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Behind Buick's Regal (read costly) Web launch

By Published on .

In one of the biggest cyberevents ever for a consumer product, General Motors Corp. last week unveiled its 1997 Buick Regal via a live Internet broadcast.

The marketer, wanting to give its marque some new oomph among the techy set, invested well over $1 million on the Dec. 3 fete, which featured live video and audio via the new Regal Web site, chats with Regal designers and interactive demonstrations of the car's features.

The Web site racked up 2,000 hits per second during the event, one GM insider said--so much traffic that some visitors, including Advertising Age, couldn't get in.

Two weeks before the event, the marketer took out teaser ads in mainstream consumer publications and Web sites ranging from The Wall Street Journal to People to ESPNet SportsZone.

Buick also signed up 21 cyber cafes around the country to participate and sent out e-mail messages inviting users to log in.

The glitz didn't stop there. Two large cameras, complete with crews, recorded the event in the atrium of Detroit's swanky Rattlesnake Club. Smaller cameras located on top of computers at the participating cyber cafes provided video footage that also appeared on the site.

COFFEE-CUP ART

Buick even commissioned an artist for a trio of large coffee-cup paintings that mimicked Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. Buick General Manager Ed Mertz introduced the Regal by driving it through the Warhol-ish painting and a fake brick wall onto the stage.

The event was coordinated by a cadre of suppliers. EDS, GM's spun-off computer services subsidiary, handled technical coordination, and a swarm of EDS staff attended. At Home Corp. provided cable for the live feed. CKS/New Media wrote the software program on hardware from Silicon Graphics, which sent six people to the event. Cisco Systems provided network capabilities.

The Internet Factory, Birmingham, Mich., worked with Buick agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Troy, Mich., on creative for the site. Buick dealers viewed the event via a live satellite broadcast.

Sum total for the production: well over $1 million, according to one supplier.

SALES SLIPPING

Why go to such lengths to promote a car that won't even hit dealerships until early in the second quarter? It's part of a plan to stir up interest among younger, techno-savvy prospects, said Roger Adams, Regal brand manager.

Through November 1996, Buick sales slipped 10% to 399,627 from a year ago. Regal sales were off 31% through November, falling from 15,236 to 10,503.

BELLS AND WHISTLES

Those who could access the site got live video and audio from the press conference, which ran from 12:15 p.m. to 1 p.m. (ET). Two chat rooms featured Regal designer Wayne Kady and engineer Dave Brown.

The event was filled with bells and whistles, such as a black-and-white sketch of a dog accompanied by an audio file featuring barking sounds. Users could click their mouses on the screen's "up" button to roll up Regal's window, which slowly blocked out the barking.

To experience the launch, visitors were prompted to download a host of the latest plug-ins, including Shockwave, RealAudio, QuickTime and StreamWorks.

When Ad Age attempted to visit the site, the live audio came through crackly but intact, but the video footage and the interactive demonstrations weren't accessible.

The cyber cafes had mixed success with the event. One of them, Big Surf Cyber Cafe in Birmingham, Mich., had just three customers participating, said manager Christa Patane (who, ironically, is the daughter of Chrysler Corp. Motorsports Executive Director Lou Patane).

Contributing: Matt Carmichael

Copyright December 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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