Audi of America, Mercedes-Benz of North America and General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division either are doing or have done such programs. But they could work for entry-level, mass-market vehicles, too, said auto expert Christopher Cedergren, managing director of auto consulting at Nextrend.
"Advertising is still very effective but it becomes a more difficult venue given all the clutter out there," he said. "So there needs to be well-rounded, more creative marketing, including getting the vehicle out there to the public."
AUDI BEGAN AT OLYMPICS
Audi is in the midst of its first promotion of this type-for its new A8 luxury sedan. The program started last July during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta-months before the A8 went on sale last fall. Audi plans to hit nine markets in all; it's completed the program in five.
Working with KBA Advertising, Chicago, Audi lets about 30 highly visible, influential people per key market drive the sedan for two to four weeks. Afterwards, they write evaluations that go directly to Audi.
The goal is "to accelerate acceptance, respect and desire for the brand with trendsetters-and all the people they interact with in the target group," said Ken Moriarty, Audi's marketing director.
"The buzz created about the product is in the target community of trendsetters and moves to trend followers," said Steve Jarvis, the VP at KBA overseeing the program. He said he believes it's more efficient and more direct than traditional media.
There are two other parts to the program: Letting celebrities drive the car for several days or parking the sedan outside upscale restaurants with product specialists on hand to answer questions.
PUCK AND DITKA
Currently driving the A8 in the Los Angeles area are film producers Steve Tisch and Mark Johnson and restaurateur-chef Wolfgang Puck. New Orleans Saints Coach Mike Ditka and former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson drove it in Chicago and Donald Trump in south Florida.
Mr. Moriarty said the importer expects to continue the program with future vehicles and has just added the A4 to the program.
Mercedes' M-Class sport-utility vehicle also is getting lots of early exposure. It will appear in the film "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" coming Memorial Day weekend even though the upscale vehicle doesn't go on sale until fall.
"The movie is a way to get the word out," said Richard Anderman, general manager of marketing communications at Mercedes.
Last year, the M-Class toured 25 cities; venues included professional tennis matches, National Football League games, upscale malls, jazz festivals and the Kentucky Derby. That was the first time a Mercedes vehicle has toured so far in advance of being for sale, Mr. Anderman said.
Those attending the events were asked to answer a survey about the vehicle and give their names and addresses. Among the
6 million people who attended, more than 40,000 answered surveys.
"Our overall idea was to start dialogues with new prospects," he said. "Everything we used to do was direct marketing but now we're creating a dialogue."
MERCEDES DIDN'T WANT TO WAIT
Mercedes didn't want to wait until a few months before the M-Class went on sale because there wouldn't be time for two-way communications. Mercedes combined names gathered at the venues with owners of competing vehicles and some of its vehicles for an M-Class relationship marketing program.
Lowe Direct, New York, has done five different M-Class relationship marketing mailings for Mercedes, the latest going out the first week of April.
Mercedes will measure the program's effectiveness against traditional advertising to determine how to divvy up the ad and promotion budgets. But Mr. Anderman said Mercedes expects to continue relationship marketing for all its brands and may create its own unique venues or events to introduce new vehicles to potential buyers.
INTRODUCING THE CATERA
GM's Cadillac created the Cadillac Golf Series for Women last summer to introduce women to its entry-level Catera sedan, which went on sale last fall. But Cadillac isn't likely to promote its redesigned 1998 Seville early because it's still selling the 1997 model.
Tom Wilkinson, the public relations representative who handles product publicity at Cadillac, said the marketer doesn't believe such programs will work for every car.
"Catera was kind of a unique situation because it had a clear field to go and promote the car early," he said. "It takes a long time to build awareness for a new brand."