Automotive Report: Alternate Routes

Bill Ludwig, executive creative director at IPG’s Campbell-Ewald, unwinds a satisfied smile when he remembers how C-E and its client, Chevrolet, “owned” a Daytona 500 race a few years by using a very non-traditional approach to marketing—and that it cost less than $5,000.

“We noticed that the cameras, when they followed the cars, would sweep across the fans who lined the edge of the infield,” says Ludwig. “And Chevy had some of the top drivers, like Dale Earnhardt and Daryl Waltrip, who were like the rock stars of Nascar.”

So Ludwig dispatched his own “pit crew” to a local department store, where they bought bed sheets and paint. “They painted the names of the Chevy drivers on the sheets, along with the driver’s numbers [and the Chevy Motorsports logo]. And the night before the race, a couple of art directors rented a golf cart, bought a case of beer and drove around the infield asking the fans if they wanted to hang the sheets over their Winnebagos or RVs.”

Thus, the next day, every time the camera panned the infield, it beamed the big red Chevy Motorsports logo, with the drivers’ names and numbers, into the homes of millions of viewers.

“We got tons of exposure during that broadcast,” says Ludwig. “That was a good example of making noise wherever people are”—which, more and more, is not in front of the TV set watching prime-time network programming.

Indeed, as another new entertainment option seemingly comes along every month, the audience for network TV programming continues to fragment. That means the traditional 30-second TV spot isn’t luring as many eyeballs and earlobes as it did 20, 10 or even five years ago. So in the last few years, automakers and their agencies have, more and more, been channeling their marketing efforts into alternative ways of creating and maintaining brand awareness among consumers.

Much of that is event marketing: affixing the car line’s brand name to sporting events, rock concerts, and other entities, like the Oscars, the Hard Rock Cafe, the Super Bowl and the South Beach Party in Miami. And you can be sure that celebrity attendees at those events have plenty of Chevys, Cadillacs, Fords and Chryslers on hand to shuttle them back and forth from hotel to event to party.

And, of course, product placement has boomed, as carmakers and their agencies make sure that Ford F-150s, Jeep Wranglers and Cadillac Cateras are front-and-center in TV dramas like Fox’s 24, and theatrical releases such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Matrix Reloaded. (Placing the F-150 in 24 was a way of getting the vehicle in front of viewers who use TiVo to dodge around the ads.)

It also means that automakers are making subtle inroads into niche markets, such as the urban hip-hop segment, with flashy after-market custom packages and eye-catching wheel covers for pricey SUVs that are purchased by high-profile hip-hop artists.

“Any time you can do non-traditional marketing, it’s a good idea,” says Gary Topolewsky, chairman/chief creative officer for Interpublic’s Chemistri, the Troy, Mich., shop for Cadillac and Pontiac. “There are so many ways for people to be entertained these days that people aren’t just sitting in front of their TVs watching prime-time network programming as much as they used to. They’re watching ‘event TV,’ like the Super Bowl and the Oscars and the Final Four. You’re not reaching them by running a spot during Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Gaming is also a big lure for automakers, given that many games involve high-speed racing or hair-raising car chases. “The gaming business is huge,” says Mark Kaline, Global Media Manager for Ford Motor Co. “When we can do something in line with the brand attributes we want to promote, gaming provides us with another opportunity to reach younger adults, who are a difficult-to-reach segment, because they’re light TV viewers. Traditional media doesn’t have the same impact with that audience that it once did.”

Kaline says that “the Ford division, as well as Mazda, have been very active in gaming—Mazda has been in a very popular game, Gran Tourismo, for the last few years, and is also featured in Skyracer Impulse, a 3-D animated game. And Volvo has a TV spot out now for the S40 that incorporates X-Box graphics.” (See page 39 for details on the making of that ad.)

Event marketing, meanwhile, cuts across all demographic groups.

In recent years, Cadillac has been “heavily involved,” with the Super Bowl, the Oscars and the South Beach Party, says Topolewsky. In addition to sponsoring the Super Bowl post-game show, Cadillac made 400 of its vehicles available to players, coaches and team personnel during Super Bowl week, and awarded the game’s MVP his choice of Caddys. (This year’s MVP, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, chose an Escalade SUV).

