Tom Lovegrove of Wasserman: why car marketers need to put the customer in the driving seat

One of the biggest events in the automotive calendar, the Geneva International Motor Show, starts this week. Thanks to the event and a number throughout the year, 2018 will see more car launches than ever. Among other factors, this reflects the extent that the automotive industry has increased the variety of car models it sells. Take BMW, as an example. In 1998 BMW made a total of 7 distinct car models and body styles. Ten years later they had 13. In 2018, the German car giant will offer 35 vehicle types. Add to this the vast range of engine options, trim levels and colours available for each car and the number of unique variations that BMW can offer runs into the thousands.

Why all this micro-segmentation? To keep owners loyal throughout their lifetime by ensuring there’s a BMW to match every stage of their adult life.

While the past two decades have seen automakers’ design and manufacturing divisions embrace an ever more diverse and individualistic customer base, during the same period the way these cars are marketed has barely changed.

The story is still about clever new design cues, efficient new engines, shiny new buttons or an ethereal abstract quality possessed by the car that will inevitably rub off on the owner. Sure, most car brands nowadays have an Instagram account, an online car configurator and a purchase path that has evolved to embrace digital. Some even employ the latest VR and AR technology that showcase impressive simulations and virtual worlds. While the methods and channels automotive brands use to promote their products has evolved, when it comes to the actual messages, the car is always centre stage.

This needs to change.

Today the story should be about the customer. Their lifestyle and life stage. Their hopes and dreams. Their values and ambitions. The story should be about their unique individuality and how the car has evolved to reflect this.

At the moment, too few auto brands are doing this. And where they are doing this, they’re limiting the message to one of the least effective channels for this: TV. Take Vauxhall and its recent #PyjamaMamas campaign. The ad brought to life what it means and feels to be a Vauxhall driver. Rather than enticing audiences with yet another sleek must-have, Vauxhall positioned itself as a brand that understands its audience, by focusing on the real-life discussion of mum’s doing the school run in pyjamas. Instead of an ad focusing on a new dashboard, it focused on its audience first and foremost, helping them feel and understand what the brand stands for.

But TV isn’t the most effective channel at putting the customer at the heart of a brand’s marketing strategy. If an auto brand is serious about shifting the way it engages with audiences, then it needs to look at physical brand experiences.

Experiential is one of the most effective ways of putting the customer at the heart of a brand’s marketing strategy and there are three main reasons for this. One: the channel activates in the customer’s world – the cities, events and festivals where and when they express their lifestyles. Two: the length of time the channel can engage allows the telling of a richer, more in-depth story. Three: the channel provides the best opportunities to tailor individual experiences and make them personal to the audience.

While it’s true that automakers, like many other brands, are increasingly using experiential to reach their target audience, automotive activations almost universally take ‘the car is the star’ approach. This may work well for people who have a passionate interest in all things automotive but it risks alienating people who see their car as just one of many facets that reflect their lifestyle.

A prime example of this ‘car-centric’ approach is Renault’s partnership with the Big Feastival. The French brand’s activation was an awkward combination of a car showroom stand mashed together with a kid’s climbing wall, sandpit and lounge space for the adults. There was little, if any, exploration of the target customer’s lifestyle beyond a generic ‘family fun’ approach.

Contrast this with Volvo’s Fika activation at Camp Bestival (below) which, on the surface, delivered a similar experience to Renault but, in fact, was far more customer-centric. Inspired by the Swedish idea that we should all take a moment to slow down and appreciate the good things in life, Volvo created an experience that perfectly aligned with the target audience in a festival environment. Kids engaged in free craft activity sessions and all visitors were offered complimentary refreshments. The car was of course present but it took a back seat, so to speak, to what mattered most to a festival audience. Volvo’s approach is, however, the exception among automotive experiential rather than the norm and although there is some very interesting work being done by Audi, a step change is needed.

All brands need to do more to prioritise a customer-centric approach in their marketing but car brands seem to be particularly backward in this area. The automotive sector wholeheartedly embraces innovation in product design, applications of new technology and an increasingly segmented range of vehicles, yet these same companies have yet to preach the same vision when they market their products that they practice when they manufacture them.

Tom Lovegrove is planning director of Wasserman’s. brand experience division.

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