General motors Corp. has led the pack of automobile manufacturers on the Web, both through aggressive Web ad spending and innovative marketing programs online.
The auto marketer increased its ad spending on the Internet to $12.7 million in 1998, according to InterMedia Advertising Solutions. That's more than double the $5.7 million it spent on Internet ads in 1997.
GM was the automobile industry's top Web ad spender last year and the largest of all U.S. advertisers, spending a total $2.12 billion in the U.S. in measured media, according to Competitive Media Reporting.
Phil Guarascio, VP-marketing and advertising at GM, North America, says in the past year, the auto giant spent more on Web site development than online advertising.
"Now we're looking into the Web more broadly as more of an advertising medium and way to build our brands through rich message content," Mr. Guarascio says.
WEB PART OF AD BUDGET
Web advertising "has pretty much been a standardized line item on our brands' ad budgets," he added. Thus, he explained, the Internet is becoming more like traditional media. GM's online ad spending will continue to rise as it has in other media, Mr. Guarascio notes.
Much of GM's "transactional" push was national rollout in March of its GM BuyPower online service after a 17-month test in four Western states.
GM is in the midst of a $25 million national network and cable TV campaign, in addition to a banner ad blitz, to drive traffic to the site. D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Los Angeles, handled.
Also in March, GM became the first carmaker to offer a vehicle discount coupon online to prospects who provide personal information. The $500 coupon can be used toward the purchase of a Buick Regal.
In April, GM inked an ad deal with Auto Trader Online, offering visitors to their Web site the ability to search GM's entire U.S. inventory of certified used vehicles. To help dealers enrolled in GM's certified-used program, the Auto Trader deal also lets consumers locate them via a GM certified Web site. Terms of the deal weren't revealed.
Meanwhile, GM's vehicle brands continue to use the Web in innovative ways.
"We're finding we're generating more [total] leads through the Internet than our national and regional advertising" in traditional media, says Bob Kraut, advertising director of GM's Pontiac-GMC unit.
Pontiac added pages to its Web site in January for its Aztek concept vehicle, a sport utility-van combination with carlike handling. The brand gathered 3,000 e-mail requests from prospects seeking more Aztek information in the first three months, says Mr. Kraut.
The brand plans to seek input from these respondents to improve the vehicle's design and features in the event the Aztek is built, he adds.
"We'll use a lot of learning to understand who our customer is and this gives us an opportunity to do launches through the Internet," Mr. Kraut says.
GM was also the first car marketer to unveil a vehicle live on the Web.
Buick brand took the wraps off its all-new Regal sedan in December 1996, followed by live chat sessions with Regal engineers and designers. The more than $1 million event generated 2,000 hits per second, causing so much traffic some visitors couldn't gain access.
Oldsmobile is one of the most interactively aggressive of GM's brands, says Aaron Kutylo, acting interactive manager. Olds' online ad spending rose by 76% in the past year and visitors to its family of sites increased more than 200% from February 1998 to February 1999.
"The Internet is a very cost-effective medium. We can do a lot of great things for less money" than traditional media, Mr. Kutylo says.
TEST DRIVE PROMO IN THE WORKS
The brand will soon kick off an online test-drive promotion for the Aurora, Intrigue and Alero cars. Prospects who share personal information get a test-drive certificate and a $50 debit card afterward. Several earlier Oldsmobile test drives were coupled with sweepstakes, says Christine Saxman, account director at Leo Burnett Co.'s Giant Step, Chicago, which handles the brand's interactive account. As in the previous sweepstakes and test-drive pushes, banner ads will be used for the upcoming promotion.
The brand's site at appeared in late '96. In 1997, Oldsmobile unveiled sites for each of its vehicles, such as the Aurora. This year, Giant Step started redoing the individual sites with a common brand look and feel.
"We wanted to tie them together," says Ms. Saxman.
As far along as GM is with Internet marketing, the giant faces hurdles.
For example, GM is trying to figure out how to best integrate its various consumer databases, now dedicated to categories such as warranties, leasing, financing and service. GM is looking for a company to consolidate those roughly 40 different customer databases to improve its relationship with some 60 million owners. The marketer recently put out a request for information, the first step in the bidding process to upgrade its so-called Enterprise Customer Management program.
Copyright May 1999, Crain Communications Inc.