos. I’m personally not a big fan of campaign channels, unless there is a contest where users can upload videos to the channel or the campaign has enough content and an editorial calendar of additional content being released over a long enough time frame. Perhaps, the Subaru team will also release additional videos, but if this all of the content a channel is pointless.

Channels are more about relationships and continuing the conversation through future, additional videos. Campaigns are usually too brief to bother with creating a channel, besides people take the time to subscribe to your channel and then you add nothing to it, which frustrates those who took the time. It’s often just better to upload the videos to a Brand (ie Subaru) or Product (Outback) channel, not something solely created for a campaign.

The website features the Infomercial and a couple additional videos showing how people use their Outbacks and use them in dirt-covered ways. “Stinky” even has a page offering to help with stain removing tips. Unfortunately, he’s not as helpful as Tide’s website but this is parody.

The one concern with the website I have is while the whole cleaning dirt spoof is fun it does detract from what the new vehicle is about. After using the site, there isn’t much communicated about what is new in the 2010 Outback model and very few images showing the car. Vehicle strengths seem secondary and even non-existent in the Outback Detergent site. Leaving me to wonder if someone will really take the time to move to the standard Subaru shopping experience after being directed to the Detergent sell.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Testimonial Advertising: Let Your Customer Sing Your Praises

Customer testimonials are all the rage right now. From Ford to Porsche, it seems every segment is featuring real customers sharing their experiences with their cars. There is a long history of this approach in automotive advertising, in fact all advertising. Why? Because it is seen as authentic and a way for people to see real people express their happiness with a purchase they made, so that if potential customers see this enthusiasm, they too will want to share in a similar exuberance and make the same purchase.

I see nothing really wrong with this approach. It is a bit more interesting than watching a grey-haired executive meander through an office building saying why he believes in the company that is paying him.

Customer testimonials ads are kind of like the traditional media example of user generated content. Sure it’s not exactly the same, but the concept is similar. You are letting real people share their real story about your brand. There is no corporate speak and the opinions are honest.

The biggest argument against this approach is that the brand has obviously cherry-picked their customer testimonials, unlike true user generated content online where you can find the good, the bad and the so-so. Naturally, campaigns using real customer experiences always focus on the good ones and consumers know this.

It’s all about the selection. I’m sure I can find a good number of people who are happy about buying the car with the worst quality rating in the industry that will speak to their flawless vehicle or the most hideous styled car owners who are willing to say it looks great. That’s the best part of controlling the conversation; you can edit your choices. It’s essentially the TV ad equivalent of moderating online conversation.

Everyone is doing it right now, even the company with the grey-haired executive. GM launched the Faces of GM this summer that features real owners and employees who give a “face” to GM. One extended video that was advertised on Facebook, has a new owner who sold her previous BMW 5-series and bought a Cadillac CTS.

Ford (our primary client at Team Detroit, the company I work for) recently launched a brand campaign for Drive One that features ads with real owners sharing their favorite features of Ford cars. An article from Business Week explains the concept best, “the people in the ads are real. They were drafted to be in focus groups. They were not asked until after all the video was shot if they would be willing to have the footage used in ads.”

Another example is one from Porsche that seeks Porsche Stories from real owners. This effort for the Porsche Panamera launch site, asks visitors to share their Porsche Story. But this effort isn’t so much about new product experiences; rather, it is about the passion Porsche enthusiasts and owners have for the brand. Porsche is doing this to show the Panamera is just another “branch on the family tree.” Essentially it showcases the community Porsche owners become a part of, even the ones who may show up to a Porsche event in a ridiculed 4-door monstrosity.

So if you own a car don’t be surprised if someone from the marketing department wants you to share your story online or maybe even invites you to star in a commercial. Testimonial advertising is making a strong comeback and is becoming a way for traditional media to play in the social media sharing that is going on today. Sure it’s not true social media sharing, but it is using the premise of consumers talking about your brand in an open and honest way, even if it is edited.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Porsche Woos Me with Some Literature

A 46-page, eight-color bounded book for the Porsche Panamera showed up in my mailbox at work yesterday. I get a lot of mail from other automakers as I sign up for all communications on every website I visit. This gives me an excellent opportunity to see how brands market their vehicles on email and snail mail. I have received posters, CDs, and DVDs, but mostly a lot of postcards and brochures. Few mailers really are worth mentioning which is why this is the first mail piece I have covered on this blog.

Porsche is really pushing the Panamera to its hand-raisers. Porsche has plans to make 20,000 units globally with 6,000 units to be sold in the U.S. To date, Automotive News has no data showing any sales of the Panamera in the September 2009 US Nameplate Car Sales report. That leaves a lot of product to sell in a very tough economy at time when luxury buyers are moving down market with their luxury car purchases.

