Events offer new level of brand immersion

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As grass-roots events have become a staple of automotive marketing, car brand strategists are working to differentiate their events using entertainment and authenticity.

Owning -- rather than just sponsoring -- events is becoming increasingly important to automotive marketers wanting more latitude with event content and more control over the consumer's experience.

LICENSING AND CELEBS ON BOARD

Still spending heavily on sponsorships of sports and music events, a growing number of automotive marketers are forking out additional funds to add licensed characters and celebrities to events, which have been deemed crucial to building relationships with consumers.

BMW Holding Corp. pulled out of sponsoring golf and tennis over the last three years to concentrate its efforts on test-driving events and Hollywood-style entertainment-oriented events.

The carmaker's tie-ins with James Bond films include sweepstakes and opportunities for BMW owners to attend the premieres of Bond films here and overseas.

"Entertainment tie-ins have given us access to consumers on a new level and the James Bond relationships has had a huge multiplier effect in influencing our image with consumers," says Jim McDowell, VP-marketing for BMW.

Authenticity also is proving to be a formidable tool in getting consumers' attention in the crowded brand landscape.

"Research has showed us that consumers won't be fooled, and if you just slap your name on random events, you risk being perceived as a wanna-be, not the real thing," says Curt Bartsch, corporate manager of national sales promotions for Nissan North America.

TV SPECIALS

When launching its Xterra SUV last year, Nissan decided the best way to demonstrate the powers of its vehicle to a demanding audience was to assume title sponsorship of a series of off-road, extreme human-powered competitions that became the Xterra America Tour.

The fit is good, because the car is designed for rugged outdoor sports enthusiasts.

Now in its second year, the event will be the focus of two documentary-style specials airing later this year on ESPN and ESPN2, with the Xterra vehicle starring on-screen and off-screen during the 10-city tour.

"People who buy the Xterra are looking for authenticity, and sponsoring these events helps us underscore our positioning, to say to consumers that we really are who we say we are," says Mr. Bartsch.

Nimbler marketers are no longer running circles around General Motors Corp. when it comes to event marketing. The No. 1 car company has revolutionized its event marketing efforts in the last two years.

`GREATEST OPPORTUNITY'

"Events allow us to immerse consumers in the brand, and owning the event gives GM the greatest opportunity to leverage our investment toward brand immersion," says Bob Heussner, an agency veteran who recently was named president of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Kaleidoscope's GM Eventworks, Detroit.

Mr. Heussner oversees GM's relationships with Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros., the Olympics and several sports associations for event marketing tie-ins.

GM has poured millions into event marketing efforts targeting adults, families and college students in the last year, all handled by Campbell-Ewald Co., Warren, Mich.

Included are Nascar events at race tracks and dealerships where consumers come into contact with the Monte Carlo coupe's licensed Warner Bros. theme character, the Tasmanian Devil, and also with Chevrolet-sponsored top race car drivers Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

BUGS AND BATMAN

Bugs Bunny, appearing in ads for Chevrolet's Venture minivan, and Batman, the icon promoting General Motors' OnStar driver information system, will find their way into dealership events next year.

At dealerships and on college campuses, Chevrolet is using the celebrity power of soccer stars to draw people to its Soccer Festival events. The programs include soccer instruction, practice and competition, plus games and sweepstakes promoting the Chevrolet Cavalier, S-10 pickup and Chevy Tracker.

"Entertainment works in event marketing, because it involves characters and celebrities that people can relate to -- it adds instant power to events," says Jim Webb, general sales manager of Center Chevrolet, San Bernardino, Calif., which has hosted two successful versions of Chevy's traveling soccer events, featuring posters and appearances by local soccer stars.

Enhanced event marketing only works when the audience for the car brand and the event match, says Terry Dolan, assistant brand manager for Chevrolet's Monte Carlo.

"Racing fans want to be part of the real thing, so we let them sit inside an actual Dale Earnhardt Monte Carlo racing car; we give them contact with the car and our icon, the Tasmanian Devil, at dealerships and at racetracks," Mr. Dolan says.

TEST-TRACK RIDE

At Walt Disney World, the GM Test Track roller-coaster ride, which opened last year, is another cornerstone of GM's entertainment game plan.

The theme-park attraction is the scene of various marketing initiatives and consumer focus groups. Thousands of visitors per week get a chance to explore GM's newest car models inside the confines of the ride, which helps raise the brand's "temperature," says Mr. Heussner.

"Events allow us to touch consumers in ways advertising cannot, and when we connect with consumers in the right atmosphere . . . the effect is more powerful than any other kind of marketing," Mr. Heussner says.

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