Ride of their lives

In an attempt to connect with current and prospective consumers, automakers are devising lifestyle and experiential PR efforts to promote their vehicles.

In an attempt to connect with current and prospective consumers, automakers are devising lifestyle and experiential PR efforts to promote their vehicles.

When Ford Motor Corp. introduced the Ford Flex into the marketplace this summer, the auto manufacturer with a reputation for big trucks and sports sponsorships aligned the vehicle's key messaging with style and celebrity culture.

“If you think about it, very few people read the automotive media who don't actually work within the auto [industry] or [are] not actively looking for a car right now,” says Usha Raghavachari, Ford's crossover marketing communications manager. “It's important for us to... get attention [from] a broader consumer audience.”
 
The campaign included the Ford Flex Insider program, which combined a test-drive program with experiential events.
 
The latter component of the campaign, supported by Hill & Knowlton, transported influencers ranging from key media to artistic professionals, such as chefs and TV directors, to high-concept art galleries, nightclubs, and restaurants to discuss the unique features of the vehicle.
 
“It's important for us to run both programs at the same time because the other benefit that Flex has is for the [Ford] brand overall,” says Raghavachari.
 
Presently, the Ford team is promoting the vehicle, with the support of hip-hop artist Nelly, who first approached the PR team at an event in Atlanta and wanted to customize a Flex. Ogilvy PR is currently assisting with that program.

Expanding the message

Thinking long term, automakers are creating lifestyle PR programs to not only tap consumers presently in the market to buy new vehicles, but also create longstanding relationships with future buyers.  
 
This shift, beyond the traditional PR tactics of auto shows and gear-head magazines, has auto manufacturers staking claims in wide-ranging areas in arts and entertainment.
 
Toyota is another carmaker that has rooted several marketing programs in lifestyle messaging.
 
The company has created several such programs tailored to a demographic that it calls the “young mavericks.” These are young men under 35 “who are immune to marketing methods and want an experience, rather than [listening] passively,” says Cindy Knight, Toyota's marketing communications PR manager.
 
For example, the ongoing Antics program promotes the Matrix vehicle to this audience by sending one of its fleets of the car to different clubs and concerts on short notice.
 
Toyota seeks to become a part of the scenes where “young mavericks” may be by seizing opportunities to enhance this target demo's party experience. Tactics include providing a better band, DJ, or hooking up cars with video games.
 
“The whole purpose of doing this was to make [Toyota] more nimble. So, if we heard an event was happening three days from now, we could get cars there right away,” says Chad Harp, marketing communications strategist at Toyota. “When creating [programs] you can just come with an open mind and find things that work best.”
 
Toyota also promoted the Matrix through its 5th Door campaign, referring to the vehicle's hatchback. This effort tapped multicultural segments for the “young mavericks” demographic, says Knight.
 
This effort featured events in different markets showing a customized Matrix to tap the African- American, Asian-American, and Hispanic demographics. Toyota's respective multicultural AORs – Burrell Communications Group, InterTrend Communications, and Conill – handled these promotions, respectively.
 
“With these different marketing approaches we're tying to connect with consumers through different passion points,” Harp says.
 
Smart concept

Daimler AG used experiential PR to introduce the smart car into the US market and connect with potential buyers.
 
The company opened the “smart house” in Venice Beach, CA from September 2007 to February 2008. It sought to showcase the brand's sense of style and serve as a venue for events, ranging from climate protection to fine arts. Stratacomm, AOR for Smart USA's corporate and product PR, helped plan an automotive media event that took place at the smart house.
 
Ken Kettenbeil, director of communications for Smart USA, says, “Our customers are not based on age and income, but more on lifestyle,” noting customers ranging in age from 18 to 80 seeking out unique forms of transportation in urban areas, ahead of trends.
 
Smart USA has centered initiatives in New York during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in partnership with Club Monaco, handing out gift bags from vehicles. It also connected with local socialites and fashion-forward professionals at an Earth Day event in April. Harrison & Shriftman assisted with both efforts.
 
Smart car owners and enthusiasts can further discuss their brand on the smartUSAInsider.com, a social networking site which launched in June 2008.
 
“This car screams personalization and customization,” says Kettenbeil. “[Our customers] always find people around their vehicle with questions.”
 
Each car comes with a package of courtesy cards with key messages about the vehicle, so current owners can hand those to potential customers.
 
“The more we can do to make their experience pleasant, from buying to service experience, and staying connected,” he adds, “those are going to be our ambassadors to push the attributes of the vehicle to people who are interested.”

Lifestyle efforts


smart USA
SmartusaInsider.com was created as a venue for passionate brand ambassadors to interact with each other and the brand through forums, video uploads, and groups, ranging from New Mexican Smarts to Gay Smarties. Also, a calendar of upcoming brand events is provided
 
Toyota
To promote the Camry to African-American women, the automaker created the “If Looks Could Kill” campaign, which provided film, glossy fashion tie-ins, and gaming around an espionage plot
 
Ford
“Band from TV,” a nonprofit front-lined by celebrities like Teri Hatcher and Hugh Laurie, used the Ford Flex and its capabilities in a promotional scavenger hunt around Los Angeles hot spots

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