Porsche has decided to up their spend on probably a very limited list of people “interested” in the Panamera. The car just hasn’t received much positive press, mainly due to the awkward styling of the rear and a contempt by many Porsche enthusiasts who dislike anything that’s not a 911; though, driving dynamics seem strong as the leading lovable automotive geeks on Top Gear praised the car’s performance and handling; however, in typical Jeremy Clarkson fashion he said it looks like a “mangled ape.”

Back to the mailer.

The engine page uses spot-varnishing and there is even some relief in a printed page made to look like the image is taped to the book. It’s all a very elaborate and impressive execution, especially when you consider all I did was complete an online form to stay updated about the car. I never visited a dealership and from what I can tell no one at Porsche verified my income or credit worthiness; though, this would have prevented me from receiving this lovely bound book.

I have to say looking through the book that I did develop a very positive opinion of the car. Every aspect of the vehicle is covered with photography that is quite impressive. Vehicle angles are good and the luxury and sporty attributes are effectively communicated through diagrams, charts and cutaways that intrigue the senses.

Plus there is a positive brand image that is communicated when you receive such an impressive piece of mail – you matter. Yes, you that person who isn’t even a customer yet. You matter to Porsche. It’s like the early days of dating someone who just did all the right little things to make it amazing. The right words. The right expressions. The right touch. You wonder what will come next, how will the relationship evolve.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my Panamera book and keep on the lookout for the next item to entice me to buy a Panamera. This better not be the last communication, because I’ll need a lot… a lot… of enticing, but I am impressed and waiting by my phone and checking my mailbox.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Chrysler Joins the Up-market Movement

Here we go again… Chrysler wants to become a luxury brand. Fiat is seeing the Chrysler brand “competing in the luxury space,” according to a recent article in US News & World Report.

This isn’t the first time, nor the last time, that a non-luxury brand will try to move into the luxury segment. Volkswagen was the most recent example of a brand that wanted to move up-market by bringing products like the VW Phaeton to dealerships that also served the needs of Beatle and Golf owners. VW’s former CEO Ferdinand Piech wanted to bring VW into the luxury segment with the Phaeton. The Phaeton, a $70-$100k boat of a sedan, left the States after two years of dismal sales; though, there are some rumors VW is going to try it again.

One of the big lessons VW gave the industry is that luxury isn’t about wood grain trim and chrome rings around every dial. No, luxury is about cache and service two things VW lacked. Sure a Jetta has some cache for a recent college graduate, but when you are 40 years old and still driving a Jetta it doesn’t exactly scream you are a successful business tycoon.

Please don’t get me wrong the Jetta is an excellent car and what you drive has little do with your success, for example Jeff Bezos CEO of Amazon drives an old Honda Accord. My point is more about the perceived lift a luxury brand gives its consumer and while pulling up in VW is nothing to be ashamed of it doesn’t carry the same social obnoxiousness of pulling up in a Mercedes, an obnoxiousness people will pay a premium for.

The problem brands like VW and Chrysler have with trying to become a luxury brand is that they see their products as having similar attributes of luxury cars: wood grain, premium leather, and advanced technologies all the things that a BMW or Mercedes is doing with their products. And while the gap of what makes a luxury car luxury is certainly diminished today, the whole perception issue has more to do with luxury than a car’s materials or wiring.

Part of the confusion is how far mass market cars have come in only a few short years. Take for instance the photo at right showing the 2002 Lexus GS and 2010 Ford Taurus interiors. Which one is the luxury car and which isn’t? The Taurus looks far more upscale than the Lexus from only a few years ago, but no one would consider Ford a luxury brand.

Whether a brand deserves to be luxury or not is irrelevant. Exclusivity is a big part of being a luxury brand and a lot of that has to do with higher pricing which by definition excludes others from purchase. But you just can’t slap a $5,000 increase on the sticker and say you’re luxury. If it only it were that simple.

“Perceived value—through quality of design, materials, and manufacture—is another key component of the luxury goods equation,” writes Harvard Business School’s Julia Hanna whose article “Luxury Isn’t What It Used to Be” describes luxury’s changing landscape. The key word here is “perceived” and changing people’s minds to perceive your brand as luxury can waste a considerable amount of marketing dollars, product ideas and time. Chrysler might have an easier time convincing Boston Red Sox fans to root for the Yankees, than trying to take their brand "a notch above Lincoln, a notch above Cadillac.”

It will be interesting to see how Chrysler goes about pulling this off. Another mass-market brand, Hyundai, will be trying the same thing at the same time as they introduce a $60k plus car, the Equus in 2010.

