Car drivers could soon confine to history the joy of unfolding a torn, four-foot map while heading in the wrong direction up a one-way street.
A hi-tech alternative, sat nav, is becoming an increasingly popular method of navigation. And the UK is one of Europe's largest and fastest-growing markets for such devices, according to market researcher GFK.
Sat-nav sales in the UK during the first four months of 2006 reached 346,700 units – four times higher than in the same period in 2005. Projected sales for this year alone are 1.5 million units. In addition, the burgeoning market in downloadable mapping software, for use on mobile phones and PDAs, means the adoption rate for the technology is even higher than these sales statistics indicate.
The best-known brands – TomTom, Garmin and Navman – are relatively small, dedicated companies. But now the big boys are getting on board, too: Sony has launched products such as the NAV-U range; Philips announced last month that it will release three products in September; Pioneer, meanwhile, will use Taylor Herring to handle a forthcoming sat-nav drive (see News).
Brands, then, increasingly need to differentiate themselves.
Most sat navs are aimed squarely at men, with PR campaigns accordingly targeted at gadget and motoring publications. ‘Sat nav is definitely something that we are hearing more about as the devices become cheaper and are seen as trendy to own,' says Adam Vaughan, online editor at gadget mag Stuff.
He adds: ‘TomTom quoted to me recently that around ten per cent of cars now have some kind of sat-nav system – that's impressive.'
Given this growing market, how can PR practitioners get their clients noticed? ‘It's best to try and target any "group tests" that the magazine might be doing because it's hard to write a feature on just one device – unless it's got something unusual about it,' advises Matt Sanger, consumer reporter for What Car?.
He adds: ‘We've got a planned feature on sat-nav devices coming up; we'll test the market leaders and some of the newest products, which will come through PR agencies.' And how else can PROs help? ‘It's crucial they spend time ensuring journalists understand why their device is different by demonstrating its capabilities.'
Sat-nav products are not only being targeted directly at consumers, though. RedLorryYellowLorry recently handled the launch of Finland-based Tracker's MyWay – a tracking and sat-nav combo. A large part of the brief was to appeal to corporates.
‘We targeted companies that need to monitor employees (such as security and sales staff on the road) by concentrating on HR and management magazines,' says Maria Ogunlaja, account manager at the agency.
Meanwhile, Hill & Knowlton, which advises TomTom, has undertaken a broader, consumer education campaign.
Associate director Matt Rowntree points out: ‘The initial hurdle is convincing people they want the product in the first place.'
Its work has involved plenty of demonstration and putting the device in consumers' hands, via events such as car shows. ‘We took demonstration pods to motorway service-stations where we had "Follow Me" cars with TomTom branding,' says Rowntree. H&K also worked with designer Jessica Ogden, who featured a TomTom bag in her show at last year's London Fashion Week. The agency demonstrated the kit at an after-show party, Rowntree says, adding: ‘We still get calls from women's lifestyle media requesting information off the back of that.'
Resonate is also planning to target women's media, as part of a forthcoming campaign for German firm Jentro's activepilot.
MD Michael Frohlich says: ‘It's easier these days to get technology products into mainstream media because there is growing coverage of gadgets and gizmos.'
He adds: ‘As long as you use consumer-friendly language and make the product simple to understand, there is no reason not to target media beyond tech publications.'
More generally, though, not all sat-nav coverage has been positive. Indeed, national newspapers have run numerous stories of sat-nav devices apparently misguiding ambulance drivers and creating jams on country lanes. And Top Gear curmudgeon Jeremy Clarkson regularly bemoans the ‘idiotic' kit fitted to his test-cars.
Paul Naphtali, head of consumer at Hotwire PR, says sat-nav horror stories have influenced its campaign for client CoPilot. He explains: ‘We always emphasise the product's safety features and are about to launch a major driver-safety campaign to promote the idea that CoPilot is the safest driver navigation partner. This idea was inspired, in part, by the recent negative publicity.'
Despite the tales of devices failing drivers – and probably encouraging them to reach for the very maps they hoped to do away with – the biggest challenge for the sector will come as sat-nav enters the mass market.
With gadgets always big sellers in the run-up to Christmas, and the sat-nav market becoming ever more crowded, PR practitioners will have to create sharp campaigns in order to stand out from the pack.