Chrysler, Mercedes Take Show on the Road

A gourmet meal, a good cigar, high-tech gadgets, a spin around the track. They’re all elements of two national test-drive tours from DaimlerChrysler supporting new 2004 Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz models. The program is the latest high-profile example of what some auto insiders call “experiential marketing,” a growing trend that combines lifestyle and product in a new form of event marketing aimed at owners and prospects.

“It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in right now, it’s all about image,” said Wes Brown, an analyst with automotive consultancy Iceology in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “The strongest brands are those that convey a lifestyle customers can connect with.”

Bonita Stewart, director of Chrysler brand communications, said “The Art of Driving,” which kicked off last weekend in New York and will visit 11 cities in 13 weeks, was born because “we needed to find a way for consumers to actually experience the Chrysler brand.”

Test drives at dealerships have been evolving into event-marketing tools for a few years, with Jeep, Mazda and others fielding such programs [Adweek, Feb. 10]. Still, most of the lifestyle-entertainment-driving hybrid events are for luxury or high-performance nameplates. In 2003, for example, such efforts are planned by Volvo, Land Rover (beginning this month, it will promote Range Rover on a tour that includes fly fishing and surf casting instruction) and Lexus (which pioneered the trend with the “Taste of Lexus” three years ago, featuring jazz bands, clothing displays and cooking demos by celebrity chefs).

Car marketers do not disclose spending behind these events. But sources said the most ambitious tours can cost more than $10 million to stage—$600,000-$1 million in each market, not including ad support.

“The Art of Driving” will stop at upscale destinations such as Lyndhurst Castle in New York, the San Diego Polo Club and the Southfork Ranch in Dallas (where the famous TV show was filmed). Consumers will be able to test drive the 2004 Chrysler Pacifica SUV, which debuts this week, and the Chrysler Crossfire sedan, due in July.

The tour is being coordinated by Chrysler’s lead agency, Omnicom’s BBDO in Troy, Mich. Ads for the Pacifica break May 1 and include three spots shot in the stylized black-and-white of the ongoing Chrysler campaign starring Celine Dion. The spots were a collaboration between BBDO, multicultural shop GlobalHue, Southfield, Mich., and The Arnell Group in New York. Upscale magazines such as GQ, Travel & Leisure and Esquire are participating in “The Art of Driving,” which will feature cigar-rolling, cooking and golfing presentations, spa services and more.

Mercedes’ “C-Spot” event kicks off in June. It will be the nameplate’s largest test-drive/lifestyle event ever, and the first not supporting a product launch, said Chuck Johnsen, Mercedes department manager of consumer events and sports marketing. It promotes the C-Class model lineup and was created by consultancy AMCI, Los Angeles, which also handled last year’s “E-Motion” tour for the launch of the Mercedes E-Class.

Mercedes’ tour offers a lifestyle twist: Instead of eat, drink and be driving, the focus of the tie-ins is on technology—partners include LG, a Korean company that will display Internet-enabled appliances, and Microsoft, which will use the tour to bow an Internet watch called Spot.

Despite the growth of the concept, experiential marketing still faces some challenges, particularly measurement. “As long as I’ve been doing this, manufacturers have been trying and failing to track how many cars were sold,” said Gordon Wangers, AMCI president. “Whenever CEOs challenge me on that, I say, ‘If you can tell me how many cars you sold from that one Super Bowl ad, then I’ll tell you how many cars we sold from the event.’ ”

Some say such tours could work for mass-market vehicles. “If you were to invite the Ford Focus demo to an event, they’d probably dig it if you made it palatable enough,” said auto-marketing consultant and former Motor Trend editor Jack Nerad. “There’s something wonderful about driving other people’s cars.”