May 25, 2011
“Socially savvy” marketers dance around the fundamental realities of this business.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 5/24, 12:00 p.m.) Detroit. By now everyone involved in marketing in this business is so deeply buried in the “social media space” that the rhyme or reason part of the discussion gave way to full speed ahead, “we gotta be there or else” blind ambition long ago. It’s everywhere now, the connecting thing, the reaching out thing, the sharing our mission thing, the give-consumers-a-forum-or-they’ll-go-somewhere-else-thing, and auto companies are scrambling to pursue it and take advantage of it whenever or wherever possible.
Just this week, U.S.-based VW executives are trotting out their new “Think Blue” campaign being brought over from Europe in conjunction with the opening of their new factory in Tennessee. “Think Blue” is a vague concoction of consumer hand-holding, blatant eco marketing, group hugging and the launch of an overly sensitive car company, apparently, as VW strives to set an example for everyone by partnering up with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City so that we can see just how darn visionary they are.
Jonathan Browning, CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, said this week that "'Think Blue.' bears witness to our holistic understanding of sustainability. On the one hand, the new Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga demonstrates just how eco-friendly and resource saving automobile production can be today. And on the other, we are seeking to intensify our dialog with art and society on key issues of the future through our cooperation with MoMA."
And Toyota, determined not to be outdone, plans to launch a new onboard telematics system in overseas markets next year dubbed “Toyota Friend,” aimed at transforming cars into hubs of interactive social networking eerily similar to Facebook and Twitter.
Jointly developed by Salesforce.com, a cloud computing software provider from San Francisco, Toyota Friend creates a system of instant message-like communications between the driver, the car, the dealer, and the factory, according to Toyota. This real-time exchange will keep Toyota drivers apprised of their car's maintenance schedule or battery charge, allow Toyota drivers to communicate with each other and help customers schedule inspections or service, or so the company says.
"Social networking services are transforming human interaction and modes of communication," President Akio Toyoda said. "The automobile needs to evolve in step with that transformation."
Okay, we get it. Social networking is nothing more than the logical extension of word-of-mouth advertising, still the most powerful form of advertising in the world by far. And for car companies to ignore it would be suicidal, as the ever present danger of being branded as terminally out of touch would be a killer. (After all, heaven forbid a car company might miss a vacuous missive about nothing emanating from the addled mind of a negative attention span consumer, right? That would indeed be tragic.)
But, gladly throwing a large bucket of cold water on the proceedings, it’s crystal clear to me that social media will never be the be all and end all of the future of automotive marketing. It simply can’t be.
Why? Because the fact of the matter is that generating buzz and being in touch with your customers is one thing, that’s a relatively mundane and simpleton task. You connect, you activate, you listen, you generate instances of group experiential hand-holding, and you’re good. It’s not hard. And there are people making a lot of money in this business right now who have become expert at it too.
Luring customers to a brand through buzz and connectivity is one thing, but building confidence and long-term desirability in a brand is quite another story altogether.
I can tell you with certainty right now that no matter how comprehensive a social media push is, how absolutely a-m-a-z-i-n-g (oh, how I loathe the overuse of that word) a concept hatched by auto company marketers and their ad agencies is, it cannot and will not replace three fundamental High-Octane Truths about the automobile business, which are:
1. The Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator is design. You can coddle and group hug the masses, you can give everyone on earth a morning wakeup call “brought to you by your favorite car company,” you can lay down a cloud of touchy-feely invasive communication the likes of which the world has never seen before, and yet, if your vehicle looks like a rolling afterthought or an homage to abject mediocrity none of it will matter. Consumers will jaw all day long about how eco-sensitive and eco-friendly they are, but as a manufacturer if your vehicle has the emotional appeal of a cardboard box with windows, you’re toast. Even as we move to the Future of Transportation, when electronically guided vehicles in urban centers look to be more real every day and as our vehicle choices become fragmented into mini-segments for increasingly specific uses, design will become even more crucial to the success or failure of a car company. The Bottom Line? Image is everything out on the street, because it’s a rolling testament to who a car company is and what they stand for. And no amount of a-m-a-z-i-n-g touchy-feely social communication can change that.
2. Nothing can go wrong with a vehicle, ever. Yeah, I know, it’s that old quality and durability chestnut, but let’s face it, no car company is going to build confidence and long-term desirability in their products if they disappoint or let a customer down. As much as I’ve praised the upward trajectory of Audi in the past, and make no mistake they do make superb vehicles, I know that there are plenty of consumers out there who were lured in by the mystique only to have been let down with the frequency of service required for “unexpected” issues. The same can be said for VW. As a matter of fact VW has been the poster child for car companies launching terminally hip marketing campaigns across all media only to burn their customers with shoddy quality and ridiculous amounts of service visits. And guess what? That’s when the whole social media thing turns ugly and legions of pissed-off consumers take to the various social media outlets to vent their rage, crying “never again.” And that’s an XXL-sized pair of Lederhosen of Not Good.
3. Fun to drive can’t be a slogan, it has to be a mission. I’ve sat in countless meetings over the last couple of years when the subject inevitably comes up about kids today not liking cars anymore, that they’re more interested in their electronic devices than anything traditionally associated with the fun of driving and the lure of personal mobility. And it is a legitimate concern and it is worrisome to futurists at the automakers. But after careful consideration I’m ready to say bullshit to all of that. Some kids today don’t associate cars with fun because the only experience they’ve had with them is being carted around to myriad appointments, school functions and other mundane tasks that have about as much appeal as a root canal. You can’t tell me that the kids playing virtual car racing games today wouldn’t translate their lust for all things automotive to reality if given a reason to do so. And that’s where the car companies have failed. Instead of laying out a litany of the reasons why kids today aren’t getting into cars – cost and insurance just to name the Big Two – they haven’t given them enough reasons to light the fire of interest. Personal mobility is still one of the most powerful and emotional lures of human endeavor and the car companies simply have done a piss-poor job of tapping into that for the youth today. Every time I go to an announcement for a new “youthful” vehicle from an automaker I just roll my eyes because the reality is that kids can’t afford them, and they won’t be able to afford them for years to come either. And when I point that out to the various well-meaning auto executives, when pressed they will admit that the used car market is really the entry level for young automotive consumers. Well, I say bullshit to that too. I’m waiting for a U.S.-based car company to come up with a desirable, fun-to-drive and affordable (as in under $10,000 out the door) cult car that no adult would be caught dead in, but every other kid would lust after to get their hands on one. That’s when I’ll know that a car company is “addressing” the youth market in this country.
So to all of the marketers hard at work in this business leveraging the social media space I say this: have at it, have fun, and tout your victories big and small to all who will listen. But never forget that it’s the efficacy and fundamental desirability of the product that counts above all else.
And there’s no amount of networking and hand-holding that will ever change that.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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