“We also shuttled celebrities back and forth from the Oscars to all the top parties afterward,” says Topolewsky.

“The trick with event marketing is to fly under the radar and not overstay your welcome,” warns Topolewsky. “Otherwise, you’re just perceived as a marketing effort instead of blending into the culture.”

Even lower-profile events can be fruitful for automakers. For several years, Ford has sponsored the Experimental Aviation Association event in Oshkosh, Wis. “We try to tie in to aviation from the technology standpoint,” says Ford’s Kaline. “We put our vehicles on display, and we’ve had pretty good luck selling Jaguars right there at the event, because it’s attended by people who have the kind of income that they can make decisions like that right on the spot.”

One culture being courted by makers of higher-end SUVs, like the Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator and Mercedes-Benz S500, is the urban/hip-hop segment. A wowzer, loaded-to-the-gills SUV has become standard issue for the top rap stars like Snoop Dogg, Puff Daddy, Jay-Z and company.

“There is definitely a contemporary lifestyle and image that those folks tap into,” says Bertrand Garbassi, co-group creative director for the Lincoln Mercury account at WPP Group’s Young & Rubicam Detroit. “They do set trends and get noticed and can be on the cutting edge of style, and that does help attract new customers in those areas.”

Therefore, conversations and subtle affiliations are always being explored with some of the higher-profile urban-music artists. But those affiliations are definitely achieved under the radar, given the controversial nature of some of those artists. Sean “Puffy” Combs and Snoop Dogg, among other rappers, have been involved in shooting-related incidents while driving a tricked-out SUV of some sort.

“Lincoln had some associations, good and bad, with Sean Combs,” says Garbassi. “A few years ago, he was in a Lincoln Navigator that ended up in a notorious incident,” he says, referring to a shooting in a New York City nightclub. “So there is definitely a double-edged sword, because you can’t control the behavior of those hip-hop personalities.”

Concert sponsorship is another means used by automakers to get their brands in front of thousands of adoring pop, rock, country and hip-hop fans. Perhaps the highest-profile relationship between a car brand and a concert attraction is the manly bond forged between scowling country singer Toby Keith and the Ford F-150 pick-up.

“Besides using Toby in our creative execution, we also created an F-150 Transformer truck that rolls out onto the stage at the start of his concerts and turns into its own mini-platform,” says Kaline. “And then out comes Toby, and he sings while standing on the back of this robotic truck. It’s a major device for building anticipation and gets people really excited.”

Meanwhile, pop-culture associations have also been forged in other mainstream segments. Campbell-Ewald and Chevrolet have hooked up with Rolling Stone magazine and the Hard Rock Cafe in recent years for two separate efforts that underscore the Chevy brand’s longtime presence in pop culture.

In 2003, they launched the Chevrolet Rock ‘n’ Roll Tour, a traveling road show that featured several Chevy vehicles and rock memorabilia from artists like Elvis Presley, Sheryl Crow, Van Halen and Prince. Gibson Guitars also contributed a collection of custom guitars to that traveling exhibit.

And in the last two years, Chevrolet has sponsored Rolling Stone’s Rock ‘n’ Roll calendar, featuring current and up-and-coming pop bands and artists like Melissa Etheridge, Ashanti, Uncle Kracker, Nickel Creek and Deanna Carter.

C-E and Chevy also made sure that Chevy had a megawatt profile last New Year’s Eve when Chevrolet launched the “An American Revolution” campaign.

“That night, we bought the ABC board and the Reuters board in Times Square [in New York],” says Ludwig. “So every time the camera cut to Dick Clark, the viewer saw big bold graphics of the SSR and Aveo and Colorado and the new Corvette behind him. And we also had a sky projection machine, so that the ‘American Revolution’ logo was projected onto the clouds over all those people’s heads in Times Square.”

An SSR also transported Jessica Simpson and her husband Nick Lachey, who co-hosted the ABC News Year’s Eve party.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities to leverage the Chevy brand where the consumer lives and breathes, and get involved in events where Chevy is part of the culture and lifestyle,” says Ludwig. “We look at these kinds of events as a way to leverage the brand at that moment. They create brand resonance at venues and events that are big parts of the consumers lives.”

Kevin Ransom is the Detroit bureau chief for Adweek.