Matt Williams: all style and no substance – the dire state of modern-day car marketing

The US presidential election gave us more than a few controversial moments. Many of them disheartening. Many of them genuinely shocking. And many of them made you fear for the human race.

But the election gave us the odd delightful moment too (you might have to bear with me here).

One of those delightful moments came courtesy of Audi. Recognising the all-out war that Trump v Clinton ignited, the brand’s latest ad, ‘Duel’, is an absolute triumph, featuring great pace and energy, stunning production values and a number of hidden nuggets for the eagle-eyed viewer. Quite simply, it’s an ad worthy of a brand with as much advertising heritage and clout as Audi.

That’s perhaps the thing I love most about this spot. It’s an epic car ad. Perhaps not an absolute classic, but one that’ll go into the book of everyone involved.

Automotive has always been one of the key pillars of our creative industry. In Ad Age’s list of the best advertising campaigns of all time, it was a car ad – Volkswagen’s ‘Think Small’ – that took top spot. The Guardian selected Honda’s ‘Grr’ (below) as one of its ‘adverts that changed the way we think.’ And Campaign credited Fallon’s BMW Films as one of the ‘ten ads that changed advertising.’

I could spend the rest of this article listing iconic car campaigns. Honda ‘Cogs’. Skoda ‘Full of Lovely Stuff’. The countless spots from Chrysler, Chevrolet and Volkswagen that for years dominated Super Bowl night.

But recently? I’m struggling to think of many. Audi aside, when was the last time we saw a truly epic car campaign?

Of course, there’s an element of churlishness in this question. When was the last time we saw an epic ad campaign in any category? The fragmentation of media and the change in customer viewing habits has meant that creating one is now much harder and less obviously achieved. And maybe once time has passed we’ll judge some of today’s work in more favourable light.

But whereas once the advertising world would seem to make or break car brands – and car ads would simultaneously make or break advertising agencies – now most of the great pieces of car marketing seem to sit on the periphery.

The end of big brand thinking

This isn’t an article proclaiming the death of car marketing. Far from it. And when you look at industry awards, it’s still full of engaging and entertaining automotive work. There’s Volvo’s ‘Life Paint,’ Honda’s ‘The Other Side’ and Land Rover’s ‘Test Drive Billboard (below).’ All brilliant set pieces that stand up as a benchmark of innovative thinking in our industry today.

But can you pin any of them down as ‘big, campaignable, customer-centric ideas?’ Not really. They are stunts, executions made for specific moments in time or fly-by-night YouTube films. They resonate with tech geeks more than petrol heads, and do more for an agency’s showreel than a manufacturer’s long-term customer strategy.

Let’s turn back to the awards for a second. The Cannes Lions Titanium award goes to the ‘big ideas,’ the ‘game-changers’ that ‘break new ground in branded communications.’ They’re ‘creative ideas that point to a new direction for an industry.’ Historically ripe territory for automotive brands, you’d think.

Yet in the past five years, automotive campaigns have won in this category just once. That was in 2014, when Honda triumphed for its Ayrton Senna work and Volvo Trucks won for the Jean Claude Van Damme ‘Epic Split’ series. Both remarkable pieces of work, but Volvo was essentially a B2B campaign gone viral, whilst Honda has always been the glorious exception that proves the rule.

Saying nothing to everyone

Think of brand straplines. What’s BMW’s current brand slogan? Hint: it’s not ‘the Ultimate Driving Machine.’ What about Renault? Nope, it’s no longer ‘Va Va Voom.’ We now have ‘Designed for Driving Pleasure’ and ‘Passion for Life.’ Yup, I had to Google them too.

Brand building in automotive is being watered down to an extreme, to the extent that it’s causing detriment to the relationship between the car brands and their customers. It’s wallpaper in as much as you could take ten recent car campaigns, jumble up the logos and no one would be any the wiser.

Customers want more. In this day and age they want – nay, deserve – personalised, targeted communications that provide them with genuinely useful and engaging reasons to get to know and build a relationship with a brand. They require communications that will ultimately enhance their lives.

We don’t want to get into the business of finger pointing, and there are many attributing factors to the dilution of such an industry. But much of the reasoning could fall down to marketing departments uniting the major ‘campaign work’ in centralised global teams. The desire for consistent global communications doesn’t necessarily (or in most cases, ever) mean better work. It cheapens the process and introduces so many layers that it can kill the creativity dead.

It’s often the most many departments can do to revert to cliché. TV ads showing non-descript cars driving through non-descript cities. No strong, customer-centric thought born out of genuine insight, executed over relevant channels where prospects may actually be paying attention.

Instead when you try and say one thing to lots of disparate people, you often find yourself saying nothing at all. You resort to an empty line that revolves around “passion” or “emotion” when really your creativity is showing anything but.

That’s what’s most frustrating about all this. Because most car brands do have something to say. The fact they’re all doing great pieces of work around the periphery is testament to that. They have singular points of view to get their brand behind, but they’re often too afraid or too politically bogged down to say it.

Freeing the shackles

Maybe that’s why the brands doing well in the automotive sector at the moment aren’t your typical car brands. They’re not the manufacturers; they’re your car insurance companies, your dealerships or leasing agents. Look at how Uber’s latest marketing campaign is telling a genuinely engaging story. Look at Aviva’s ‘Safer Driving’ initiative (below), a positioning that runs through all of the brand’s touchpoints. They have something to say and they commit.

And perhaps most importantly of all, what they say is intensely customer-focused. They understand their desires and are producing communications that genuinely make their customer’s lives better.

Car manufacturers themselves, on the other hand, are still just nibbling around the edges. What they do can be innovative (see Mercedes Benz’s ‘Invisible Car’), helpful (Kia’s petrol stunt) or timely (Chevrolet’s brilliant ‘Technology and stuff’ reaction piece), but it’s ultimately all supplementary to the bigger, and sadly weaker, customer comms.

It’ll take a brave marketing team – and in all honesty, likely a restructure of one – to instigate change. To veer from the norm and hunt for that big, bold, customer-centric idea that is able to free a brand from the corporate clichéd shackles. But it needs to be done.

Otherwise, the cynicism will only grow. Car companies will keep churning out ineffective bland work. And the brands we know and love will struggle to keep up with an ever-accelerating industry, in a time when they need to the most.

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