Hyundai, which is becoming a formidable competitor to Toyota (read the Auto Extremist for more on that), has definitely improved its product line with the recent Genesis sedan and coupe, but the Equus will be the ultimate test at redefining the Hyundai brand.

One issue Hyundai and Chrysler will both have to consider is the importance service has on luxury automotive branding. VW had a big issue meeting the needs of Phaeton consumers who had to share service bays with lower end consumers and a VW service staff that wasn’t used to meeting the expectations of luxury owners.

As a personal anecdote, I used to own a Chrysler and can attest it will take a large investment to bring my local Chrysler dealership up to the same standards as the Lexus and BMW dealerships I now frequent. Service waiting area, dealership showroom and most importantly the service employees’ customer attention all need addressing. All of this is part of becoming a luxury brand and before any brand perception can change, customer service needs to be a cornerstone of the transition, more than body panel fit and finish.

Chrysler may be sourcing some products from the European Lancia brand as part of their relationship with Fiat. Lancia is a virtually unknown brand in the States and not a luxury brand in Europe, but the Lancias are seen as a more premium line in the Fiat family. Perhaps Chrysler can convince U.S. consumers that these new European products are luxury models that deserve luxury cache and hopefully luxury price tags.

We shall learn more come November 4 when Chrysler will announce its Five-Year Business Plan. Until then, Chrysler will continue to be a mass-market brand ready to leap into the challenges of brand reconstruction. Good luck.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yes, a Car Dealer Can be a "Trust Agent"

The book Trust Agents by Chris Brogan (@chrisbrogan) and Julien Smith (@julien) is getting rave reviews in social media circles. It’s a book about using the web to build influence and improve one’s reputation online. What’s amazing is it is not your typical social media book that talks about what Twitter is or what is happening with kids on MySpace; rather, it is about practical advice around reputation management and how having online respect can lead to a better performing business or career.

That said, I finished the book feeling a bit icky. Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent book filled with a lot of insight and solid advice. I felt icky in the same way I would feel icky reading a book like How to Win Friends and Influence People which feels like a way to manipulate people and in a sense that’s part of what Trust Agents is about. It doesn’t emphatically say here is how you manipulate people or you should manipulate people, in fact its authors are very clear that the book isn’t for that purpose.

So I got to thinking about the most manipulative caricature in the automotive industry – the car dealer – and how he or she might find “Trust Agents” a valuable read. But I don’t think most will use Trust Agents in evil-ways nor do I think car salespeople are bad people; rather, I think car salespeople can learn a lot from Trust Agents. In fact, a lot of the lessons could change public perception of the conniving car salesman.

It’s no surprise people hate car shopping and mostly dislike the dealership experience. Social media provides an opportunity to change that perception, but it is not a short-term fix and those dealers who enter social media relationship building might get frustrated because getting a quick sale isn’t what social media is about. You just don’t one day start a Facebook page or a Twitter account and get a bunch of traffic in the showroom the following week.

What’s most valuable about Trust Agents is how it outlines what to expect, the time it takes to build respect, and how building a following can turn into amazing things down the road. Understanding the process is one of the solid insights of the book.

First dealers must understand the concept of “One of Us.” “One thing that distinguishes certain people as trust agents is the simple defining question of whether a specific community sees them as ‘one of us,’” states the authors. This is a very fundamental concept in social relationship building. The great thing is that I have experienced dealers who get this very well.

For example, I have become “friends” with the person running the Jupiter Chevrolet Twitter account (@JUPCHEVY. I assume it’s the same person, a male; though, I could be wrong.)

What makes @JUPCHEVY interesting is that he is someone who is obviously passionate about cars and regularly engages with his followers. The Tweets aren’t the typical dealer communications about what latest vehicle arrived or that they are open Saturday; rather, the communications show a passion for the GM products but also shows some personality. Look at @JUPCHEVY’s Tweets and see what I mean.

This is relationship building and Jupiter Chevrolet has become “one of us” in many discussions on cars with other auto enthusiasts. He has shared photos of his classic Camaro, participated in various #carchat sessions with other auto enthusiasts, and engages in a very human, non sales, kind of way.

So what about sales? Now, I don’t live anywhere near Garland, Texas, where this dealership is, but it doesn’t matter. I have a good friend in Dallas and if he ever needs a car, I’d recommend Jupiter Chevrolet in a second. Sure it’s a stretch to say the relationship building will lead to a sale from me, but just think of that. A stranger up in Michigan will recommend your dealership in Texas to people in his social network and with all of us talking on Facebook and other social properties it’s not that much a stretch that some relationships may lead to sales.

