In the dark ages of automobile marketing -- before the mid-1990s -- buyers researching cars actually had to go to a dealership, get the "If-you-buy-today-it's-cheaper" treatment and walk a lot for inspiration. That process was called "kicking the tires." And rare was the salesman who offered prospects a cappuccino. More likely they got a business card stapled to a brochure.
For more than a decade, however, kicking the tires is increasingly a matter of virtual shopping and personalizing your car online. In 2012, a visit to the dealer often marks the end of the sales chain.
Besides acting as a marketing tool, the "car configurator" has become an important element in a brand's digital campaign and social-media assets. For example, your best friend 1,000 miles away can check out the Mojave Metallic 3 series you just "built" on BMW's site by clicking a Facebook button on the summary page.
BMW's site (nearly all automakers have something similar) gets an average of more than 3 million hits monthly, said Alex Schmuck, the company's internet communications manager. Twenty-five percent of those visitors click through the configuration process (there are 56 models to build in the brand's U.S. market).
"At the end of the process, you have the ability to forward your configuration to a BMW dealer directly to get a quote," Mr. Schmuck said. That's key to a sale, he said, adding that 25% of people "who contact the dealer end up buying a car."
At Team Detroit, the agency that works with Ford, the configurator "is about fusing different components and leveraging data," said Chief Digital Officer Monik Sanghvi. "Car-buying is very personal. It starts out as rational but becomes more emotional. We use our abilities to build sight, sound and motion around the experience. We're just beginning to scratch the surface."
In North America, BMW uses Dotglu, the digital division of its creative agency, KBS&P, to design and develop the configurator's front end. "That is the look and feel of the interface that the customer sees," said Stacy Morris, BMW's marketing communications manager.
The company sold nearly 248,000 cars and SUVs in the U.S. last year, giving it a 1.9% market share, according to Automotive News.
Scion, a division of Toyota aimed at younger buyers, takes another tack. While BMW details its options with a fairly Teutonic approach, Scion is party central. Its configurator for the iQ City Car is packed with animated clips and interactive drag-and-drop functions as well as the requisite specs.
Scion is also working with the Malbon agency in New York to create an "interactive brochure" that focuses on art, fashion and other elements important to Scion's target audience.
Near the top of the price pyramid -- the opposite of Scion -- is Bentley, the British premier label owned by the Volkswagen group.
"We've steered away from advertising generally," said James Barclay, head of marketing in the U.S. Bentley's website "becomes the avenue," he added. "The higher up in the market, the consideration phase becomes a little more thought-through. It's where we can capture the interest to purchase."
In fact, all the configurators aim for the same result: Drive the dreamer to the dealer. Dealers generally have come to terms with online shoppers, and many are enthusiastic.
But not everyone agrees that configurators are bulletproof marketing machines.
"It's not like if you didn't have one, you'd stop selling cars," said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds.com. "It can only get you so far. For a lot of people, it's a quick thing they do, to catch the cost of major options.
"At the end of the day, a visit to a dealership is still the best way to check out options: a physical configurator," Mr. Anwyl said.