Car advertising on TV has gone conceptual. This year, we've seen a dog singing inside a Volkswagen Polo, an orchestra playing car parts and engineers assembling sculptures that show their "problem-solving" skills.
But away from this, it is the digital arena that is pointing a more sober finger to the future. It emerged last week that General Motors, the third-largest advertiser in the US, was set to shift half of its $3 billion budget into an online strategy. Meanwhile, in the UK, BMW has just appointed Dare, while Renault and Nissan are locked in global and pan-European digital pitches.
Add this to rumours of Lexus, Toyota and Ford being poised to review their digital accounts this year and there's enough to suggest car advertising could be about to make a massive U-turn.
So how did digital enter car advertisers' consciousness with such synchronicity? It seems the tide has turned at a time when consumers' buying behaviour, advances in technology and market forces are changing. The economic slowdown, and predictions that UK car sales are set to fall modestly this year, makes marketing a matter of urgency.
The traditional car showroom was once the unavoidable horror of any car buying process. Not any more. While digital might not be a direct replacement, it boasts a number of compelling properties; not least that of privacy and the ability to scope and consult a range of independent voices rather than fall victim to the smooth sales pitch. Most sites nowadays even allow you to book a test drive online.
This, in turn, poses new challenges to advertisers that are scrambling to unpick an audience getting its information in a private space. "Blogs, forums and feeds mean a car's digital presence is no longer just about having a strong corporate website," Toby Horry, the planning director at Dare, says. "Car brands are having to think harder about how to influence the areas that they can control and how to relinquish power where they can't."
Little wonder digital agencies with strong strategic capabilities are sought after. GM is planning a strategy that includes gaming, search, mobile and interactive applications. "You're seeing demand for digital agencies that have global scale, and efficiency in production, the ability to punch above their weight on creativity and strategy insight and can execute on a global level," Chris Clarke, the Digitas president and executive creative director, says.
But it's not just about strategy. For years, digital evangelists have banged the drum about its more efficient return on investment, accurate tracking potential and sustained dialogue with consumers. And now this message appears to be penetrating boardrooms. "Big car manufacturers are constantly having to prove that their campaigns work and digital allows us to do that, particularly within the last 12 months," Darren Cox, the incoming head of digital for Nissan Europe, says. "As a challenger brand we need to outthink rather than outspend. Part of that is deciding how to have a digital presence in a through-the-line strategy so that buyers search us out, rather than the other way round."
The voyeuristic element of digital makes it ideal for marketers to deconstruct a consumer's motivations. "Digital shows us how the customer is moving through the purchase cycle, what elements of a car interests them and where they're prepared to spend their money," Sharon Heaton, the relationship marketing manager at Volkswagen UK, says.
Of course, the economies of scale also sit in the favour of car clients, particularly those who only need to shift a few thousand cars each year to see a conspicuous sales uplift. "Three to five years is the standard car buying cycle. Even the richest car marques can't be in traditional media like that all year around," Horry says. "Digital allows advertisers to have a consistent dialogue with a smaller pool of people that can sometimes be of more value than arbitrary blanket awareness."
Yet, while the theory of digital is convincing, execution is still open to question. There are still few cases of cars with a convincing digital presence. This year, Agency Republic has unveiled two microsites for Mercedes-Benz, each stylistically pushing the brand values of its C-Class and GL-Class.
Although digital boasts clearer tracking and an evolving dialogue with consumers, it plays just a small part in wider communications.
Ian Austin, the manager for customer communications at Honda, says: "Broadcast communication is still the best way of generating coverage and sparking an emotional attachment with consumers. But the internet allows us to provide deeper information and spend more time with consumers without having to buy more media space."
Esoteric TV ads may still bring in the masses, but expect the digital element to make these potential customers stick around.
NISSAN QASHQAI - 'Qashqai car games'
Agencies: TBWA\London, TBWA\G1, Manning Gottlieb OMD, Go Viral, DUKE
Brief: Generate awareness of Nissan's Qashqai model before its launch.
Strategy: The campaign was created as a pre-launch to the above-the-line campaign and to harness interest among a predominantly online 25- to- 35-year-old audience.
Execution: Invent an entertaining new sport and create a digital universe around it including the history, rules, teams, logos and merchandise. Five virals were created showing stunts captured at different events. These were seeded on around 2,000 sites. Consumer feedback was responded to, and built on, to fuel debate on whether the sport was real. All content was supported by an official website, where details on the sport could be found.
Results: Within the first month, the campaign attracted 3.5 million views, and by launch, that figure was more than 14 million. The campaign reached 212 countries and was picked up by 4,370 sites. From a tiny pre-launch budget, targets were exceeded by 300 per cent across 14 European countries.
VOLKSWAGEN - 'night driving'
Agencies: DDB London, Tribal DDB
Brief: Articulate the experience of driving a Volkswagen Golf at night when the roads are empty.
Strategy: The TV, press and outdoor work featured creative that pushed the campaign website night-driving.com to extend the campaign further than its above-the-line advertising and create web buzz about the experience of driving at night.
Execution: Upon logging on, users are taken on a virtual night drive that also allows them to explore all aspects of the Golf. The site also featured a number of pre-mapped night journeys and allowed fans to view extra footage of the TV ad and edit their own version to pass on virally to friends. Users could plot their own favourite night drives on maps and exchange them with other visitors. Night-time test-drives could be booked online or through supporting direct mail.
Results: The campaign attracted more than 60,000 visits on the website during the campaign, copycat videos on YouTube, and Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, which was the soundtrack to the ad, went to number one in the audio book charts.
This article was first published on Campaign