It’s important to note that @JUPCHEVY hasn’t become “one of us” because he is a car salesman. Nope it’s because of what is mentioned in Trust Agents, “the most important thing is to execute against who you are; be authentic, start pumping out free content, and become part of the conversation.” I know this dealer loves cars and is passionate about his industry. It’s that passion and integrity that has created this trust.

Trust Agents states the obvious, “we tend to buy from people who are like us.” What’s cool about social media is how it can humanize even the most despicable of professions. But it takes time, commitment and a genuine interest in being a sharing person and not just talking about what you have to sell and when your doors are open. The best dealers are those who get that sales is all about the relationship and some very strong relationships can be built online. Trust Agents shows how this can happen and what it means in this new world.

What I’d like to believe is that a lot of car salespeople have a passion for their products and their industry and that they too can be similar trust agents like @JUPCHEVY. Sure it’s not for everyone and there does need to be genuineness in one’s communication. It’s possible one could fake it, but trust takes time and hopefully those who are trying to manipulate will get burned out by the time it takes to build a following.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

New York Times Gives Nissan LEAF Viral Push

Is the New York Times already bestowing viral marketing success to a campaign that hasn’t even launched?

I was left with this question after reading a short article about the Nissan LEAF’s “Viral Excitement”. According to the article Nissan has launched a successful marketing campaign by “enticing bloggers” with a video of the LEAF’s electric power train that is filmed in a style reminiscent of another viral video “The Story of Stuff.” Unfortunately, following a format that worked one time doesn’t mean viral success a second time. Isn’t odd to anyone that the New York Times thinks that having a video on YouTube will “entice bloggers”? How funny is that? Fortunately, the team doing this also setup Facebook and Twitter accounts, so that should help… uh-huh.

Seems the team at Nissan, along with their word-of-mouth marketing agency Z√≥calo Group, is about to embark on a promotion of the new electric car using social media engagement while driving across the United States, which apparently is the latest trend in brand experience marketing: BF Goodrich’s Nation of Go, Summer of Taurus and Scion x-Perience.

What’s most interesting is what’s missing – the actual car. Nissan will not be driving the LEAF so you won't see things like the cool interior (see image at right.) Really? Yep, they will be driving a Nissan Versa with the LEAF’s electric power engine inside. So probably beyond the usual sticker cladding that is sure to let everyone know this isn’t any normal Nissan Versa, it is missing the essential ingredient -- the actual car it is trying to promote. Looking at a Versa with a sparse engine bay isn’t as exciting as looking at an actual LEAF, which looks to be a an interesting design (see images here on Flickr.)

To be fair, we don’t know what Nissan will do at these marketing events and maybe they will spark a viral response. Hopefully the car will be a bit more than a Versa with a vehicle wrap and it remains to be seen how the marketing team will extend the US drive to a digital space. Of course the LEAF marketing team knows setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts and posting a video isn’t enough, but the New York Times thinks it is enough to build excitement.

Fortunately, the campaign has an excellent pre-reveal experience website at that highlights the vehicle’s vision, technology and battery design. There is a very interesting and well-done feedback mechanism right on the site that lets visitors ask a “Nissan expert about LEAF”. Site visitor questions are moderated and responded to openly on the home page. You can also look at questions by topics like charging, environment and features. It is a very cool implementation for a site where the product is a year away from launch.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Saab Seeks New Perspective but Misses Defining It


One of the things I love about following the automotive marketing industry is all of the odd things that end up on automotive websites. The latest unusual creative execution comes from Saab who launched the “Change Your Perspective” brand site that incorporates a lonely moose on the side of road where you can alternate the seasons. The best part is that the moose just stands there and wiggles its ears. I wish I had thought of incorporating a wiggling ear moose into one of my projects; though it’s still nowhere near as weird as Kia’s Turtlecock creative execution.

I found this site through the design site The FWA: Favourite Website Awards. The site features all kinds of interesting, creative sites that may or may not be the best way to communicate a product or company; rather, sites are recognized for being the best in “cutting edge web site design.”

The Saab site is an interesting one in that it isn’t selling a car; it is selling a brand. Brand marketing is all about communicating the feeling a brand is supposed to encapsulate when people think about the brand,. Think of it as defining a brand. Often this is done in a few memorable words. Think “The Pursuit of Perfection” for Lexus, “The Ulitmate Driving Machine” for BMW, or even “Zoom Zoom” for Mazda.

So how is Saab defining its emotional connection to customers with this brand site?

