Chrysler Group is trying to think beyond the showroom. The Detroit-based automaker is delving heavily into experiential marketing with its "Ride & Drive" program, in which the company brings its vehicles to such nontraditional places as malls, schools and music concerts, offering the consumer a chance to experience the car in a less stressful environment than a dealership or showroom.
Chrysler then funnels those potential customers to its social-media applications for more information, which it hopes leads to a dealership visit for discussion about a purchase.
"We're trying to look at this as a physical-to-virtual experience," said George Neill, head of marketing strategy and operations for Chrysler Group. "You connect with them in person and they take that online. We don't look at Ride & Drive as an isolated experience. We want to link it to our other marketing activities, social included."
Said Casey Hurbis, who oversees advertising as head of Fiat communications: "Back in the day, you just threw the car in the mall with some brochures. The [evolution] is when you look at the digital and social play."
The experience of a test drive isn't exactly innovative. But offering test drives away from the dealership can be. Chrysler has rolled out its Ride & Drive program to all brands across the country, in a variety of places. Some you might expect, like the auto shows. But Fiat Ride & Drive has been at the Detroit Jazz Festival, and Ram trucks have been to the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas. In addition, Dodge has been to school events across the country, with a $20 donation per test drive going directly to a school's booster club. Chrysler has done the same with its "Drive 4 the Kids" program at elementary schools, and Jeep this week is doing a Ride & Drive event in Washington as part of its official sponsorship of the USA Men's Basketball team competing in the London Olympics later this summer.
Jay Lenstrom, chief marketing officer for Chicago-based Marketing Werks, has done experiential marketing for automakers for more than 15 years. Previously, he said, companies had versions of Ride & Drive for their luxury vehicles only. Now, every brand is in play.
"With Detroit coming back in the market in a big way, they had to bring their cars to the people in a big way," Mr. Lenstrom said. "Where would you rather take a test drive? Go to the dealer and have an ugly experience, or do it at your kid's soccer game for five or 10 minutes?"
The program also gives potential buyers something to talk about online.
"The connection between experiential and digital is at an all-time high," Mr. Lenstrom said. "Our research shows that 60 to 70% of people get online and tell their friends about an experience they just had. They tell them if it's a good experience or a bad experience, so that experiential event has to be spot-on."
In many instances, the consumer is able to drive the vehicle at Ride & Drive events. In others, such as the rough-terrain course set up at some "Camp Jeep" events, a product specialist drives and the consumer rides along. A Jeep Ride & Drive event last September at a convention for the wildly popular "Call of Duty" video game had attendees waiting in line for more than an hour to hop in the vehicle.
"This is about going to where people are. Being in unexpected places really wows people and yields great results for us," said Mr. Neill, who made that statement last week, just before Chrysler announced that May sales were up 30% year over year. "We're trying to intercept people who want to learn more about our vehicles and do it in a low-pressure environment," he said.
Chrysler said it uses multiple experiential marketing agencies to activate the Ride & Drive events, including Detroit-based George P. Johnsonand AMCI Global; Event Next Marketing, Birmingham, Mich.; and Iowa City, Iowa-based 100X Marketing Group, which has handled Ride & Drive events at rodeos for Ram truck.
"An analogy would be walking into an Apple store," said Marissa Hunter, head of advertising for Ram trucks. "It's a fun experience. People hang out at the Apple store. It's ambitious to say that , but that 's what we aim to do."