Scion Web Strategy Takes Stealth Approach

NEW YORK For Internet ad giants like Google and Yahoo, the Toyota Scion brand should be a dream marketer. With an 18-24-year-old trendsetter target audience, the carmaker sees the Internet as key to its marketing efforts. But while other auto brands buy up keywords and run banners and pre-roll spots online, Scion takes a decidedly alternative route, relying instead on virtual worlds, its own broadband video site and viral gaming to reach an audience averse to ads, offline or online.

“The days of the banner ad are getting old,” said Adrian Si, interactive marketing manager at Scion. “We try not to do any pre-roll if we can. We try to do as few banners as we can.”

Scion is focusing on less proven channels. A month before Anheuser-Busch tried its hand at broadband entertainment with Bud.tv in February 2007, Scion Broadband launched with five channels featuring clips devoted to indie music and culture. Unlike Bud.tv, it is not aiming to be a mass destination, Si said. The site draws about 50,000 viewers a month.

Rather than jump on the MySpace and Facebook bandwagon, Scion has established outposts in virtual environments like Second Life, There.com, Gaia Online and Whyville. It opened “Club Scion” on There.com in August, featuring a series of interconnected clubs built in the shape of the Scion xA, xB and tC. On Whyville, frequented by young teens, Scion set up a financing arm for users to purchase a virtual car.

“The sites are quite small,” Si said, but Toyota actually aims to keep the brand on a niche scale to maintain its underground appeal. It sold about 170,000 Scions last year and wants to repeat that this year.

Bigger advertisers are unlikely to take the same chances, outside of establishing experimental budgets, said David Cohen, U.S. director of digital communications at Interpublic Group’s Universal McCann. “They’re fairly comfortable with this idea of targeted reach,” he said. “A lot of that other stuff is hard to measure.”

Scion has also leaned heavily on viral campaigns. It used movie theater spots this spring to promote Want2BeSquare.com, an interactive gaming site to promote the boxy Scion xB. A “Little Deviant” advergame campaign where conformists are attacked followed this summer for the xD model.

“For this audience, you’ve got all this clutter of advertising,” Si said “We’d prefer to keep it underground and have them discover it.”

An obvious side benefit to the let-them-find-it approach: It doesn’t cost as much. For the first seven months of the year, Scion spent just $1.5 million online, according to TNS Media Intelligence. “It works well for us because it keeps our budgets down,” Si said.

Scion is not abandoning the tried-and-true tactics: It still runs traditional ad units, although it is experimenting with new methods. In a campaign it ran in conjunction with blog search engine Technorati in September, Scion made widgets that piped in real-time headlines from independent-film blogs, rather than extol the vehicle’s features. It ran the widgets as ad units on a couple of sites, but also offered them as content via Technorati.

“It’s participating in the culture,” said Peter Hirshberg, chief marketing officer of Technorati. “It’s actually the way you have a conversation [with the blogosphere], by sending links.”

Scion is also dipping its toes into search advertising, long a staple of auto brands. What took it so long? Research among its young male trendsetter demographic showed they disapproved of brands that “buy their way” to the top of search results.

“We’d prefer to rise to the top of search naturally versus doing paid search,” Si said.

Along with its emphasis on nontraditional approaches, Scion takes an expansive view of its agency roster and metrics. It works with more than 20 small agencies—from virtual world developer Millions of Us to independent Attik—on digital initiatives, and uses buzz-monitoring data from Nielsen Online (a sibling of Adweek).

“Agencies will claim they can do all things well, but the reality is they do one thing well but not others,” Si said.

Not all of Scion’s moves have been successful. An early mobile experiment in 2004 fizzled after the brand collected names through a contest ad, then re-messaged entrants about the Scion. People felt the company had taken advantage of them, Si said. On the drawing board: trying to create its own social network for owners in 2008.

“You have to figure out how to engage them on their ground,” said Si. “Everything we do online we think, ‘If we do this, how is it making their lives better?'”

This is a potentially powerful approach for youth-oriented lifestyle brands, said Garrick Schmitt, vp of user experience at Avenue A/Razorfish, part of Microsoft. Red Bull, one of his agency’s clients, has also mostly shunned traditional online advertising in favor of new approaches like desktop widgets, a Facebook rock-paper-scissors application and a broadband video channel on Joost. “[Red Bull] wants a direct relationship with their consumers and they know they can do that by bypassing traditional media outlets,” he said.

At the end of the day, nontraditional programs could face the same problem as traditional ones as more brands vie for a finite amount of audience attention. Attik group creative director Simon Needham warned that as more brands look to emulate the formula, response levels inevitably decline. “These days it’s a mistake to overestimate what the results are going to be,” he said.

“Can you imagine a world of 30 million Facebook applications?” said Shane Ginsberg, executive director of global business development at Omnicom Group’s Organic, a shop on the Scion roster. “There’s a danger there that even the new stuff gets absolutely diluted because everyone rushes in too quickly.”