These efforts are more expensive than traditional mass media, but provide a higher likelihood of success in raising brand awareness, said auto expert Susan Jacobs, president of consultancy Jacobs & Associates.
Ms. Jacobs described these "location-specific marketing centers" as "more of a brand-building and awareness-building strategy that might not result in sales immediately."
But over time, the efforts will improve the automakers' images, she said.
FROM MALLS TO EPCOT
Among these innovative programs, set in locations ranging from shopping malls to national forests:
General Motors Corp. early this summer debuts its Test Track ride and exhibit, developed with Walt Disney Co., at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando. Disney's in-house agency will handle advertising for Epcot, which will mention the Test Track attraction.
GM's Saturn unit this month opens a visitor center, tied to its plant tours, in a refurbished 12,000-square-foot horse barn down the street from its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant. Toyota Motor Sales USA and BMW of North America already have visitor centers at their plants in Georgetown, Ky., and Spartanburg, S.C., respectively.
Land Rover North America this month will open an off-road driving school at the Equinox hotel and conference center in Manchester, Vt.
Chrysler Corp. since last fall has been attracting Mall of America shoppers into its Great Cars Great Trucks store, which offers video games and driving simulators in Bloomington, Minn.
Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America recently wrapped up a five-month tour of 28 U.S. shopping centers with car displays and interactive kiosks (AA, Jan. 27).
"What they're trying to do is find new ways to interact with people on a positive, low-pressure level where potential customers can become familiar with their brands without the dealership environment, and the focus isn't on selling cars," Ms. Jacobs said.
Most of these locations, however, try to get visitors to volunteer personal data that can be added to the carmakers' databases.
GM's new Test Track will offer a 5-minute simulated ride, traveling up to 65 mph, that mimics the carmaker's vehicle testing. The non-ride portion shows GM manufacturing methods, safety research and new vehicles for each division.
Visitors who then go to a GM dealership for a test drive can get a free video about Epcot, said Jay Qualman, general director of marketing operations at GM's North American Operations.
GM CAR GIVEAWAY
GM is also gathering guest names from car giveaway sweepstakes that have been running every six months since its 14-year-old World of Motion Pavilion at Epcot closed in January 1996. People sign up outside the closed exhibit, which also will be the site of the new pavilion.
N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York and Detroit, is working on a new GM corporate TV spot that will run nationally tied to the Test Track, said Phil Guarascio, VP-general manager of marketing and advertising at North American Operations.
"In addition to its high entertainment value, Test Track will provide our guests with a better understanding of GM's commitment to safety, quality and advanced technology," he said.
Land Rover will expect both its owners and non-owners to pay an as yet undetermined price for its 2-to-8-hour driving program, said Christopher Marchand, merchandising and outfitting manager at the importer. Land Rover owners will get a discount.
"We think it's important to teach people to drive Land Rovers off-road and to get people into our products," he said.
Coyne Communications, Morristown, N.J., is preparing a direct mailing about the program that will go out this month to about 60,000 Land Rover owners. Equinox will also promote the program.
OFF-ROAD TRACK IN FOREST
Full-time instructors hired by Land Rover will give lessons on a new, off-road course or on nearby trails in the Green Mountain National Forest.
Mr. Marchand said Vermont is a prime site for the program because the New York metropolitan market represents Land Rover's largest.
During the nearly 10 years BMW teamed with Skip Barber for an Advanced Driving School, the car marketer charged customers $450 for a one-day session and $850 for two days, said Rich Brooks, corporate communications manager.
BMW dropped the program a few years ago because it re-entered motor sports, he said. Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge division is now tied to the school.
Jay Houghton, marketing manager of consultancy A.T. Kearney Inc.'s automotive practice, called the Land Rover, GM and Saturn programs "metaphorical marketing," because the programs make statements about their brands or brand values.
"If [car] manufacturers did more of these kinds of things," he said, "their brands would have a clearer image."
Mr. Houghton said Saturn's visitor center is a "logical extension of its brand