When a Bangor, Maine, car salesman alerted Honda bigwigs of a local man's attempt to drive his 1990 pale-blue Accord a record 1 million miles, the automaker felt it called for more than mailing him a coupon for a $1,000 rebate.
So it chose to throw the owner, Joe LoCicero, a parade replete with a high school marching band, stilt-walkers and floats in the shape of an odometer. Airplanes even flew overhead with congratulatory banners. Suffice it to say it was a major affair in the small town of Saco, Maine -- one that took Honda and its agency, RPA, nine weeks to put together. That's quite a lot of time to devote to a single consumer.
"It's hard to put the emotions into words," Mr. LoCicero, a soft-spoken 54-year-old who has lived in New England all his life and has been a car enthusiast since he was a teen, told Ad Age . "It was overwhelming. I had to watch the video to understand what happened that day, and the first couple of times my wife couldn't watch it without crying."
This isn't the age-old marketing approach of tugging at the heartstrings with puppies or babies, or trying to suggest authenticity by casting employees in an ad campaign. It's not about crowdsourcing either, like when Doritos looks to the crowd to source a Super Bowl spot. No, the latest trend in marketing being practiced by Honda, British Airways and Kia is about bringing case studies to life, celebrating the experiences of one special consumer and making him or her the centerpiece of marketing.
Mr. LoCicero is stunned that his personal accomplishment became a cause for celebration, but he's also of the mind that his story benefits the Honda brand by "striking a more personal connection" when promoting the car's reliable attributes to consumers. It's an experience that is amplified by being shared: On Facebook, Honda fans cheered him to the finish line in the days before the Accord's odometer clicked over to 1 million. Once a video of the parade made its way onto YouTube, it garnered nearly 300,000 views, and he's received congratulatory notes from Korea, and some in Arabic and other foreign languages.
Consumers are relating to these approaches because they are genuine.
"We're living in a world of uncertainty where everyone is questioning whether the information we're getting is real or fake, be it from the financial world, or political leaders," said Heather Dupre, a founding partner at strategic branding firm Egg Strategy in Boulder, Colo. "Consumers are more adept at spotting fake hype . They know that actors and celebrity spokespeople are paid and scripted to promote brands, so focusing on a person who has had a real interaction with a brand is truthful and a smart strategy for a campaign," Ms. Dupre said.
At a time when the airline industry is maligned, British Airways used a similar approach this fall with its biggest ad launch in over a decade, which was created by Publicis Groupe -backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
BA struck a chord by highlighting experiences with individual fliers, with the most talked-about ad relaying the story of Shona Owen, a woman who was born on a 747 flight back in 1991. The print ad -- which BA shared on its Facebook page -- stressed how the airline, in honor of Ms. Owen's special status as one of few babies born in the air, gave Ms. Owen a first-class airline ticket to Australia for her 18th birthday.
Marketers benefit from this more-personal approach because it doesn't have to entail expensive TV buys but instead can largely be fueled by social media or experiential marketing. The big challenge is being fast enough to capitalize on opportunities when they arise.
Days before Kia's ad agency, California-based David & Goliath, was set to film the last part of a recent campaign, it got word of a couple who had set up an impressive light show at their home in time to LMFAO's hit song "Party Rock Anthem," which Kia's hamster mascots dance to in ads. A video of the light show became a sensation on YouTube, and D&G wanted to be a part of the buzz.
In short order, the agency rang the couple and asked if they could move the shooting of their video from a set to the pair's driveway. "The production became more complicated, but the rewards made it more than worth it," said Brian Dunbar, managing partner and director of client services at D&G. "We had to make decisions very, very quickly. And credit to our client, who got on board instantly. Smart advertisers are finding more innovative ways to involve consumers beyond the traditional testimonial."
Mr. Dunbar warns, however, that you aren't going to get a lift inherently just by featuring consumers -- it has to be a mutual benefit. "For [homeowner] Kevin Judd, it was a dream come true to have his favorite band perform in front of his house."
Said Ms. Dupre: "The brands and agencies that are most adept at spotting those opportunities and creating those experiences will be the ones that stand out to this generation of consumers. Know your consumer. Know where they are, what sorts of experiences they are having connected to the brand, and be able to connect at a moment's notice."