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Car marketers are getting aggressive in developing event-marketing programs designed to do more than show cars to consumers -- they want consumers to talk to them about cars.

At book signings, black-tie galas, gourmet food events and upscale stores, cars are appearing in starring roles.

Prospective new-car buyers are invited to kick the tires, smell the seats and test-drive new models while enjoying cocktails, dinner and entertainment in a setting far removed from the hard-sell atmosphere of a dealership.


The upshot is that more cars are being sold, and more money is being spent on these channels, say car marketing experts. Still, car marketers won't disclose these programs' budgets, and sales as a direct result of nontraditional marketing are difficult to measure.

Event marketing "must be getting good results, because automakers are spending about 45% more a year on our services," says Rich Hebert, CEO of Sky Alland Marketing, a relationship-marketing company specializing in the automotive industry.

"Event marketing isn't a new ploy for car marketers, but how they're doing it is different than it used to be. Now they want to know who's coming to an event, what they're doing there and what happened afterward," says Mr. Hebert.


Spending on integrated marketing is increasing faster than traditional marketing, but not at the expense of broadcast and print ad efforts, say auto marketing executives.

Phil Guarascio, VP-general manager of marketing and advertising for General Motors Corp.'s North American Operations, says nontraditional marketing is a much smaller -- but faster-growing -- portion of the overall marketing budget, although he would not disclose figures.

BMW of North America and Mercedes-Benz of North America were among the first to invite specially selected audiences to marketing events at unusual venues; now both are regular sponsors of such events. For instance, Mercedes recently invited upscale women in several major cities to book-signing events with author Gay Talese, to introduce its new CLK model.


BMW has sponsored gourmet food and wine events in local markets nationwide, inviting prospective new-car buyers to see its latest models firsthand at restaurants and inside stores.

Using a sophisticated database marketing system, BMW this summer will launch its second annual Drive for the Cure promotion to benefit the Susan G. Kolmen Breast Cancer Foundation, inviting an upscale audience to test-drive cars.

For every mile customers drive the test cars, BMW will give $1 to the cause, aiming for more than $1 million when the event ends in December.

"Every event we do is completely integrated from its conception to the database to the follow-up effort, so we know who's coming, what they did at the event and whether or not they eventually bought a car," says Jack Pitney, BMW's manager of corporate communications.


Now domestic carmakers including GM and Chrysler Corp. are catching up with the imports, and fast.

GM has been steadily upping its spending on nontraditional marketing and last year inked a 9-year deal to become the exclusive car of upscale toy retailer F.A.O. Schwarz. Its cars will be showcased inside F.A.O. Schwarz stores; toy GM cars will be sold through the stores and the chain's catalogs.

Last fall, in Manhattan, GM opened "GM on 5th," a permanent display of its new models. It continues to seek tie-ins with other retailers, manufacturers and fashion events for showcase marketing opportunities.

GM's Oldsmobile Intrigue sedan starred at an event last month where more than 300 subscribers of Conde Nast Publications' high-end magazines, including Vogue, Architectural Digest and Gourmet, were invited to attend a murder mystery dinner at a Victorian mansion in Los Angeles.

Dubbed "A Night of Intrigue," the event provided an entertaining setting for prospective new-car buyers to explore the car and provide input; guests were invited to test-drive the car later.

Chrysler has dramatically increased its array of non-traditional marketing events for its various brands, using a growing array of relationship marketing technology and tools to link market research with event marketing so events are customized to consumers' interests.

This year, Chrysler is introducing a new hands-on marketing effort dubbed "Chrysler Showcase," a touring event that will bring one to three new car models to high-profile, public venues such as golf tournaments, music events and major shopping malls for consumers to explore.


Also included are kiosks dispensing product information and entertaining facts, plus roving "product ambassadors" who will provide information and gather feedback from consumers including generating follow-up leads for potential sales.

Last year, Chrysler built a permanent product display at Minnesota's Mall of America, where Chrysler cars are showcased in a 15,000-square-foot store in the mall complete with interactive kiosks and product experts who encourage consumers to explore and ask questions, without any sales pressure. Ross Roy Communications, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., handles these efforts for Chrysler.

The carmaker also invites input from consumers about car design, lifestyle interests and future car-buying plans, for future database-driven marketing efforts.

"What Chrysler has done at the Mall of America is what the future of car selling will look like," says Tony Wells, a former VP-advertising for Nissan Motor Corp. USA. Mr. Mills is now VP of sponsorships for the shopping mall development company Mills Corp., which is in discussions with several major automakers to establish permanent car-marketing venues inside its eight megamalls nationwide.

Chrysler's biggest single event is Camp Jeep, where more than 6,000 Jeep owners and their families convene for a three-day festival at Camp Hale near Vail, Colo., paying $195 per vehicle.


At this year's fourth annual gathering, the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee will be displayed for attendees; dozens of activities will include trail driving, hiking, mountain biking and white-water rafting, and Kenny Loggins will headline at a concert.

Camp Jeep attendees will also be invited to participate in roundtable discussions with Jeep engineers to help shape future products, and also to provide information about future car-buying plans so Jeep can follow up later with customers.

"A crucial part of relationship marketing is creating a two-way street for information so we know what customers want. Technology and other database marketing tools are making it even easier to do that," says Sarah Scott, who oversees Camp Jeep as project manager for agency Bozell Worldwide, Southfield, Mich.

Contributing: Jean Halliday

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