Marketing Strategy Shift by Detroit Means More Branded Content

Carmakers Eye All Screens as Way to Put Spotlight on Slew of New Launches

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LOS ANGELES -- Automakers are ready to make a star out of every new vehicle they launch.
Among the slew of entertainment projects Detroit has done in recent months, Ford built a campaign in Europe around 'Casino Royale' to launch its new Ford Mondeo there.

The major car manufacturers are in the midst of upping their branded-entertainment budgets in an effort to put a spotlight on new or redesigned models they're readying to introduce into the marketplace.

Executives say every new car that will have a significant branded-entertainment component that is part of the model's overall marketing campaign.

More tie-ins and high-profile placements

That means more tie-ins with entertainment properties; sponsorship of more live events; and more high-profile product placements in movies, TV shows, music, video games and mobile-phone programming, as well as online content on MySpace and YouTube. And if there aren't enough properties to support, the companies aren't hesitating to create their own anymore.

"We really do want to make good on what our mission is: the launch and sustainment of our vehicles," said Myles Romero, director, Ford Global Brand Entertainment. "It's the biggest thing that we do. So much capital and assets are tied up with every vehicle launch. We've dabbled here or there [with branded entertainment], but the challenge is getting it to the point where it's a huge part of an overall launch of a product. That's what we're pushing towards."

They have no choice. The pressure's on. Like other marketers, automakers are still trying to thwart the clutter of traditional advertising, increased usage of DVRs and the flight of audiences to the internet.

A slew of redone vehicle lineups

At the same time, carmakers are launching more models than ever before, with 24% of lineups redone this year and 19% to be replaced in 2007, according to a Merrill Lynch report released Dec. 1. Altogether, automakers will spend an estimated $11.2 billion in measured media next year.

A larger percentage of that will go toward branded entertainment now that Detroit is feeling more comfortable with Hollywood.

"We spent a year as a team to become relevant in Michigan," Mr. Romero said. "There was a lack of understanding on what we do and how we do it. Now they recognize that there's a value in what we're doing and the art of filmmaking and the art of the television production process. That attention is great. That means there are more resources and opportunities for us to be heard."

It's already happening.

Ford's big push, from Bond to 'Idol'

For example, Ford Motor Co. built a campaign in Europe around the James Bond adventure "Casino Royale" to launch its new Ford Mondeo there. Last year, it used shows such as "American Idol" and "Smallville" to promote its Ford Fusion sedan. Next year, Ford will push its Shelby Mustang and redesigned Escape hybrid in Warner Bros.' "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith, with marketing singling out those vehicles. It's in the midst of developing a reality TV show it hopes of finding distribution for next year. And it is planning its largest internet ad buy ever to support the Edge crossover.

Similarly, General Motors will use next summer's "Transformers" to promote its new Camaro (that car and a slew of other GM vehicles play the Paramount Pictures production's lead robot characters).

On TV, Nissan planted a stake on ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and used NBC's hit show "Heroes" to launch its new Versa, with high-profile shout-outs for the car in the show. Toyota has been pushing its new models on Fox's "24." Honda has relied on "Rock Star." And Chevrolet generated a lot of buzz around the launch of the Tahoe on NBC's "The Apprentice" and on other shows such as "Las Vegas."

A video-packed site just for Scion

Online, Toyota Motor Sales USA's Scion brand has also said it will devote fewer dollars to traditional advertising and spend more of that money on branded entertainment. The automaker has just launched Scion Broadband, a video-packed site of original content it hopes will appeal to its customers.

Elsewhere, Audi and Toyota's luxury brand, Lexus, have focused heavily on hosting events, while GM and Mazda have been integrating themselves into comic books.

But future launches could look more like what Toyota did around its small Yaris. The company covered all of its bases, placing the car on shows such as Fox's "MadTV" and "Prison Break," putting content on YouTube and MySpace, and sponsoring mobile-phone content and other forms of entertainment.

All of this is good news for Hollywood.

Since the U.S. auto industry is the biggest spender on advertising, car brands are expected to provide the studios with millions of dollars in additional marketing muscle.

The greater involvement also means more executives are needed in town. Automakers have recently been moving more of their forces from Detroit to Los Angeles.

Opening offices in Hollywood

Ford has had a branded-entertainment office in Hollywood for two years now. Nissan also has had an executive stationed there who will remain even after the company's corporate move from Los Angeles to Tennessee. Other companies, such as GM and Toyota, have been using product-placement agencies or third parties. But the Chrysler Group recently tapped Michael Curmi as its brand rep, with a new office in Beverly Hills. And Mercedes-Benz is also expected to move an executive to the city soon.

But new product cycles come in spurts. Could too many branded-entertainment deals from automakers -- let alone every other product category getting more active in this space -- create another case of too much clutter?

"That would almost be a good problem to have," Mr. Romero said. "But that would mean that everyone has done it really well and we have to find other alternatives. As much as other companies talk about it, it's still in its infancy. There's a lot of hype around this, but if you look at who's really doing it, it's a handful of companies. You can't do one project and say you're doing branded entertainment."
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