Change Perspective is the key message here. It’s sort of a variation on Apple’s “Think Different” and designed to get people to think of Saab as unique. Since Saab is undergoing a separation from General Motors and is returning to its Swedish roots, with the brand’s acquisition by Koenigsegg, perhaps the concept is to get people to think of Saab again as the quirky Swedish automobile maker the brand was before GM came in and started sharing platforms and taking away some of the oddness of Saab’s products. This is just a guess on my part, but it seems likely that Saab wants to be seen again as an unusual alternative in a crowded automotive marketplace and their history has some brand equity to do such a thing.

So how is the site communicating the uniqueness of Saab? I already mentioned the incorporation of a wiggling ear moose, isn’t that enough? Seriously, the site focuses on a few messages: Driving, Safety, Fuel, Heritage and Power and then talks to each message as Past, Present and Future.

Let’s look at the Driving section. There is some mention of the racing heritage and Saab’s declaration that they improve the how of getting to point A to B in the Past messaging. Present mentions the addition of the all-wheel drive system that was recently added to the 9-3 (9-3x was released in March 2008) and 9-5 models, while the Future talks about a new 3D-graphics display that brings all of the information to driver in a better method.

Feedback is presented under each Future page’s descriptive text asking, “What do you think?” Clicking on the link brings the visitor to various quizzes asking what you want Saab to focus on or what kind of technology you find most useful in a car. Results are returned with quantity of those who voted and how they voted.

None of the information communicates any sort of “changed perspective” and falls flat on effectively communicating the uniqueness and special ness Saab--the brand--brings to its products. In fact, the fun of owning a Saab has more to do with the ignition switch in the center console, the turbo engine, and the rarity of them producing a 5-door hatchback in the luxury segment. Unfortunately, the only unique thing that remains now is the ignition switch in the center console. A lot of companies now produce turbo engines and GM Saab recently ditched the hatchback design.

Unfortunately, none of the content areas of the site show anything you wouldn’t expect General Motors, Volkswagen, or Toyota to be talking about. There is no Think Different or originality probably because the products are still from the General Motors days and the impact of Koenigsegg is years away.

Still Beautiful

Meanwhile the site is quite beautiful with some amazing graphics and gorgeous animations. The text though is a bit difficult to read in its grey color and small type. Navigation is simple, yet some elements seem out of place.

For example the site isn’t about low-funnel shopping (see purchase funnel image at right), yet somehow expects its visitors to jump from upper-funnel brand communications to “Book a Test Drive”, the highest priority link in the global navigation.

You can also “Tell a Friend” about the site but there is nothing that establishes a relationship with you and the brand. The absence of a Stay Connected/Get Updates or something similar is missing. Seems a brand would want to reconnect with people who experience this site, even if they are not in-market for a car. Plus why not build your CRM database to communicate the new Saab when the Koenigsegg impact is felt in the products?


I do like the look of the site a lot. I think it is warm and quite beautiful. Unfortunately, the warmth isn’t enough to get people to change their perspective about Saab. In fact, it’s unclear what feeling is being changed and what it is supposed to change to. So while the graphics are nicely done, the messaging and upper-funnel awareness behaviors are lacking and leave this to be another FWA site that is a showcase for the creatives, but not much else.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rejected Dealers Find Voice in Social Media

Several dealers (or is it ex-dealers?) are sharing how the recent dealership closing arrangement under GM and Chrysler’s government expedited bankruptcy proceedings are a violation of “constitutional rights”, “property rights” and “franchise laws.” Since no one is listening to the dealers, who were negatively impacted, they have offered their stories on YouTube for all to see. Since few of us watch CSPAN, this outreach may reach the intended public audience that should hear what has happened.

News stories from local media outlets and personal statements make up the Rejected Dealers YouTube Channel. It’s an interesting social outreach from a group who feels slighted that the country pretty much ignored their side of the story. YouTube is giving them a voice and organizing this content under a channel helps make the impact that much more stronger, especially if you spend some time listening to a few of the videos.

Some dealers discuss how the government’s Automotive Task Force was given wrong information about how much of a cost the dealerships are to the manufacturers. They feel this information missed the financial benefits the dealerships give the OEMs, the local communities, and the tax base.

The dealers are obviously intelligent, articulate business people who are very passionate about the business they or their families built. Each video creates a very personal connection with the dealer and how sorrowful the result of the Automotive Task Force decision is.

I know this isn’t the usual marketing coverage I write about on this blog, but it’s a compelling look at how social media can enable grassroots messages in the automotive industry. What’s on this channel is social outreach and giving people a voice beyond their normal channel. The end result is a compelling string of stories telling what has happened to hard-working people who were shafted by a rushed bankruptcy process.