How to Build Better Car Marketing

Viewpoint: Like It or Not, Bad Advertising Is Partly to Blame for This Mess

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Jordan  <a href='' class='directory_entry' title='AdAge Directory'>Zimmerman</a>
Jordan Zimmerman
I'm not surprised by all the ad accounts going into review in the automotive sector. I predict there will be many more in the next 12 months. Most will blame it on the recession, but I think that's just an excuse. The fact is the business of marketing cars is too often mishandled because most agencies lack a fundamental understanding of how the industry operates.

Auto advertising is unlike any other kind of advertising. Think about this: What other industry has manufacturers advertising one price but telling you it will vary, dealers advertising another price while expecting you to pay more and consumers responding to advertised prices but expecting to pay less?

The end result is consumers feel abused no matter what price they pay, and this marketing strategy fosters mistrust in the brand itself. Studies show only 16% of the people who go to a dealership to buy a car actually drive out with one. That means 84% of the consumers who intended to make a purchase walk away -- 84%!

So, if you want to help an auto brand become successful, you better look beyond just creating awareness and even shopping intention.

Consumers shopping for cars have a long list of concerns that are too rarely considered when devising the marketing for those cars. They fear they're making the wrong decision. They fear the vehicle they're considering may not be good enough. They fear their vehicle will end up being worth too little. They fear they're paying too much. They fear their friends will not like their choice. They fear they could do better elsewhere.

Many blame the dealership experience alone for creating this fear, but many manufacturers and their agencies actually propagate these fears by promoting their franchises with ineffective brand messaging that doesn't do anything to instill consumer confidence. Below are four areas of improvement that can help agencies and their car clients achieve more-effective car advertising.

Find the 'EST' factor
Locate the most important attribute of the car brand and make that the centerpiece of the ad campaign. So many marketers treat a car like a diamond that just sits there, reflecting light and looking pretty. A car has to do many things. It has to start. It has to withstand the elements. It has to keep its value. It has to accommodate your entire family. On occasion, it has to go off-road. On top of all that, it has to say something about the driver. Automotive branding must effectively communicate those attributes or your brand is like a high-rise minus its foundation -- it will crumble. Every automotive brand has a "best at" advantage. I call it the "EST Factor." You just have to work hard to find it. Is your brand the fastEST, the toughEST, the sturdiEST, the strongEST, the safeEST, the prettiEST or, in the middle of a fuel crisis, the smartEST ?

Outside of Obama, nobody is buying American revolutions
Find a sound position. Are you strongly aligned with quality like Toyota, or with design like Nissan? Or are you aligned with irrelevance? Let's face it, it's extremely challenging to associate an ownable attribute with any of the domestic brands. For years, the domestics have relied on their emotional connection to heritage and "buying American," but as the population has shifted and new generations have become disenchanted with the establishment, the ability to build a brand on a patriotic platform has become virtually impossible. Perhaps that is why baseball and hot dogs are still selling, but Chevrolet is being etched on tombstones.

Drive the manufacturer to the bank
It's not enough to know how to make a cool new interactive banner. As an agency, you need to understand the goals of the franchise you are representing. It's your responsibility to understand opportunities within the sector, and help your client achieve them. The growing list of car campaigns that have failed are all void of integrating relevant content and meaningful brand perceptions.

For example, it's no wonder recent work for Volkswagen would fail to significantly increase VW's market share. While Crispin's campaigns such as "Pimp My Ride" and "Find Your Fast" were creative and entertaining, they lack the content that would give Volkswagen mass appeal. At the end of the day, the GTI that was positioned as a cool, little niche product still costs $25,000. Before a consumer invests $25,000 in a car, he needs to have his fear eradicated and confidence level boosted. Auto advertising has to advance the brand through aspiration and attributes, or the market share will not advance at all. Manufacturers don't want to fire agencies that understand their brand, and are helping them to grow it.

The brand is as strong as its weakest link
Consistency is key in messaging, but it's something that's rarely there when it comes to automotive advertising. While grocery stores can't tarnish the image of the products they carry, car dealers can in a nanosecond. Rather than being viewed as an independent distributor of the products they carry, dealers are viewed by consumers as an extension of the brand itself. So when the Chevy dealers hold a tent sale, it's the same as the factory holding a tent sale. Too many "events" and your core brand attributes begin to disappear. Every ad, every sales window -- from online to in-store -- and every sales associate represents the brand.

The automotive industry needs our help to fuel success. We all need the automotive business to fuel success of the overall economy. Let's do our part, but if you can't make it in the fast lane, move the hell out of the way.

Jordan Zimmerman is founder and CEO at Omnicom Group's Zimmerman Advertising.
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